Lewis Hamilton trails Max Verstappen by just eight points in the championships standings after an easy victory over Max Verstappen at the first Qatar Grand Prix.
The Briton got the perfect start to assert control over the race, but Verstappen was determined not to be left languishing in the midfield, having started the race seventh following a penalty for ignoring yellow flags in qualifying. A perfect launch on the clean side of the track lifted him three places on the first lap, and passes on Pierre Gasly and Fernando Alonso had him back in second by lap five.
Four seconds split the title protagonists, and Verstappen started to light up the timing board, but the visage of competitiveness was short lived. Hamilton put his foot down just as the gap began to shrink, and a little more than 10 laps later the margin blew out to 10s.
But both were lapping at such a pace that in just 18 laps both had a pit stop worth of time in hand over the midfield, and with his tires wearing away quicker than expected Verstappen took the opportunity to pit aggressively early, coming in for the hard tire on lap 18.
Hamilton covered his rival on the following tour to hold his advantage, and the pair held station through the middle stint before making their final stops on lap 41 and 42, Verstappen unable to close the gap and Hamilton unwilling to push his tires any harder than required to make it to the end of the race.
Instead the pair engaged in a proxy battle over the bonus point for fastest lap, the pair trading rapid times in pursuit of the bonus point, until Verstappen made a late pit stop for a set of soft tires with two laps remaining to seal the deal in his favor.
But it was only damage limitation, with Hamilton taking a straightforward victory to close his points deficit to eight points in the championship standings.
Back-to-back wins foras he takes victory in Qatar
And cuts Max Verstappen's championship lead to eight points with two races left to go!
— Formula 1 (@F1)
“It was pretty lonely at the front,” he said. “I enjoy those races when you’re battling through, but we needed those points today, so a really solid job from the team. To get back-to-back wins is a great feeling and sets us up well for the final two races.”
Verstappen lauded another afternoon of damage limitation to maintain the championship lead despite his grid penalty.
“Of course our starting position was a bit compromised, but luckily we had a really good start and we were quite quickly but into second.
“At the end of the day to get that fastest lap was very nice. It keeps it exciting.”
Alonso secured a sensational first podium of his F1 comeback after a sizzling start and a perfectly executed one-stop strategy. The 40-year-old started third behind Gasly but jumped the Frenchman in an aggressive first lap to hold second, slipping down to third after Verstappen muscled his way back through the field.
Gasly’s AlphaTauri didn’t have the pace to keep up with the Alpine, and having the soft compound as his starting tire locked him into a two-stop strategy. Alonso chose not to cover the lap 13 stop, and instead he ran long, until lap 23, when he took the hard tire with a view to making it to the end.
Gasly’s race then went from bad to worse at his second stop, when he rejoined behind the slower Sebastian Vettel on a one-stop strategy. Unable to get past, he ended a strong weekend out of the points in 11th.
But a twin new threat emerged in Gasly’s wake: three left-front tire failures — for Valtteri Bottas on lap 33 and George Russell and Nicholas Latifi after lap 51 — reinforced Pirelli’s pre-race warnings that stints longer than 30 laps would risk structural failure. Alonso’s target on the hard tire was 34 laps.
He conserved substantially in the final 10 laps, avoiding the curbs to minimize risk, but Sergio Perez was bearing down at more than a second a lap — until a two-lap virtual safety car on lap 55 gave him some precious breathing room.
The race resumed with a lap and a half still to run, and although Perez renewed his pursuit, he was out of time and Alonso took his first podium since the 2014 Hungarian Grand Prix with a 2.8s margin.
With teammate Esteban Ocon in fifth, Alpine has rocketed to 25 points ahead of AlphaTauri for fifth in the constructors standings.
“Unbelievable,” said Alonso. “Seven years, but finally we got it.
“With Checo it was very close at the end, but I’m so happy for the team. We planned a one-stop from the beginning, but we never knew how bad was the wear and the degradation. I think it was quite well executed.”
Perez finished fourth to score valuable points for Red Bull Racing, the team closing to five points behind Mercedes in the constructors standings.
Esteban Ocon held off Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll on similar one-stop strategies, the pair split by just 0.7s at the flag.
Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc were seventh and eighth ahead of Lando Norris to extend Ferrari’s lead over McLaren to 39.5 points on the title table, though Norris was on track for fourth place before a suspected tire failure forced him into a second pit stop eight laps from the flag.
Sebastian Vettel scored the final point of the race of Aston Martin in 10th.