Despite concerns over tyre integrity during the Qatar Grand Prix, Max Verstappen continued to dominate the 2023 FIA Formula 1 World Championship season with a fourteenth victory in seventeen races on Sunday.
Pirelli mandated maximum tyre stints of eighteen laps during the race at the Lusail International Circuit after worries over safety, with the vicious kerbs and abrasive track causing concerns. The lap count for each set of tyres was set prior to the race, with laps already completed on them included in that maximum eighteen laps.
There was drama pre-race when a fuel system leak forced Scuderia Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz Jr. out of the event before he could even leave the pit lane to join the grid. The Spaniard was set to start only twelfth on the grid after a lacklustre Qualifying performance on Friday evening, but his grid spot was to be left vacant when the lights went out.
Or at least it should have been! Unfortunately for Nico Hülkenberg, the German incorrectly lined up in Sainz’s grid spot when he was meant to start behind him in fourteenth. The MoneyGram Haas F1 Team driver was handed a ten-second time penalty for the offence.
Verstappen held onto the lead at the start, while fellow front row starter George Russell attempted to pass the Oracle Red Bull Racing driver around the outside. However, also thinking the same was Russell’s Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team team-mate Lewis Hamilton, with the seven-time World Champion having gambled on starting the race on the less favourable soft tyre.
Hamilton was attempting to sweep around the outside of them both but misjudged the gap, with the two Mercedes drivers colliding as a result. Hamilton was out on the spot, his right rear tyre missing from his W14, while Russell was lucky to escape with just minor damage but at the back of the field.
The safety car was deployed as a result of Hamilton’s car being beached in the gravel trap, with Verstappen continuing to lead from Saturday’s sprint race winner Oscar Piastri, the Australian capitalising on the incident up front to jump from sixth to second.
Verstappen gapped the restart superbly, with Piastri, for the second day running, being caught out by the timing of the jump by the race leader. However, the Australian had more than enough in hand to withstand the pressure from Fernando Alonso and Charles Leclerc in third and fourth.
Piastri pitted for his first stop on lap twelve while Verstappen made his stint extend to lap seventeen, with the gap after the stops now over eight seconds. The discrepancy in tyre life of the second stint was vast, with the McLaren F1 Team stopping Piastri on just lap twenty-five, while Verstappen was able to run eighteen laps on new medium tyres as he maximised his second run.
The gap between the top two fluctuated as they used their new tyres to good effect at the start of each stint, but Verstappen always had enough in the bag to hold onto the lead, the gap at the end just under five seconds.
Starring Recovery Drives from Norris and Russell Rewarded
Lando Norris completed the podium in the second McLaren, meaning a second consecutive race weekend that saw the Woking-based team claim a double top three finish. Norris had more pace than Piastri but was asked to stay behind him in a bid to maximise their points tally.
Norris had driven a superb race from tenth on the grid, making some good overtakes on his way to the podium, while fourth went the way of Russell despite having been at the back of the pack on lap one following his clash with Hamilton.
Russell pitted on lap one for repairs but pitted not too long after as he committed to a four-stop strategy, and the pace he was able to show was evident as he passed a number of drivers on track as well as undercutting others through the pit stops. He perhaps would have finished closer to Norris at the end had Mercedes not gambled on the soft tyre for the final stint, with the tyres not lasting long enough for him to mount a challenge.
Leclerc finished fifth for Ferrari ahead of Aston Martin Aramco Cognizant Formula 1 Team’s Alonso, the Monegasque and Spaniard enjoying many on-track battles on the way to the chequered flag. Alonso lost the position ultimately by running off track at turn two before rejoining, perhaps unsafely, at the exit of turn three after finding the escape road.
Seventh went the way of BWT Alpine F1 Team’s Esteban Ocon, while it was a good day for Alfa Romeo F1 Team Stake, who saw Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu both finish inside the points in eighth and ninth – it was the Hinwil-based teams’ first double points finish of the season.
Sergio Pérez endured a tough Sunday on the back of his retirement from the sprint race on Saturday. The second Red Bull driver finished on the road in ninth but had already been handed two five-second time penalties for exceeding track limits when he was given a third that saw him drop behind Zhou. The only plus point was he was able to extend his advantage over Hamilton for second place in the Drivers’ Championship.
Other drivers also suffered with multiple penalties for track limit offences, with eleventh placed Lance Stroll, twelfth placed Pierre Gasly and thirteenth placed Alexander Albon all suffering with various levels of penalties.
It was an underwhelming day for both Haas and Scuderia AlphaTauri, with Kevin Magnussen and Hülkenberg ending fourteenth and sixteenth respectively of the former, while Yuki Tsunoda and Liam Lawson were fifteenth and seventeenth for the latter.
The only other retirement other than Sainz and Hamilton was Williams Racing’s Logan Sargeant, who was forced to pull out citing ill health, with the high temperatures making him feel unwell. He was not the only driver to suffer, with many struggling to extract themselves from their cars post race.
Others also admitted to feeling faint at times during the event, while Ocon said he was sick as the conditions made driving extremely difficult around the Qatar circuit.
But it did not stop Verstappen from claiming win number fourteen, nor McLaren claiming a double podium that moves them closer to Aston Martin as they battle for fourth place in the Constructors’ Championship.