Hamilton dominates inaugural Qatar GP to close on championship lead
- Seven time champion takes 102nd F1 race win with straightforward drive
- Hamilton closes Verstappen’s points lead down to eight points
- Two races remain to decide this year’s title battle
Lewis Hamilton claimed his 102nd Formula One Grand Prix win with a dominant performance in the first ever Qatar Grand Prix at the Losail Circuit.
Unlike last week’s dramatics in Brazil, the reigning seven-time world champion had a more straightforward race this time around, leading almost the entire contest. He finished over 25 seconds clear of Red Bull’s championship leader Max Verstappen, who overcame a five-place grid penalty to claim second, while Alpine’s Fernando Alonso secured his first podium since 2014 with third.
Controversy struck before the race, as Verstappen and Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas were handed grid penalties for yellow flag infringements in Saturday’s qualifying. The stewards heard from both drivers on Sunday morning and found that Verstappen had ignored double waved yellow flags for Alpha Tauri driver Pierre Gasly’s damaged car, and was dropped from second on the grid to seventh as a result. Bottas meanwhile had ignored single waved yellow flags, and was handed a three place drop.
Hamilton made a good start to hold the lead on the first lap, while Alpha Tauri’s Pierre Gasly from his elevated second place held off Alonso initially, who had started third. Verstappen had a great launch from seventh to claim fourth by the first corner, and was alongside Alonso early on lap one, only to be edged off the track.
Alonso passed Gasly for second place moments later, while Hamilton pulled well clear on the first lap.
With Hamilton looking to streak away at the front, Verstappen made quick work of Gasly and then Alonso to climb to second, though the Dutchman had suffered suspected front wing damage after an early kerb strike.
As in qualifying, it was Hamilton with a clear advantage at the front, generally around half a second faster than his championship rival, with the duo a couple of seconds a lap quicker than anyone else as they disappeared into the distance.
The British driver had a lead of around nine seconds when Verstappen pitted on lap 18, with the Red Bull driver having enough of a margin over Alonso in third to pit without losing a position.
Hamilton was keen to stay out longer, radioing his Mercedes team immediately after Verstappen’s stop to request more time before his first visit to the pits. But Mercedes were firm with their lead driver and Hamilton pitted a lap later than Verstappen, returning to the track still with a comfortable advantage.
With both drivers on the harder tyre, there was an option for them to opt for a one stop strategy, but any thoughts of that were ended when Bottas suffered a front left puncture on lap 34. The Finnish driver did well to get the car back to the pits despite a trip through the gravel, but dropped from third down to 14th, damaging Mercedes’ potential points haul for the Constructors’ championship.
Verstappen pitted again on lap 42, while his teammate Sergio Perez, chasing third place also stopped on the same lap.
Once more, Hamilton pitted a lap later than Verstappen, and from there the main talking point was the battle to claim the extra point for fastest lap. Both exchanged fastest laps in the final segment of the race, but Verstappen ultimately claimed it to limit the damage in the championship table.
Verstappen’s quest for fastest lap was made slightly easier when he was able to pit for a third time, on the penultimate lap, while the race was under Virtual Safety Car conditions. The VSC period came after multiple drivers suffered identical punctures to Bottas, including George Russell, Lando Norris and Nicolas Latifi.
While Russell and Norris were able to get their cars back to the pits, Latifi’s puncture occurred just after he’d passed the pit entry, and the Canadian driver was forced to park his car off the circuit but in a potentially dangerous place. By this time, Bottas had also retired his Mercedes into the pits.
That meant Verstappen’s pit stop lost him little to no time at all, with the other cars circulating at lower speeds at the same time, and his fastest lap came on the final tour of the race.
Behind the top-two, who had their positions locked in for much of the event, Alonso in third was one of the few drivers to make a one-stop strategy work without suffering a puncture.
The Alpine driver was forced to preserve his tyres in the final laps, with the VSC being a relief and halting the progress of Perez, who made several overtakes late on to climb to fourth and just a couple of seconds away from the final spot on the podium.
For double world champion Alonso, it was his first podium in over 100 races, having won Le Mans twice, raced in the Indy 500 and the Dakar Rally since his last visit to the rostrum in 2014.
Perez in fourth finished 18 seconds clear of Alonso’s teammate Esteban Ocon, with Perez’s points for Red Bull closing the gap to Mercedes in the Constructors’ championship fight down to five points.
Lance Stroll took sixth for Aston Martin ahead of Ferrari duo Carlos Sainz Jr and Charles Leclerc, with McLaren’s Norris recovering to ninth ahead of Stroll’s teammate Sebastian Vettel.
Just two more races remaining in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, Hamilton and Mercedes look to hold the pace advantage, but still need to overcome Verstappen at the head of the championship. Hamilton, though, will win a record-breaking eighth championship, should he win the final two races, no matter where Verstappen finishes.
Richard Randle is a motorsport PR professional working with the UK’s top racing circuits and the UK’s premier single-seater category, the BRDC British F3 Championship.