- Verstappen recovers to finish second despite grid penalty
- Red Bull driver leads by eight points with two races to go
Twenty races into a gruelling Formula One season, Lewis Hamilton remains relentless and unbowed in his determination to take the title fight to the wire. With his dominant victory over rival Max Verstappen at the debut Qatar Grand Prix, the world champion has ensured this gripping and finely poised battle hangs in the balance. Hamilton is clearly pumped up for it and rightly so on this evidence from the Losail circuit, where his Mercedes team may have delivered the car to make the difference at a vital moment.
Hamilton won with a consummate, controlled run from pole to flag, inch‑perfect with pace that Verstappen could not challenge. He has cut the lead to the Dutchman from 14 points to eight, with 52 available from the final two races, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi.
A visibly energised Hamilton, enjoying back-to-back wins after victory at the last round in Brazil, was relishing the challenge and it was impossible not to sense the momentum had shifted behind his attempt to take a record eighth title. “I’m loving it,” he said. “I love the close battle, and the pressure, and the demands it puts on you, and the whole team. I thoroughly enjoyed it, we’ll be bringing our triple-A game for the last two races. I feel great, the car is better than ever, I am looking forward to the battle.”
Verstappen’s Red Bull simply could not match the pace of the Mercedes but he did at least stay close to Hamilton all race while they left the field far in their wake. The Dutchman counted his second as a very good recovery having started from seventh after he was given a grid penalty shortly before the race for failing to slow for waved yellow flags in qualifying. Alpine’s Fernando Alonso secured a superb third, his first podium for 104 races, the last being at Hungary in 2014.
Mercedes and Hamilton delivered at Losail with the flawless execution they know will be required to take the title but, crucially, with fearsome pace. Their car, the team principal Toto Wolff confirmed when asked, was better now than it had been all season with his driver in menacing form after his recovery from penalties in Brazil.
“Yes, definitely,” he said. “The car is quick on the straight and good in the corners. Lewis is totally in the zone, the lion got woken up at Interlagos. Saudi Arabia should be a good track for us. If everybody finishes the race, [the battle] is going to go to Abu Dhabi.” Notably both are night races in conditions very similar to Qatar where Mercedes found the car’s sweet spot with alacrity.
Verstappen acknowledged there was nothing he could do. “We just didn’t have the pace to match them,” he said. “But there are two races to go and a lot of things can happen.” After the race Red Bull’s team principal Christian Horner, who had endured a trying weekend, found no respite when he was summoned to the stewards for potentially bringing the sport into disrepute after his critical comments regarding the marshalling on Verstappen’s penalty.
He was given a warning, but of greater concern will be Red Bull’s deficit to Mercedes. After Verstappen’s win in Mexico, Horner had said they should throw away the form book in anticipating who might have the edge at these final meetings. Yet with Hamilton’s back to back wins that form seems to have swung ominously in Mercedes’ favour at a pivotal time.
Hamilton was four-tenths up in qualifying and enjoyed a definitive advantage in race pace. Red Bull are still questioning the legality of the Mercedes’ rear wing and the straightline speed it is conferring on their car and, after a weekend dominated by fractious politicking between the teams, this off-track battle likely to be staged in the steward’s room will only intensify.