We’ve been looking forward to new circuits for the F1 calendar for the last few years. Sometimes we see old tracks come back, and sometimes we see brand-new tracks in new countries. Every now and then, we’ll get a track that has been part of motorsport but not hosted a Formula 1 GP. That is the story with the Losail International Circuit in Qatar hosting the 20th round of the 2021 season.
It has been a stable of the MotoGP calendar for over a decade and has signed up with Formula 1 to be a fixed host for ten years starting from the 2023 season. At first glance, Losail seems like the kind of circuit that does not suit F1 with its fast corner sequences, which are fun to drive but difficult to race around. Plus, Hamilton and Mercedes have often proven superior at any new track that F1 races on. On the back of the Briton’s dominant performance in Brazil, he was the favourite to win even before the Qatar GP weekend got underway.
Valtteri Bottas was the fastest man through most of the practice sessions with Max Verstappen only topping the time charts in Free Practice 1. We also saw a fair few spins and offs as the grid came to terms with the new track and its punishing kerbs, which are better suited for MotoGP than F1. But once qualifying started, the reigning world champion dialled his pace up a notch. Hamilton was the fastest in every qualifying round and the final time that got him Pole position was nearly half a second faster than Verstappen’s best time that was good enough for the front row. The Red Bull contender eeked ahead of Valtteri by a few hundredths of a second. Unfortunately, Sergio Perez found himself knocked out in Q2 itself and started 11th on the grid.
Pierre Gasly seemed to be flying around the Losail circuit in his AlphaTauri. He was quick all weekend and qualified fourth fastest. Another driver who proved to be unexpectedly quick in F1’s Qatar debut was Fernando Alonso who was fifth fastest in qualifying. Meanwhile, their teammates also made it to Q3 with Yuki Tsunoda starting 8th and Esteban Ocon starting 9th. Meanwhile, McLaren driver Lando Norris was only 6th fastest on Saturday but was good enough to start ahead of Carlos Sainz who qualified 7th. Sebastian Vettel had also managed to get into Q3 but could not do better than 10th in qualifying.
Things got a bit more dramatic as Max and Valtteri were summoned to the stewards on Sunday. Turns out they had ignored yellow flags on their final qualifying runs and were due some grid penalties. Since Verstappen was guilty of ignoring double-waved yellow flags, he was penalised five places. Meanwhile, Bottas was found guilty of ignoring single-waved yellow flags and thus given a three-place penalty. As a result, Verstappen was pushed to 7th on the starting grid and Bottas to 6th which meant Gasly started on the first row for the first time in his F1 career with Alonso starting third. Norris and Sainz also got moved up two grid spots each.
When the lights went out on Sunday, Hamilton got a great start off the line and so did Gasly, Alonso and Verstappen. But the Mercedes had enough punch to stay ahead into Turn 1, Gasly defending against Alonso behind him. Bottas was slow off the line, getting passed by Verstappen quite easily and caught up by others too. Max went for the tightest line to make up places down the inside and moved up to P4. Norris had left the inside line wide open as he was defending against Sainz who was trying to pass him around the outside of Turn 1. The Red Bull was forced wide into Turn 2 by the Alpine which allowed the McLaren to get alongside on the inside, but Verstappen had the better exit and was able to hold onto P4. Just ahead of them, Alonso was to the outside of Gasly through that second corner on Lap 1 and positioned himself beautifully for the Turn 3 right-hander to overtake the AlphaTauri.
By the end of the first lap, it seemed like we had a usual Hamilton-Verstappen 1-2 on the cards with the two running in P1 and P4. Valtteri had dropped down to P11 while Checo had moved up to P9.
But there was still plenty of excitement left with the chance of Alonso getting his first F1 podium in seven years and Alpine’s second of the season. The jeopardy lay in the fact that either Gasly or Perez and Bottas could recover from their starts to ruin Alpine’s party who also had Esteban Ocon up in P6 at that stage.
Max was on Gasly’s tail towards the end of Lap 3 when the Frenchman made an “error” and ran wide on the exit of the final corner. The Red Bull driver closed the gap and used DRS down the main straight to move up to P3 on Lap 4. While sister teams aren’t allowed to communicate orders to one another, it seemed like a clear case of the Red Bull Racing team having standing instructions to stay out of its way in their challenge for the world titles. Verstappen was able to pass Alonso similarly on the following lap to settle into P2 with Hamilton comfortably ahead.
The grid was beginning to settle into place with Max staying within 5 seconds of Lewis, and the two being around 10 seconds clear of the rest of the pack by Lap 9. Valtteri had been languishing just outside the points still, but a blunt radio message from team boss Toto Wolff saw the Finn turn up the pace. He chased down Lance Stroll and Yuki Tsunoda in front of him, both within striking distance as the trio rounded the final corner to start their ninth lap. The two Merc-engined cars had DRS to pass the AlphaTauri down the main straight. Valtteri cut to the inside to pass Lance who went around the outside to pass Yuki, who was defending the middle line towards Turn 1. The tighter line compromised Bottas more to only complete his move on Tsunoda while Stroll took the racing line around the outside and stayed ahead of the Finn. However, Bottas got past the Aston Martin at the end of the lap, down the main straight with DRS.
Sergio Perez was on another one of his recovery drives to make up for his poor qualifying. As he started Lap 16, he overtook Norris to move up into P4. At this point in the race, Alonso, Norris and Ocon in the top ten were still on the Softs, with the others were on the Mediums. Bottas wasn’t too far down the order from Checo, up to P6 by Lap 17. But the championship contenders were operating on another level with Lewis around 9 seconds clear of Max, who was nearly a pit-stop clear of Alonso in P3.
With that advantage in hand, Red Bull pitted Max at the end of Lap 17 to switch to the Hard tyres. As durable as the compound is, a stop this early seemed to confirm a two-stop strategy for the Dutchman. Leaving nothing to luck, Mercedes responded by pitting Lewis the following lap for the same tyre compound swap. Both drivers had made their first stops without losing track position. Red Bull then pitted Perez as well on Lap 20 to switch to the Hard tyres but his stop dropped him from P4 to P12. He had the faster car than the middle-order but it was just more work for him to overtake some of them all over again.
Meanwhile, Alpine seemed to have committed to a one-stopper and left both drivers out for a longer stint on their Soft compound tyres. Alonso was still P3, while Ocon was also in the points. McLaren seemed to be following them for Norris’ pit strategy, hoping to grab an opportunistic podium from at Qatar. Gasly had dropped off despite starting on the front row, pitting after just 13 laps to switch to the Medium tyres and was running P13 as of Lap 20. Fernando pitted on Lap 24 for his Hard tyres, rejoining the race in P8 with Perez behind in P10. Esteban pitted the following lap and Norris one lap after. The three managed to stretch their first stint on the Softs for nearly as long as those who started on the Mediums.
As the rest of the midfield pitted over the next few laps, Perez was once again hunting down Alonso with the two running P4 and P5. On Lap 29, Checo made his move down the main straight using DRS but was forced to take the outside line for Turn 1. The former world champion defended hard through the first corner, but the Mexican stayed alongside and got the better line for the switchback through Turn 2 to complete the overtake.
By going for a much longer stint on his Mediums, Bottas had made it to P3 as those ahead pitted. He was nearly 30 seconds behind Max, who was staying within 7 to 8 seconds of race-leader Lewis. However, this gambit did not pay off. The No.77 Mercedes suffered a puncture on its front left tyre on Lap 33, and slid into the gravel outside Turn 7. Valtteri kept the car going, dragging a bit of gravel onto the track with him, but the front left was dragging across the tarmac for a steady stream of sparks. Using only the carcass of the front left tyre, he was still going reasonably quickly to try and make it to the pitlane as fast as possible but braking and cornering in that situation were as difficult as you’d imagine. He was passed on track by Max and Fernando by the time he made it to the pits.
The long stop for the new front wing and fresh tyres saw him tumble down the order once again, rejoining in P14 on Lap 35. Any chance of Bottas recovering to a podium or even a high scoring result got dashed. His misery was cut short when the team decided to retire the car on Lap 49.
Valtteri’s puncture also served as a warning to everyone else planning to go long on their tyres. Given the advantage the two front runners had over the rest of the pack, it was no surprise to see Red Bull pit Max on Lap 42 of 57 for a set of fresh Medium tyres. Verstappen had been pushing his tyres hard since he was on a two-stop strategy anyway. Mercedes responded by pitting Lewis the following lap for a set of used Softs that would easily last him till the end of the race. Surprisingly, Perez was also pitted on the same lap as his teammate even though his tyres were a few laps younger. He had been nearly a minute behind Verstappen and around 5.5 seconds clear of Alonso behind him. Checo rejoined the race in P7 on the Medium tyres, just ahead of Sainz, and had around 15 laps to try and chase Alonso for the third time that evening.
Sergio got past Lance for P6 down the main straight on Lap 46 with Ocon next in his sights. As they blasted down the straight on the following lap, Checo used the DRS advantage to catch the Alpine, which defended the deep inside line into Turn 1. Braking late and on the outside, Perez went a bit wide and was slower on exit allowing Ocon to get right under his rear wing. The Frenchman had his teammate’s message to “defend like a lion”, to return the favour that got him his maiden win in Hungary earlier this year. He did not have the pace to fight the Red Bull for long, but he did his best to make Checo’s life a bit difficult for the next couple of corners as well.
But luck seemed to have decided to favour Alonso that night in the Qatar GP. On Lap 51, George Russell suffered a puncture similar to Bottas but was able to get to the pits without incident. The following lap, Nicholas Latifi in the other Williams was stricken with the same fate but down the main straight. That meant, he’d have to try and get his car all the way around with barely any rubber on the front left wheel. The Canadian was forced to park in the run-off area, triggering a Virtual Safety Car (VSC) to facilitate the car’s safe retrieval, ON LAP 55.
Alonso’s podium already seemed secured with Perez around 8 seconds behind but the last minute VSC ensured it. It also took away the potential risk of the Spaniard’s tyres suffering a similar fate to that of the Williams cars. Red Bull used this opening to pit Max one last time to switch to the Soft tyres, and secure the extra point for the fastest lap on the final lap. Mercedes probably predicted this but did not pit Hamilton to risk losing an easy win over. The VSC period ended just before Max started his final lap of the race with Hamilton rounding Turn 2 at that point.
Lewis Hamilton took the chequered flag at the inaugural Qatar F1 Grand Prix, making it the 30th different track he’s won at. Verstappen crossed the line in a distant P2 with the fastest lap of the night, keeping the damage to his championship lead to a minimum.
But the real celebrations began when Fernando Alonso finished the race in P3 to claim his first F1 podium in seven years. Many of us thought we’d never see it, but the Spaniard had finally done it!
Watching two of the most exciting and dominant racers of our generation share the podium despite their massive age gap was a sight to behold. Perhaps the only thing that could have made it better would be to have Vettel up there in place of Verstappen.
Sergio finished P4, just 3 seconds behind the Alpine, but the Mexican racer had put in a splendid performance. He recovered from his poor starting position and recovered as many points as he could for the team in their battle for the Constructor’s Championship. Checo may not have made it to the podium, but it was fun to see him make all those overtakes.
Ocon completed a strong weekend for Alpine by finishing P5. The points haul puts them comfortably ahead of their constructor’s rival AlphaTauri who left Qatar with no points. Pierre Gasly finished P11 at the end and Yuki Tsunoda in P13. Aston Martin also got both cars in the points with Lance Stroll putting in a solid drive to classify P6 while Sebastian Vettel also made his long first stint on the Soft tyres work out for a P10 finish.
Ferrari may not have gotten the best result they were hoping for but they got a good one nonetheless as Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc finished P7 and P8 respectively. The two drivers were on identical strategies, and the pit crew managed to pull off a beautiful double-stack when the cars came in on Lap 28 to switch from Mediums to Hards.
It was another rough weekend for McLaren, falling further behind Ferrari in their battle for third in the constructor’s championship. Lando Norris seemed set for a P5 finish but had to pit on Lap 50 due to a puncture. But it was detected early which gave him just enough time to make some overtakes and finish P9 instead. Daniel Ricciardo seems to be off-form all over again, qualifying 14th and finishing P12. It was the third race in a row that the Aussie has failed to score any points. The papaya orange team is now forty points behind the reds with only two races to go.
In terms of the driver’s championship, this might come down to the final race in Abu Dhabi. The Mercedes W12 has seemed uncatchable since Brazil with no signs of slowing down while Red Bull is struggling to match the straight-line speed. It’s another new circuit two weekends from now, at Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. As a street circuit, it leaves room for the unexpected but based on what I’ve seen from the digital passenger lap, its layout suits the Mercedes better.
There is no room for error for either driver in these closing stages of the season and it’s going to be edge-of-the-seat stuff till the chequered flag. Stay tuned for all the action from F1 and the world of cool cars in general by subscribing to the blog and our social handles (Twitter and Instagram). Also, don’t forget to leave a like on this article if you enjoyed it and share your thoughts in the comments below.
- L. Hamilton Mercedes — 1:24:28.471
- M. Verstappen Red Bull Racing Honda +25.743
- F. Alonso Alpine Renault +59.457
- S. Perez Red Bull Racing Honda +62.306
- E. Ocon Alpine Renault +80.570
- L. Stroll Aston Martin Mercedes +81.274
- C. Sainz Ferrari +81.911
- C. Leclerc Ferrari +83.126
- L. Norris McLaren Mercedes +1 Lap
- S. Vettel Aston Martin Mercedes +1 Lap
- P. Gasly AlphaTauri Honda +1 Lap
- D. Ricciardo McLaren Mercedes +1 Lap
- Y. Tsunoda AlphaTauri Honda +1 Lap
- K. Räikkönen Alfa Romeo Racing Ferrari +1 Lap
- A. Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo Sauber Ferrari +1 Lap
- M. Schumacher Haas Ferrari +1 Lap
- G. Russell Williams Mercedes +2 laps
- N. Mazepin Haas Ferrari +2 laps
- N. Latifi Williams Mercedes DNF
- V. Bottas Mercedes DNF