Lewis Hamilton dominates F1 Qatar GP to cut Max Verstappen’s title lead

  • Verstappen recovers to finish second despite grid penalty
  • Red Bull driver leads by eight points with two races to go

Twenty races into a gruelling Formula One season, Lewis Hamilton remains relentless and unbowed in his determination to take the title fight to the wire. With his dominant victory over rival Max Verstappen at the debut Qatar Grand Prix, the world champion has ensured this gripping and finely poised battle hangs in the balance. Hamilton is clearly pumped up for it and rightly so on this evidence from the Losail circuit, where his Mercedes team may have delivered the car to make the difference at a vital moment.

Hamilton won with a consummate, controlled run from pole to flag, inch‑perfect with pace that Verstappen could not challenge. He has cut the lead to the Dutchman from 14 points to eight, with 52 available from the final two races, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi.

A visibly energised Hamilton, enjoying back-to-back wins after victory at the last round in Brazil, was relishing the challenge and it was impossible not to sense the momentum had shifted behind his attempt to take a record eighth title. “I’m loving it,” he said. “I love the close battle, and the pressure, and the demands it puts on you, and the whole team. I thoroughly enjoyed it, we’ll be bringing our triple-A game for the last two races. I feel great, the car is better than ever, I am looking forward to the battle.”

Verstappen’s Red Bull simply could not match the pace of the Mercedes but he did at least stay close to Hamilton all race while they left the field far in their wake. The Dutchman counted his second as a very good recovery having started from seventh after he was given a grid penalty shortly before the race for failing to slow for waved yellow flags in qualifying. Alpine’s Fernando Alonso secured a superb third, his first podium for 104 races, the last being at Hungary in 2014.

Mercedes and Hamilton delivered at Losail with the flawless execution they know will be required to take the title but, crucially, with fearsome pace. Their car, the team principal Toto Wolff confirmed when asked, was better now than it had been all season with his driver in menacing form after his recovery from penalties in Brazil.

“Yes, definitely,” he said. “The car is quick on the straight and good in the corners. Lewis is totally in the zone, the lion got woken up at Interlagos. Saudi Arabia should be a good track for us. If everybody finishes the race, [the battle] is going to go to Abu Dhabi.” Notably both are night races in conditions very similar to Qatar where Mercedes found the car’s sweet spot with alacrity.

Verstappen acknowledged there was nothing he could do. “We just didn’t have the pace to match them,” he said. “But there are two races to go and a lot of things can happen.” After the race Red Bull’s team principal Christian Horner, who had endured a trying weekend, found no respite when he was summoned to the stewards for potentially bringing the sport into disrepute after his critical comments regarding the marshalling on Verstappen’s penalty.

He was given a warning, but of greater concern will be Red Bull’s deficit to Mercedes. After Verstappen’s win in Mexico, Horner had said they should throw away the form book in anticipating who might have the edge at these final meetings. Yet with Hamilton’s back to back wins that form seems to have swung ominously in Mercedes’ favour at a pivotal time.

Hamilton was four-tenths up in qualifying and enjoyed a definitive advantage in race pace. Red Bull are still questioning the legality of the Mercedes’ rear wing and the straightline speed it is conferring on their car and, after a weekend dominated by fractious politicking between the teams, this off-track battle likely to be staged in the steward’s room will only intensify.

Lewis Hamilton is untroubled from the front as he wins the Qatar Grand Prix
Lewis Hamilton is untroubled from the front as he wins the Qatar Grand Prix. Photograph: Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters

In Qatar, where the higher downforce version of the wing is preferred, Red Bull believed no advantage was being gained but they may yet protest it at the next round. Mercedes remain convinced of its legality and regardless, after ending up comprehensively on top here, will be confident going into the deciding races.

The race was Hamilton’s from the off, especially after Verstappen’s penalty meant he could not challenge for the lead going into the first corner. Hamilton did what was required with a strong start, holding his lead through turn one while Verstappen was also off like a bullet.

He climbed from seventh to fourth as he exited the first corner. Trailing Alonso and Pierre Gasly, he had passed both by lap five to take second but, from there, the front two positions were set.

They duly exchanged the tit-for-tat slugfest of lap times that has become familiar this season as they swapped fastest laps, but Hamilton held the gap at five seconds as they left the field behind.

By lap 13, however, Hamilton began to show the pace he had demonstrated in qualifying, putting over six seconds on his rival while both maintained a ferocious pace, already 30 seconds up the road from Alonso in third.

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They matched each other across the two pit stops and Verstappen recognised he could not challenge. “Let’s have a bit of fun, we’re going to be second anyway”, he said and the team duly gave him the OK to hammer his tyres, but still he could make no impression on the seven-second lead.

Verstappen took a late stop to secure the fastest lap for the extra point but, with a 10 second lead in the final third, the world champion had done enough to seal a comfortable win. It was a somewhat unremarkable one in the pantheon of Hamilton’s 102 victories, but inescapably significant for the championship.

Red Bull’s Sergio Pérez was in fourth and Alpine’s Esteban Ocon in fifth. Lance Stroll and Sebastian Vettel were in sixth and 10th for Aston Martin, Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc in seventh and eighth for Ferrari and Lando Norris in ninth for McLaren.


Giles Richards

The GuardianTramp

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