NASCAR Race Weekend Central

F1 Review: Hamilton Rising as Red Bull Undergo a Soap Opera Weekend

This past weekend, Formula 1 made its first-ever visit to Losail Internation Circuit in Qatar.  From that information alone, there should have been a good reason to believe that Lewis Hamilton would walk away with the win.  He has made a habit of winning inaugural races and followed this trend after doing so last year at Mugello Circuit in Italy and Algarve International Circuit in Portugal.

The track has been home to Moto-GP races since 2004 and, at one point, was the worldʻs largest outdoor lighting project before being upstaged by the Yas Marina course.  The track had long been on the sportʻs possible destinations, and the shake-up in this yearʻs schedule finally brought about the sportʻs first tour stop.

Hamilton and Mercedes looked strong from the start, though Valterri Bottas led the way for the first two practices.  But when qualifying came around, Hamilton and team put together another stellar effort, with the seven-time champ earning his 102nd pole and 102nd win of his career.

Sporting a rainbow helmet that supported the BIPOC and LGBTQIA communities, ones that endure strict policing in Qatar, Hamilton again used his platform as a world superstar to bring attention to issues surrounding marginalized people while putting together a brilliant performance, taking his seventh win of the season and closing the gap to Max Verstappen – who now holds just an eight-point lead (351.5 – 343.5).

The Race

The Qatar Grand Prix featured one of the more intriguing starting lineups of the season.  At first, Hamilton, Verstappen and Bottas leading the way would signal normalcy, but after Verstappen fell back five spots and Bottas three, the grid looked more shuffled.  Pierre Gasly started alongside Hamilton with Fernando Alonso in third and Lando Norris in fourth.

Verstappen may have ultimately started in seventh but he was second within a couple of laps and his error for his qualifying infraction became nothing but a minor blip.  Though he cruised to second with a brilliant launch at the start, he and his Red Bull team had little in the way to offer Hamilton as a challenge, because Hamilton laid waste to the field in the first few turns and by the second lap had over a two-second lead.  By lap 10, he was sitting pretty with almost a six-second lead and did nothing but manage the race from there.

The story of the day came from Alonso who started third, dropped to fourth, then held on the rest of the day on a one-stop strategy to finish where he started and claim his first podium since 2014 when he drove for Ferrari.  Sergio Perez tried to make a challenge toward Alonso but a late virtual safety car impeded the effort and Perez settled for fourth.

Esteban Ocon used the same strategy as Alonso to earn fifth and help Alpine score a bountiful points day (25).  Lance Stroll likewise used the one-stop strategy to nab sixth in the order and help provide some optimism for an Aston Martin team that has been reeling.

Carlos Sainz led teammate Charles Leclerc across the line as Ferrari took the seventh and eighth positions.  Sainz has now out-qualified Leclerc in three straight races though the team is keeping quiet about any rift that may exist between the two drivers.  The two are separated by 6.5 points in the standings and team will want to avoid the drama that it faced when Sebastian Vettel teamed with Leclerc.

Lando Norris recovered from a punctured tyre to earn the ninth spot, while  Vettel finished in tenth and gave Aston Martin a double-points day for the first time since the French GP in June.

The Good

– What a day for Alpine!  With Alonso taking his first podium since 2014 and Ocon earning his second-best finish of the season, Alpine enjoyed quite a day in Qatar.  The points haul goes a long way for the team in its bid to claim fifth in the constructorʻs title.

Alpha Tauri had been holding down the fifth spot not too long ago but the 25-point swing at Qatar sets Alpine in the clear and in an excellent position to best the Red Bull junior program.  Alpine has been up, down, and all over the place this season, highlighted by Oconʻs win in Hungary and lowlighted by five DNFs and Ocon having a string of four races when he finished outside of the points.  Seeing the French team put together a strong finish to the season almost appears unexpected and should bode well for the confidence of the team moving into next year.

The Bad

– What a strange weekend for the stewards.  The first big decision came when the FIA rejected the Mercedes request to review the Verstappen – Hamilton lap 48 battle from the Brazilian GP the week before.  This judgment avoided the prospect of actually looking into the matter and, more importantly, allowed the FIA to ignore it rather than policing it, deeming it a racing incident.  If keeping score: Red Bull – 1, Mercedes – 0.

The next issue of adjudication came when Gasly suffered a front-wing failure and Verstappen attempted a flying lap in Q3 of qualifying.   Verstappen failed to heed the double-yellow flags that were waved and bettered his time by two-tenths but still did not make it to pole.  At the time, Verstappen looked fine to start from second for the GP…until just a couple hours before the start.

The stewards chose to penalize Verstappen five places with Bottas and a three-place penalty.  Red Bull had tried to argue against incurring any punishment, but the stewards found it difficult to avoid the evidence.  Score: Red Bull – 1, Mercedes – 1.

Hamilton started the GP from the pole without his title rival alongside him, ran off to a big lead, and earned the win with an older engine, eschewing using the fresh power unit that Mercedes put in his car in Brazil.  Score: Red Bull – 1, Mercedes – 2.

However, to cap the weekend, Christian Horner found himself in trouble with the stewards for his criticism of the officiating.  When speaking with Sky Sports, Horner said, “I think it’s just a rogue marshall that stuck a flag out. He’s not instructed to by the FIA, they’ve got to have control of the marshals. It’s as simple as that.”

The FIA found enough issue with Horner and his comments to give him an official warning, or what seems to be like a parent telling a child to go to bed without dessert.  This rebuke by the FIA appears to be the organization telling Horner that it has had enough of his near-constant barbs that started early in the season, grew louder after Hamilton and Verstappen clashed in Silverstone, and have remained since.  While there is little reason to believe that Horner will suddenly grow quiet, the FIA snapping back against Horner came as a sour way to close out the weekend for Red Bull.  Score: Red Bull – 1, Mercedes – 3.

– Since winning at Monza, Daniel Ricciardo has finished outside of the points in four of the six races.  His struggles have been a large part of the reason that Ferrari has not only leaped but also distanced itself from the British-based team.  What had looked like a moment when Ricciardo had turned his fortunes with the team around now looks like an aberration rather than the catalyst for positive results.

This time, like in other races, the mechanicals seemed to fail him, with a fuel issue being the reason Ricciardo retired his papaya-colored ride.  When joined with Lando Norrisʻ failure to capitalize on his fourth-place starting spot, the team has now gone in a free-fall and there will have to be off-season questions about how the team manages its races in 2022.

The Questionable

– George Russell, Bottas, Norris, and Nicholas Latifi all encountered tyre issues.  While Norris rebounded to finish ninth, the rest all finished outside of the points.  For Bottas, the puncture confirmed his status as a snake-bit driver.  He had been on a rare recovery after starting sixth and falling out of the top ten at the start.  He had made his way up to fourth only to be felled by the flat tyre on lap 34.

After limping around the track, Bottas had again fallen deep in the order and then had to get both tyres (natch) as well as a new nose.  The team later had Bottas box to retire.  Latifi faced the same ignominy, though he ended up in the gravel and not the pits whereas Russell escaped parking his car but still finished in 17th and two laps down.

The question that arises from these four punctures is whether or not Pirelli are to blame or the teams pushed the limits of the tyre either through camber or degradation.  In a way, it does not matter as next year will be a whole new set of tyre issues with the new regulations and bigger tyres with smaller sidewalls.  But this race proved to be one of those peculiar ones where tyres became a surprising issue, much like in Baku earlier this year.

The Notable Driver

­– Seven years have passed since Fernando Alonso last stood on an F1 podium.  That year, 2014, Hamilton won only his second title, Mercedes had only just begun their reign on the sport, Nico Rosberg and Daniel Ricciardo finished second and third in the standings, and there were 11 teams on the grid.

Four years after that podium, Alonso dropped out of the sport, goofed around with IndyCar, the FIA World Endurance Championship, won two 24 Hours of LeMans, and even drove a little Dakar Rally.

Since returning this year, the 40-year-old Spaniard has struggled with an underperforming Alpine but has been finished in the points 13 times.  He just missed a podium in Hungary and finally broke through in Qatar.  In the last 35 years, only two other drivers aged 40 or more have made a podium (Michael Schumacher, Europe 2012, and Nigel Mansell, Australia 1994).  In many ways, Alonso had no reason to be there and yet he scrapped his way to a stunning result with a steely drive and strategy that failed to work for many when he stretched the life of his tyres.  Bravo.

The Quotable

– Not surprisingly, Hamilton came across as a bit reserved, knowing two races remain when he said “It’s been a hell of a year so to be at this point of the season and have back-to-back wins is a great feeling. It was a pretty straightforward race for me, a little bit lonely but of course, we needed those points, so a really solid job by the team.”

– Verstappen, in his assessment, recognized that he had done all he good against his rival who is in top form, remarking, This weekend has been quite difficult for us as a Team and we are still lacking pace, I tried everything I could after the five-place grid penalty so to finish in second and score the fastest lap is really good.”

– Alonso was absolutely ebullient in his post-race comments, saying, “It felt fantastic today and to be back on the podium was so good. We deserved this result as a team and I’ve had to wait seven years since my last one. Hopefully, we don’t need to wait this long again!

“We took some risks with the one-stop strategy but it worked out well. We had some strong pace and despite Perez catching us at the end, we did enough to hang on. Esteban did a great job in assisting the result and our pitstops were brilliant, so well done to the whole team. I love this track and the car felt amazing all weekend, so I can’t wait to come back here.”

The Results – Qatar Grand Prix: Losail International Circuit (Nov. 21)

Pos No Driver Car Laps Time/Retired PTS
1 44 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 57 1:24:28.471 25
2 33 Max Verstappen Red Bull Racing Honda 57 +25.743s 19
3 14 Fernando Alonso Alpine Renault 57 +59.457s 15
4 11 Sergio Perez Red Bull Racing Honda 57 +62.306s 12
5 31 Esteban Ocon Alpine Renault 57 +80.570s 10
6 18 Lance Stroll Aston Martin Mercedes 57 +81.274s 8
7 55 Carlos Sainz Ferrari 57 +81.911s 6
8 16 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 57 +83.126s 4
9 4 Lando Norris McLaren Mercedes 56 +1 lap 2
10 5 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin Mercedes 56 +1 lap 1
11 10 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri Honda 56 +1 lap 0
12 3 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren Mercedes 56 +1 lap 0
13 22 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri Honda 56 +1 lap 0
14 7 Kimi Räikkönen Alfa Romeo Racing Ferrari 56 +1 lap 0
15 99 Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo Racing Ferrari 56 +1 lap 0
16 47 Mick Schumacher Haas Ferrari 56 +1 lap 0
17 63 George Russell Williams Mercedes 55 +2 laps 0
18 9 Nikita Mazepin Haas Ferrari 55 +2 laps 0
NC 6 Nicholas Latifi Williams Mercedes 50 DNF 0
NC 77 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 48 DNF 0

Note – Verstappen scored an additional point for setting the fastest lap of the race.

 

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