Hamilton narrows gap to Verstappen after tense Qatar GP victory

Lewis Hamilton narrowed the gap to Formula One title rival Max Verstappen to eight points after a flawless pole to flag victory at the inaugural Qatar Grand Prix.

Verstappen battled from seventh on the grid to a crucial second place behind the Englishman, despite receiving a pre-race penalty for not backing off under yellow flags during qualifying.

A brilliant drive from Fernando Alonso completed the podium after Valtteri Bottas, who also received a grid penalty for a similar qualifying infringement, suffered a dramatic late puncture having made his way up to third.

And the Spaniard hung on to a risky one stop strategy to grab that final podium, his first since Budapest in 2014.

“It was pretty straightforward, it was pretty lonely at the front,” commented Hamilton afterward. “Of course I enjoy those races where you are battling through but we needed those points today so a pretty solid job from the team just with pit stops and with the car.

“I can’t wait to watch the replay of the race to see what happened behind me but I’m really grateful for these points. It’s been a hell of a year, so to be at this point of the year and have back to back wins is a great feeling and puts us in good stead for the next two.”

With places to gain vitally important from the off, it was a great one for Verstappen who made up three places to fourth. But it was a disaster for Hamilton’s potential wingman Bottas, the Finn slipping down the order from 6th to 11th.

Next in the Dutchman’s sights was the sister team Alpha Tauri of Pierre Gasly. And with DRS open he made the easy pass and incredibly up to third by lap 4.

With Gasly, Fernando Alonso and Lando Norris all starting on the faster wearing soft tyres, it was already a case of another Hamilton versus Verstappen battle to the flag, where the pit stops would again become the all-important deciding factor in the race.

Verstappen was the first championship contenders to box on lap 18, bolting on a fresh set of hard Pirelli tyres, Hamilton following a lap later for the same compound. It meant Hamilton was still left with a nine second advantage, although the Dutchman’s tyres were up to operating temperature a lap earlier.

Then suddenly an unexpected spanner in the Mercedes works, Bottas picking up a puncture on his front left tyre on lap 34 and dropping him to the rear of the field. Not a great scenario for the constructors’ standings from their point of view, but with Hamilton still on the harder tyre there was no real reason to panic yet.

It meant that Perez inherited third position . But with Verstappen, Perez and Hamilton both pitting for their final stops on lap 42, it seemed something of a procession to the chequered flag. Yet all was not done, and another Safety Car meant the Spaniard was left with the luxury of holding the second Red Bull at bay.

The bigger picture is a very interesting one indeed. Grid penalties and team squabbling over technical infringements aside, this race could easily have seen a very different victor. And with Verstappen pitting for fresh rubber for the fastest lap, the gap is now just eight points points going into the penultimate race in Saudi Arabia.

All attention now turns to Abu Dhabi in a week’s time with the focus fully on the Hamilton versus Verstappen battle. But the driver of the race could arguably be the man who finished third, after seven years away from the podium.

“Yeah, unbelievable. Seven years!” said Alonso. “But finally we got it. We were close a couple of races but not enough, Sochi was the last possibility.

“And here today honestly I thought we could be leading after lap 1 with the red tyre I could have a good go on Lewis but I couldn’t. And with Checo, it was very close at the end but so happy for the team also starting P5. So good Sunday.”

Fraser Masefield

Sports news and features writer, web editor and author.