The battle for the world title has once again been given a new twist. During the Formula 1 debut in Qatar, Lewis Hamilton narrowed his championship gap to Max Verstappen to eight points.
With two more Grands Prix to go, the 2021 season will reach a thrilling conclusion. Verstappen and Hamilton are fighting each other week after week, but the battle between Red Bull Racing and Mercedes is also not over yet. On the Losail International Circuit, it was the seven-time world champion who struck out. Although Verstappen did a good job of limiting the damage by fighting his way from seventh to second place, Hamilton was the first to cross the line for the second time in two weeks. Here’s what we learned from the Qatar Grand Prix.
Hamilton is unleashed
“The lion in Lewis has been awakened,” said Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff after the race. And those words don’t seem to lie. The 36-year-old driver from Stevenage is in top form and has reduced his backlog considerably in recent weeks. In Brazil Hamilton delivered a masterclass and he also drove dominantly to the finish in Qatar.
Verstappen does not succumb to the pressure
His recent form could have delivered even more in terms of championship standings, had it not been for an ever-maximizing Verstappen. The Dutchman had an exceptionally good start in Qatar and where he started from P7, he was already in second place after five laps. Verstappen is fighting for the world title for the first time in his career and has to pull out all the stops, but for the time being seems to have little trouble with the pressure that this entails. Without bad luck and craziness, this means that the championship will only be decided during the final part in Abu Dhabi.
Cracks visible at Mercedes and Red Bull Racing
Where Verstappen and Hamilton seem to be calm, that is not always the case for the team bosses. Toto Wolff made headlines in Brazil with his “f*ck them all” on-board radio, in Qatar it was Christian Horner who went over the edge. The Red Bull Racing team boss had to face the FIA after he called one of the marshals ‘rogue’ and labeled Verstappen’s time penalty as a misstep by race management.
The FIA has left it with an official warning, but with all the political games on and off the track this season, the first cracks are visible in the so-called calm that Wolff and Horner constantly appropriate for themselves.
Alonso and Alpine find their way forward
Fernando Alonso’s return to Formula 1 raised eyebrows among many. Would the 40-year-old veteran still have what it takes at the highest level after an absence of two years? The answer is ‘yes’. Where he already made an important contribution to the victory of teammate Esteban Ocon in Hungary, this time the two-time world champion was on the podium himself.
Alonso started the Grand Prix in third place due to several grid penalties, but just after the start, he beautifully took Pierre Gasly to graze. The storming forward Verstappen could not be stopped, but a nice piece of elbow work in combination with the team’s clever strategy ensured that Alonso crossed the line in third place ahead of Sergio Perez.
Pirelli has work to do
For the second time this season, tire supplier Pirelli plays a leading role in the debriefing of a Grand Prix. In Azerbaijan it was Lance Stroll and Verstappen who flew into the wall at high speed after a sudden tire blowout, in Qatar it was Valtteri Bottas, Lando Norris, George Russell and Nicholas Latifi who suddenly had only three tires.
One of Bottas’ mediums gave up the ghost after 33 laps. This while Pirelli’s advice did not deviate far with 30 laps. In addition, the other three drivers drove on the hard tyre. Here the left front tire gave up consistently between 20 and 25 laps. Pirelli puts it on a combination of the teams’ aggressive curbs and strategies, but given that several circuits have much more aggressive curbs and the hard tire should easily last 25 laps, that’s not good enough.