Lewis Hamilton retired from the race after a first-lap crash with Mercedes team-mate George Russell, before newly crowned world champion Max Verstappen claimed victory in the Qatar Grand Prix.
Confirming his third consecutive driver’s title in Saturday’s sprint at the Losail International Circuit, Verstappen calmly navigated unprecedented tire regulations – introduced for the race for safety reasons – to easily take pole position ahead of McLaren duo Oscar Piastri and Lando Norris.
Verstappen’s task became easier when Russell and Hamilton, starting second and third respectively on the grid, collided at the first corner, leaving the seven-time world champion stuck in the gravel and his teammate at the back of the field.
Russell struggled, leaving Mercedes to wonder what might have been if he had achieved an impressive fourth position ahead of Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, whose team-mate Carlos Sainz was unable to start the race with a fuel system problem.
With runs limited to a maximum of 18 laps on each set of tires, the result was that drivers had to make at least three pit stops during the 57-lap event, leading to almost constant fluctuations in run order.
Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso finished sixth and Alpine’s Esteban Ocon seventh, while Alfa Romeo had its best race of the season with Valtteri Bottas finishing eighth, ahead of team-mate Zhou Guanyu.
Verstappen’s team-mate Sergio Perez ended another disappointing weekend with a final point in 10th, extending his lead over Hamilton in the fight for second place in the Drivers’ Championship, with Verstappen now 209 points clear at the top.
Verstappen’s 14th victory of the season leaves him just shy of last year’s record 15 with five races remaining, while Red Bull, who were last constructors’ champion in Japan, have already won 16 of this season’s 17 grands prix.
Qatar GP result
1) Max Verstappen, Red Bull
2) Oscar Piastri, McLaren
3) Lando Norris, McLaren
4) George Russell, Mercedes
5) Charles Leclerc, Ferrari
6) Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin
7) Esteban Ocon, alpine
8) Valtteri Bottas, Alfa Romeo
9) Zhou Guanyu, Alfa Romeo
10) Sergio Perez, Red Bull
Hamilton apologizes for causing the collision with Russell
While it was undoubtedly Verstappen’s weekend in Qatar, it was his great rival who ensured his share of headlines – for all the wrong reasons – with a first-lap incident.
Hamilton took advantage of the fact that he started on the cleaner side of the field and had softer tires to get a better start than Russell in front of him, and almost caught up with his team-mate as they approached the first corner.
At this point Russell turned towards Hamilton’s line on the outside of the track, far enough in front to justify the maneuver.
Hamilton would have been well advised to pull back at this point, but he struggled to complete the pass on the outside, leaving Russell deadlocked with Verstappen on the inside.
At this point contact was inevitable and it was Hamilton who was worse off as he lost a wheel and fell into the gravel.
Russell left the track and restarted at the back of the field before pitting for new tires at the end of the lap and impressively putting up a fight after venting his frustrations over the team radio.
Initially saying on team radio that he had been “taken out” by Russell, after watching replays Hamilton took responsibility for the incident and apologized.
“I watched the replay and it was 100% my fault and I take full responsibility,” Hamilton wrote on social media. “I’m sorry to my team and George.”
He said earlier Heavenly sports: “In the heat of the moment I didn’t really understand what happened, I just obviously felt a hit from behind.
“But I don’t think George probably had anywhere to go and yeah, it’s just one of those really unfortunate situations.
“I mean, I’m happy to take on the responsibility as an elder.”
Verstappen celebrates in style
As the first driver to seal the world sprint championship, Verstappen maintained his promise that another flawless display would not affect his concentration.
The 26-year-old got off the line flawlessly and watched in the mirrors as his most likely rivals that day destroyed their chances.
The main beneficiaries of the drama in the first corner were the McLarens: Piastri jumped from sixth to second and Norris from 10th to sixth.
Piastri impressed as he held off Verstappen from taking his first F1 Sprint victory on Saturday, but catching Red Bull proved beyond the Australian debutant’s reach.
The focus was largely on him, with a charging Norris piling on the pressure in the closing stages, with the team intervening by ordering their drivers to hold off to secure a second consecutive double podium.
The work of Red Bull’s mechanics had been near perfect throughout the season, but only a rare error during his third and final pit stop cut Verstappen’s lead to less than five seconds.
Both driver and team have plenty of records for taking over the last five races – two of which were sprints – and judging by this performance, there will be no letting up.
The heat and track restrictions pose a difficult task for drivers
A few hours before the race, the FIA confirmed the introduction of maximum tire wear limits, a measure aimed at ensuring driver safety.
But there was nothing they could do to help drivers facing their biggest challenge: Qatar’s heat and humidity at this time of year.
The only previous race at this venue – in 2021 – took place in late November, and it is no surprise that next year’s event – the second in a 10-year deal for the track to host F1 – will run until December.
Williams’ Logan Sargeant retired with 16 laps remaining due to illness, while Ocon revealed after the race that conditions had caused him to vomit into his helmet.
In addition, the drivers had to cope with a different track where it was extremely difficult for them to avoid exceeding the track limits – 51 infringements led to several penalties, the last of which saw Perez drop from ninth to 10th place.
While organizers have done an admirable job of coming up with a short-term solution to tire wear concerns, the Losail circuit will be scrutinized for all of these issues when F1 returns in 2024.
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