F1: Hamilton reduces title deficit with Qatar victory
Updated: Nov 25, 2021
Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton wins the inagural Qatar GP as the Reigning Champion narrows Red Bull's Max Verstappen Championship lead.
Lewis Hamilton closes in on Championship Leader Max Verstappen after the Brit won from Pole Position with his title rival recovering to second place after a pre-race penalty.
Taking back-to-back wins, Hamilton made further inroads into Verstappen's title lead with the championship contenders seperated by eight points with just two races remaining.
The inagural race in Qatar saw drivers racing into the unknown and despite pre-race fears about a lack of overtaking, in excess of 50 passes were made during the 57 laps.
The race featured three spectatular punctures most notably for Mercedes' Valterri Bottas as drivers tried to eke out their one-stop strategy and get the maximum from their Pirelli tyres.
Late on Saturday night, after Hamilton had secured Pole Position, more drama was to unfold and this time it would be for Verstappen regarding the dying few seconds in Q3.
Running over the kerbs, a part of AlphaTauri's Pierre Gasly's front wing dislodged which caused the Frenchman to suffer a front-right puncture. The Frenchman came to a halt on the pit-straight as drivers tried to finish their final flying laps. Verstappen was first on the scene and he improved on his previous lap by two tenths despite double-waved yellow flags. Verstappen, along with Valterri Bottas and Carlos Sainz Jr were summoned to the Stewards over failing to slow under yellow flags.
With just over an hour till lights out, the Stewards handed Verstappen a five place grid penalty meaning the Dutchman would start seventh having qualified in second. Bottas was given a three place grid penalty while Sainz Jr escaped any ramifications.
Funnily enough, the driver who inheritly caused Verstappen's penalty, Gasly, was now promoted to the front-row having qualified fourth with Alpine's Fernando Alonso third, and McLaren's Lando Norris fourth. Bottas dropped to sixth - just one place ahead of Verstappen.
From his 102nd Pole Position, Hamilton got away from the grid cleanly and held his lead as Gasly and Alonso battled behind. The start would be crucial for Verstappen as drivers heading into the race were unsure how hard overtaking would be and the Dutchman got the start he desperately needed. By Turn 2, he'd shot up to fourth and now had Gasly in front - who'd be passed by Alonso.
A dismal start by Bottas left the Finn in 11th and worst still, he was now behind the Red Bull of Sergio Perez who had been a surprise elimination in the second part of Qualifying. The Mexican was now ninth but on the Medium tyre, he was hoping to run longer than most inside the top 10.
FLOODLIGHT START: Under the floodlights of the Losail International Circuit, Formula One made it's debut in Qatar with the country signing an agreement to host races from 2023 onwards
Another big loser from the start of the race was Aston Martin's Sebastian Vettel who had dropped to 17th while Alfa Romeo's Kimi Raikkonen was now running 12th after starting in 16th.
Despite complaining on team radio that he was now stuck, Verstappen dispatched of Gasly on the main straight after the Frenchman ran wide at the final corner which gave the Dutchman a slingshot down into Turn 1. With Alonso not far up the road, Verstappen overtook the Spaniard on the very next lap to take second. Within five laps, he'd limited the damage of the penalty and was now just over four seconds behind Hamilton.
Verstappen wasn't the only one making good progress, his team-mate was as well. Perez has passed AlphaTauri's Yuki Tsunoda and on Lap 8, he'd passed Sainz Jr for seventh. By the very next lap, Perez had overtaken Alpine's Esteban Ocon for sixth.
As Perez was making his way through, Bottas hadn't been making the progress Mercedes had wanted him to. Given the hurry-up by Team Principal Toto Wolff, Bottas finally overtook Tsunoda but the damage of his poor first lap was now clear - in 10th, he was now over 26 seconds behind team-mate Hamilton.
As Hamilton and Verstappen started to pull clear, the burning question was all about who could nick the final podium position? Alonso was starting to gap Gasly but Perez was now rapidly catching Norris who was just two places behind the Alpine driver. If Red Bull got the strategy right and if Perez could execute the strategy well, the podium would be his.
As Bottas overtook Sainz Jr for seventh, Perez passed Norris for fifth but now it was going to be their team-mates who would take centre stage. Red Bull blinked first and pulled Verstappen into the pit-lane. Changing from the Medium's to the Hard tyre, the Dutchman re-joined but what would Mercedes do now? Hamilton had a nice buffer of over five seconds to Verstappen before he pitted and the Brit was eager to stay out for a few laps longer. However, Mercedes made the executive decision.
The following lap, Hamilton pitted and swapped the Medium's for the Hard tyre. The Brit came over the radio after re-joining comfortably clear of Verstappen saying it was "definitely way too early to stop." A lap later, Perez made his stop in the hopes of potentially under-cutting Alonso.
Alpine saw the lap times Perez was putting in and boxed Alonso on Lap 23. The Spaniard had gone a huge chunk of the race on that set of Medium tyres and this would aid him the dying laps of the race. Dropping from third to eighth, he came out of the pits just ahead of McLaren's Daniel Ricciardo who had Perez for company right behind.
After overtaking Ricciardo, Perez set his sights on Alonso but the Alpine driver had caught Ferrari's Charles Leclerc in the nick of time. Alonso made an attempted dive on the Monegasque into Turn 1 and it worked as Leclerc locked-up his tyres which saw Alonso breeze past. Perez however had to wait a few corners before he passed the Ferrari. The following lap, Ferrari made a double pit-stop with Sainz Jr and Leclerc pitting at virtually the same time just a few seconds apart.
Alonso's efforts to keep Perez behind were short-lived as the Mexican overtook the Spaniard for fourth on Lap 30. Up front, Hamilton led Verstappen by around eight seconds and now the pair started to trade fastest lap times in the hopes of securing the bonus point. Bottas ran third having not made a trip through the pits as of yet and Mercedes hoped to keep him out and cause some havoc for Verstappen if he had to pit again.
However, disaster struck for the Finn as he suffered a front-right puncture. Taking a trip through the gravel, he re-joined and trundled back to the pits. His race was over and re-joined the race way down in 14th - ending his chance of points but more crucially it would now allow Red Bull to close the gap to Mercedes in the title fight.
Despite having very competitive pace over a single lap, Gasly was unable to keep his front-row start with the Frenchman pitting for a second time on Lap 36. With enough of a buffer to Perez behind, Verstappen opted to pit again and have another crack at gaining the fastest lap back. He went onto the Medium tyre with Hamilton taking the same decision the vey next lap. The other driver also to make another stop was Perez with Red Bull feeling his tyres could not last until the end of the race.
Perez re-joined in seventh and had a mountain to climb if he wanted to get back onto the podium meanwhile, the momentum had swung back into Alonso's favour. Perez had to re-overtake three drivers to get back into contention with Alonso but the gap between the two was nearing 20 seconds. Perez quickly passed former team-mate Aston Martin's Lance Stroll and rocked-up to the back of Alonso's team-mate Esteban Ocon.
Knowing that Perez would be on his tail at the end of the race, over team radio, Alonso sent a message hoping it would be passed onto Ocon. The Spaniard - hoping to reach the podium for the first time since 2014 - said "Tell Esteban to fight like a Lion."
On Lap 47, Perez made his move. A dive into Turn 1 sent the Mexican a touch wider than he anticipated which allowed Ocon to have another crack on the exit. No margin was given as both drivers fought hard but on significantly older tyres, Ocon gave up the fight. He would now have to concentrate on the drivers behind him now.
After a flurry of fastest laps, it was Verstappen who held the quicker lap as his team-mate was rapidly catching Norris in fourth. However, Perez's job was made a lot easier as Norris dived into the pits. This unscheduled stop dropped the Brit to 10th and it was confirmed that the McLaren driver had picked-up a slow puncture.
Having made some progress after his unfortunate puncture, Mercedes decided to retire Bottas as the gap to the drivers in the points would be unreachable. Disaster would strike for his replacement at the Silver Arrows as Williams' George Russell slowed. In fact, it was another puncture, similar to Bottas's failure. In a bitter blow for Williams, Nicholas Latifi would also suffer the same fate with the Candian coming to a halt at Turn 10 the following lap.
With tyre debris and marshals needing to be on the track to move Latifi's Williams, a Virtual Safety Car (VSC) was deployed. This would be the saving grace for Alonso as the Spaniard was now starting to worry about the structual integrity of his tyres. Alpine reassured the Double World Champion but the gap to Perez was now less than five seconds. Taking advantage of the VSC, Verstappen pitted for the Soft tyre as the Dutchman had time in hand.
The VSC was lifted heading onto the last lap and the victory for Hamilton was in the bag with Verstappen making the extra pit-stop. The Brit circled the Losail International Circuit for the 57th and last time to win the inagural Qatar GP. Verstappen finished second and limited the damage the extra points Hamilton gained while the biggest cheer went to Alonso.
3. Fernando Alonso
4. Sergio Perez
The Spaniard crossed the line to secure his first podium since 2014 and Alpine's second podium of the season. With Ocon finishing in fifth and gaining 10 points, Alpine now leave Qatar with 25 point lead over AlphaTauri. Ocon valiantly held onto fifth with a trio of drivers pressurising the Frenchman right to the flag.
5. Esteban Ocon
6. Lance Stroll
7. Carlos Sainz Jr
8. Charles Leclerc
Norris managed to overtake Vettel for ninth with the German rounding out the points in tenth.
Verstappen leaves Qatar with an eight point lead in the championship as the sport heads to another unknown - Saudi Arabia for the Jeddah GP.