By Neil Leverett

  • Lewis Hamilton wins inaugural Qatar Grand Prix at Losail International Circuit
  • Briton closes gap to just eight points over Max Verstappen with two races remaining
  • Fernando Alonso claims podium finish; Ferrari take big step toward P3 in Constructors’
LOSAIL, QATAR – As the Formula 1 World Championship swings back towards Lewis Hamilton, what did we learn from the inaugural Qatar Grand Prix?

 

Advantage Hamilton after latest title swing

It is just the Formula 1 season that keeps giving.

At the end of race weekend in Austin for the United States Grand Prix earlier this month, Max Verstappen sat with a 19-point World Championship lead and with seven-time winner Lewis Hamilton without a win in four.

Having snatched what was seen as an unlikely win in the Texan capital, Verstappen then followed to complete an Americas double in Mexico City only to be gently tapped on the shoulder by Hamilton with a famous win at what is fast becoming his beloved Interlagos.

Fast forward a week later, his win in South America was accompanied with another podium top spot in this past weekend’s Qatar GP.

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Victory at a 30th different venue during his illustrious career, Hamilton taking the chequered flag in Losail was perhaps one of the Stevenage driver’s easier wins after Verstappen finally incurred the wrath of race stewards, but it was also no lesser of one, the result of which puts down a significant marker having now bridged the deficit to just eight points in the title race.

With two races to go, despite the Mercedes man still being the one playing catch-up, the momentum has now firmly shifted to the Briton, and his power unit change in Brazil has moved his W12 into the best set-up of the season so far.

And at the most crucial avenue of the campaign.

 

Red Bull will be twitchy

Those writing this particular season’s script in F1 could not have penned one better, with more twists than an M. Night Shyamalan movie. Its latest sway in momentum however, will have Red Bull shifting rather uncomfortably in the paddock.

Just a little over a fortnight ago things seemed very different. The faster car on the grid beforehand, Mercedes’ latest tweaks though, have caught Red Bull on the hop.

Whilst the gap in the battle between the two teams remains paper-thin – just five points after Qatar – Red Bull remain within clear touching distance of Mercedes, but in truth, the numbers do not tell the whole story.

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From a scenario that only a few short weeks ago seemed a forlorn one, the ball appears now to very much be back in the Silver Arrows’ court and the evolution of events in Brazil and Losail have sent Red Bull into something of a tailspin. Not least one Christian Horner.

 

Gloves off for Wolff and Horner

On the subject of whom, it seems all bets are off for both he and opposite number Toto Wolff.

With relations already at an impasse even before Qatar, the events of the past few days have seen tensions ratcheted up to 10, such are the mounting pressures in the paddock.

Even before the weekend, two have been involved in fractious verbal altercations as the season has rolled on, but as the duo continue to fight their respective corners in the face of perceived injustices of race decisions, frictions have boiled over.

Involved in a rather spiky 30-minute presser on Friday afternoon, the gloves were fully removed as the two came out swinging, but it was Horner’s rather sarcastic and impudent tone that was a telling narrative.

After Wolff saw had seen his charge pull off a remarkable win in Sao Paulo, an uncharacteristically bullish Wolff broke his guard at Interlagos to come out in vehement defence of both his team and Hamilton and it has visibly irked a increasingly desperate Horner.

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So much so, that before race weekend was over the Red Bull boss was forced to answer stewards after breaking the F1 code of conduct in relation to comments over a marshal’s yellow flag – that brought about Verstappen’s five-place grid penalty on Sunday. Horner’s cool exterior has now been brutally exposed.

In Wolff’s corner meanwhile, with Hamilton cruising to a comfortable win, the Mercedes boss would have been further buoyed and now having swallowed his ire at Verstappen evading a more severe penalty in Brazil for his ‘Lap 48’ incident, was compelled to tell Sky Sports F1 shortly after the race that ‘They [Mercedes] have now woken the lion [Hamilton]”.

At least in this instance, Wolff may not be far wrong.

 

Alonso podium cements elite status

Away from the title race, Fernando Alonso put the seal on what has been a superb return to F1 this season in Qatar, taking his first podium finish in seven years.

Having grown in the Alpine this term after a two-year hiatus, the Spaniard has not missed a beat, finishing outside the points just six times this season – two of which were enforced retirements in Austin and Bahrain.

Last finishing runner-up to Daniel Ricciardo in Budapest for Ferrari in 2014, Alonso has proved his worth once more to his new employers and his P3 in Losail cemented his place in F1’s elite, not only in the past, but in the hybrid era also.

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Initially qualifying fifth for Sunday’s race, the penalties imposed on both Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas pushed Alonso up to to the second row, then allowing an overtake over a labouring Pierre Gasly at lights out to jump up to second.

Alonso briefly threatened Hamilton’s top spot, before then scrapping with Sergio Perez for final podium spot but the two-time F1 champion held strong as he has down throughout his time in the sport.

It was further evidence of his credentials, and with regulations set for a clean slate next term, Alonso could again become a more focal point in F1.

 

Ferrari consistency too strong for McLaren

It was a damaging weekend for McLaren, who could only muster two points in Losail following Lando Norris‘ puncture late on, with Daniel Ricciardo coming home in 12th.

Managing only P9, Norris has not finished higher than seventh in Sochi – where he came agonisingly close to his first race win – and with Ricciardo’s victory at Monza appearing now as something of a flash in the pan, Ferrari have taken control in the fight for third behind Mercedes and Red Bull.

McLaren’s paltry four-point tally from the last three weekends of successive racing, Scuderia meanwhile, who have notched top-eight doubles since Istanbul, also hauling 46 points in the same period three-race period, with Charles Leclerc going 5-5-6 and Carlos Sainz 6-6-7; the picture of consistency.

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Looking set to go toe-to-toe until Abu Dhabi, the Prancing Horse have now surely taken a decisive step towards P3, now 39.5 points ahead of the Woking manufacturer, whilst also seeing Leclerc pull to just a single point of Norris in the battle for fifth in the standings.

For the most part, McLaren have shown all the hallmarks of a fallen giant finally rising from the motorsport ashes this season. Whilst those hopes remains on track, in the short-term at least, it seems Ferrari have reminded the pack just who the ‘other’ top dog is.

 

The Formula 1 STC Saudi Arabian Grand Prix takes place at Jeddah Corniche Circuit between December 3-5.

 


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