Verstappen cruises in Qatar as Piastri pips Norris to second
By Ian Parkes
Monday 9th October, 2023 - 5:38am
Max Verstappen underlined his status as a newly crowned three-time F1 champion by clinching his 14th victory of a remarkable year.
The Red Bull driver, who wrapped up his hat-trick of titles by finishing second in the sprint behind McLaren’s Oscar Piastri, took the chequered flag at the Lusail International Circuit, just under five seconds ahead of the Australian, who scored the best result of his burgeoning rookie season.
Lando Norris completed the podium from 10th on the grid, finishing 1.136s behind Piastri, although he was instructed to hold station over the closing stages, with George Russell a remarkable fourth given the first-corner collision with Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton that forced the latter out of the race.
It was another consummate performance from Verstappen who appears poised to break the record he set last season for most wins in a campaign with 15, particularly with another five races to run.
The Dutchman did set a new mark in this race for most laps led in a season, overtaking the 739 posted by Sebastian Vettel in 2011.
After starting from pole, Verstappen is also unbeaten in his last 14 starts from that position.
The race was unusual in one particular aspect given the directive regarding tyre usage issued by the FIA a few hours beforehand.
Supplier Pirelli had experienced issues in the sole practice session on Friday, notably a “separation in the sidewall between the topping compound and the carcass cords of the tyres” due to the kerbs at certain sections of the track.
The Italian manufacturer had hoped to conduct further analysis following Saturday evening’s sprint, but due to the number of safety car events, there was not enough data to go on in order to make a definitive decision for the grand prix.
That forced the FIA’s hand to declare all compounds would have to be changed after a maximum of 18 laps. With the race 57 laps, it resulted in three stops for all those who saw the chequered flag.
At the start, and of the top eight on the grid, Hamilton proved to be the anomaly, opting for a set of new soft tyres, compared to the other seven on used medium.
On the warm-up lap to the grid, Hamilton expressed his displeasure with the choice as he said over the radio “I’m going to be a sitting duck for all these guys.”
The seven-time F1 champion, however, clearly had the grip on the softer compound on the run to the first corner, and went for a lunge around the outside of both Russell and Verstappen.
But in giving Russell little room and cutting across his fellow Briton, the duo collided, with Hamilton spinning out into the gravel.
Asked by engineer Pete Bonnington if he “was okay”, a sheepish Hamilton replied: “Yeah, I got taken out by my own team-mate.”
For his part, Russell said: “So sorry guys. I wasn’t even looking behind. I was just focused ahead and he just came from nowhere.”
Russell at least made it back to the pits for a new front wing and a switch to a set of hard tyres.
After seeing replays on a giant screen, Russell added: “I couldn’t do anything. I was totally sandwiched.”
The incident played into the hands of Piastri, who had started sixth, as Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso and the sole Ferrari of Charles Leclerc – Carlos Sainz not starting due to a fuel system issue – were baulked by the spinning Russell, allowing the Australian to move into second place.
With Hamilton out and beached, it brought out the safety car for three laps, leading to four drivers – Alfa Romeo’s Valtteri Bottas, Kevin Magnussen in his Haas, Lance Stroll for Aston Martin, and AlphaTauri’s Liam Lawson, opting to pit for new tyres.
That promoted Russell to 14th, a position behind Red Bull’s Sergio Perez, who had started from the pitlane after the team opted for a power unit change following his crash in the sprint.
Out in front behind Verstappen and Piastri were Alonso, Leclerc, Ocon, Norris, Gasly, and then Nico Hulkenberg, albeit with the German hit with a 10-second time penalty for starting in an incorrect position as he had moved into the vacant 12th position slot for Sainz rather than his own 14th.
Given the mandate that no set of tyres could do more than 18 laps, and given the number of drivers that had started on used rubber, it meant the laps already run had to be taken into consideration for the race.
Of the leaders, Ocon pitted after 10 laps, followed by Alonso a lap later, then Leclerc, and Piastri, his stop marginally slow at 2.3s due to a slight issue with the rear right.
Team-mate Norris pitted after 14 laps, and was slower still at 2.5s, ensuring he came out directly behind Alonso and Leclerc.
Verstappen, meanwhile, was able to run to the end of lap 17, and with enough time in hand that he emerged almost eight seconds clear of Piastri.
At the end of the initial shake-up, Verstappen held a comfortable lead over Piastri, and while Bottas was running third, he was out of sync with the main contenders as the Finn was commited to a four-stop strategy.
It left Alonso fourth, followed by Norris who had passed Leclerc at the start of lap 20, proclaiming he had pace in hand.
Piastri’s second stint, however, on another set of used mediums was short as he pitted for a second time after 25 laps, taking on a further set of the yellow-banded compound, albeit new, allowing him to run for a full 18 laps, and was followed in by Leclerc and Ocon, both of whom went out on hard tyres.
Alonso, complaining of a hot seat, and Alpine’s Pierre Gasly pitted again a lap later, also taking on hards, whilst Norris was in after 27 laps, and like Piastri, for a new set of mediums.
The faster rubber allowed Norris to clear Alonso, with the former effectively running a net third given the way the race was unfolding.
After Russell pitted for a third time from second position, that promoted Piastri and Norris into their rightful positions of second and third, with just under five seconds between the duo.
Moments later, Alonso made a rare error in running wide onto the gravel at Turn 15, allowing Leclerc to scythe his way past, albeit only after the two-time champion had seemingly rejoined the track unsafely.
On lap 35, Williams’ Logan Sargeant radioed in that he was “not feeling well at all”, prompting team boss James Vowles to offer him the opportunity to retire, which the American opted to do after another six laps.
It was clear the 31 degrees Celsius heat was proving a problem, notably as a number of drivers were forced to lift their visors to take in air.
With 20 laps remaining, Verstappen, on hard tyres following his second stop, was running just over six seconds ahead of Piastri, who was followed by Norris, and then Russell, with Leclerc and Alonso running fifth and sixth.
With 14 laps remaining, Piastri pitted for the third and final time, taking on a set of new hard tyres in just two seconds dead, and doing so at a time when Norris set the fastest lap of the race as the Briton aimed for a potential overcut after closing the gap to 2.5s on his team-mate.
Norris then boxed a lap later, with his crew turning him around in 2.1s, emerging directly behind the Melburnian who responded by setting a new fastest lap, opening up a gap of 2.3s.
At that point, Norris was told to hold position and bring the car home, a decision the Briton questioned, proclaiming himself to be quicker, proving that to be the case by reclaiming the fastest lap to slip to under two seconds adrift.
The response was out of concern for Russell, set to pit for softs and be quicker than the McLarens over the closing laps.
Russell duly came in after 50 laps, giving him a seven-lap blast on a set of softs, with Verstappen taking on new mediums a lap later.
With six laps remaining, Piastri’s gap behind Verstappen was 3.878s, followed by Norris just 1.5s back, and Russell almost 19 seconds adrift, leaving him a non-factor for a podium.
At the flag, Verstappen was never challenged, adding a further point for the fastest lap, whilst Piastri and Norris made it a double podium for McLaren for the second consecutive race.
Behind Russell, Leclerc and Alonso were fifth and sixth, albeit with the latter under investigation for his off-track moment and questionable return, with Ocon and Bottas seventh and eighth.
From the pit lane, and despite two five-second sanctions for exceeding track limits in the race, Perez was ninth, with Alfa Romeo’s Zhou Guanyu pipping Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll on the last lap for the final point for 10th.
Lawson finished 17th and last of those that completed a gruelling race.