The last race of the final triple-header of the 2021 F1 Season got held at Losail International Circuit near Doha, Qatar. The circuit, a regular feature on the Moto GP calendar, had to be prepared to make it suitable for F1 cars. It became the 75th venue and the 33rd nation to hold an F1 Grand Prix. Qatar also bagged a ten-year contract ( from 2023 ) to host F1 races.
Qatar, a night race featuring high-speed sections, also had a kilometre long pit straight to add to the overtaking opportunities on offer. The track surroundings had artificial grass to prevent the encroachment of sand onto the track. It was a trip into the unknown as the teams and drivers prepared to race under the lights at Losail.
Leading up to the weekend, McLaren squashed rumours about a possible takeover by Audi. Alfa Romeo announced that Antonio Giovinazzi would leave the team at the end of 2021. He would get replaced by Chinese F2 racer Guanyu Zhou, who would partner Valtteri Bottas. Zhou would become the first full-time Chinese racer in F1. Finances played a role in the decision-making process, and this attracted the ire of many fans. Giovinazzi chose to move to Formula E, getting a drive with Dragon Penske Autosport. Meanwhile, Alpine announced Oscar Piastri as their reserve driver for 2022.
The drama from the recently concluded Brazilian GP continued as Mercedes lodged a "Right to Review" request with the FIA. Mercedes alleged that Verstappen had breached the International Sporting Code as he defended his lead from Hamilton on lap 48. Verstappen's dogged defence caused Hamilton and him to run wide at turn four in Brazil. The stewards, after some deliberation, denied Mercedes their request.
With three races remaining in 2021, the title battle was as intense as ever.
How did the teams and drivers fare at the inaugural edition of the Qatar GP?
Time for a quick recap!
Free Practice 1 saw drivers and teams learn about the ideal setups, racing lines and limits of their car at a new circuit. Track temperatures were scorching hot at the start of FP1.
Mazepin and Russell exceeded track limits, while Hamilton reported power issues on his Mercedes engine. The team eventually retired him from the session. While Stroll had a brake-by-wire problem on his Aston Martin, Norris ran wide and over the sausage kerbs at turn 14 and damaged the underside of his McLaren. Schumacher suffered a lock-up at turn seven and went across the gravel, while Tsunoda had to take avoiding action from rear-ending a Ferrari on the pit straight.
Verstappen topped the timesheets from Gasly, followed by the Mercedes of Bottas and Hamilton. Tsunoda was P5 in the other Alpha Tauri, with the Ferraris of Sainz and Leclerc in P6 and P7. P8 was the best that Perez could manage, followed by Ocon and Norris, who completed the top 10.
Ricciardo was P11 in the other McLaren, with the Alfa Romeos of Giovinazzi and Raikkonen splitting the Williams of Latifi and Russell in P14 and P15. Alonso was P17 in the other Alpine, followed by Schumacher, Stroll and Mazepin.
FP2 got underway, and the track got lit up at dusk. Mazepin got forced to skip FP2 after his Haas suffered extensive chassis damage from the running in FP1. The Red Bull mechanics carried out repairs on the rear wings of both their cars, while Giovinazzi lost a piece of bodywork after drifting over the sausage kerbs. Vettel got impeded twice on his low fuel runs, while the Ferrari duo had off-track moments as they tried to avoid other cars.
Less than half a second separated the top 6 drivers. The session ended with Bottas, the quickest from Gasly and Verstappen, with his teammate Hamilton, P4. Norris was P5 for McLaren, followed by Stroll and Tsunoda. Perez set the 8th fastest time in the other Red Bull, while Vettel and Sainz completed the top 10.
The Alpines of Ocon and Alonso were P11 and P12, respectively, followed by Leclerc and Ricciardo. Russell split the Alfa Romeos of Raikkonen and Giovinazzi in P16, while Latifi, Schumacher and Mazepin were at the back of the pack.
With extensive running completed on Friday, the teams and drivers aimed for a better showing on Saturday. Many cars had suffered from underside damage, and the drivers needed to avoid the sausage kerbs in the upcoming sessions. Gasly was the star on Friday, having set the 2nd quickest time in both the practice sessions. Tsunoda was also in the mix, making Alpha Tauri a top contender for the weekend.
The final practice session of the weekend ( FP3 ) got underway, another closely contested session. Mazepin's woes continued as the Russian suffered an engine problem after exiting the pits and ground to a stop. The mechanics rolled the stricken Haas back to the garage, with the session getting Red Flagged for a short period. Perez had an offtrack moment at turn 15, while Gasly suffered a spin at two. Leclerc was another to lose control of his car at turn two.
Bottas led a Mercedes 1-2 at the end of FP3, less than eight-hundredths of a second separating the duo. Gasly split the Red Bulls of Verstappen and Perez in P5, with Sainz completing the top 6. The Alpines of Alonso and Ocon were P7 and P8, followed by Leclerc and Tsunoda.
Vettel split the McLarens of Ricciardo and Norris in P12, with Russell P14 in the Williams. Stroll was P15 in the other Aston Martin, followed by the Alfa Romeos of Raikkonen and Giovinazzi. Latifi, Schumacher and Mazepin were at the rear of the field.
Track temperatures were 8 degrees cooler than that observed in FP3 for the start of Qualifying.
Track limits got enforced at turns 2, 10 and 16.
Q1 got underway, and Mazepin, on his flying lap, suffered damage to his front wing. Although it didn't get dislodged, it was at an odd angle throughout the lap. Gasly was the only driver to opt for mediums on his first run while the rest of the field chose soft tyres. Meanwhile, Schumacher had his lap time deleted after exceeding track limits at turn two. Hamilton, Verstappen, Alonso, Gasly, Norris and Tsunoda were the top 6, with Stroll, Raikkonen, Giovinazzi, Mazepin and Schumacher facing elimination at the end of the first runs.
Leclerc and Norris suffered lap time deletions after exceeding track limits at turn 16. Ocon reported brake issues on his Alpine. The team acknowledged the problem but didn't have time to address it in Qualifying. The Red Bulls joined Gasly in choosing the medium tyres for their final runs of Q1. The final minute of Q1 saw a train of cars lining up for their last attempt.
Hamilton, Verstappen, Bottas, Sainz, Perez and Alonso were the top 6, with Raikkonen, Latifi, Giovinazzi, Schumacher and Mazepin getting eliminated at the end of Q1.
Tyre choice was a factor in Q2, and the field got split in their decision making. While the Alpha Tauris, Alpines, Aston Martins and Russell opted for the soft tyres, others chose the mediums for their first runs.
Hamilton, Gasly, Verstappen, Bottas, Tsunoda and Alonso were the top 6 with Norris, Perez, Russell, Ricciardo and Leclerc in the drop zone, halfway through Q2. Russell chose to go out of sync with the rest of the field and completed his 2nd attempt sooner. The Briton couldn't better P13. Bottas and Sainz were the only drivers on the medium tyres for their final runs of Q2. Lap times improved quickly as more rubber got laid.
Hamilton, Gasly, Alonso, Verstappen Bottas, Ocon, Tsunoda, Vettel, Norris and Sainz got through to Q3, while Perez, Stroll, Leclerc, Ricciardo and Russell got eliminated.
Leclerc sounded listless about the lack of pace over team radio, while Perez was the major upset of Q2.
It was time for the final session of Qualifying and the battle for Pole Position! Norris, Tsunoda, Ocon and Vettel had to stick with a used set of softs for their first runs of Q3. Hamilton went the quickest on his first attempt, only two-tenths separating him from Verstappen and Bottas.
The battle was hotting up as all ten drivers headed out with fresh soft tyres in the final minutes of Q3. Hamilton went purple in all three sectors and looked to have secured Pole Position. However, further back, Bottas and Verstappen were also setting personal best sector times. Their progress got cut short when the marshalls waved double waved yellow flags in sector 3. Gasly was on his flying lap when he went over the sausage kerbs at turn 15. The resulting vibrations dislodged his front wing, which ripped the right front tyre. Bits of carbon fibre and tyre rubber got strewn over the track, and Gasly ground to a halt on the pit straight. No other driver ( bar Hamilton ) could improve on their first attempts of Q3, and Hamilton inherited Pole Position for Sunday. Verstappen had to settle for 2nd, followed by Bottas in 3rd.
Gasly joined Bottas on the 2nd row, while row 3 got occupied by Alonso and Norris. Sainz was the quickest Ferrari in P7, followed by Tsunoda in the other Alpha Tauri. P9 was the best that Ocon could manage in an ailing Alpine, with Vettel completing the top 10.
Post Qualifying, Verstappen got summoned to the stewards for failing to respect the double yellow flags in Q3. Sainz and Bottas also got the summons, but for single waved yellows. Meanwhile, Ferrari discovered a crack on Leclerc's chassis, replaced it, and hoped to have the car ready before the race started.
Mercedes and Hamilton had upped their game after the performances witnessed in Brazil. Bottas, too was in the mix, in the top 3 to asset more pressure on Verstappen. With a two versus one situation on Sunday, Red Bull and Verstappen were at a disadvantage. While Mercedes had the opportunity of extending its lead over Red Bull, Hamilton hoped to trim the deficit to Verstappen.
Perez's elimination in Q2 threw a spanner in the works for Red Bull. While Verstappen did his best to get into P2, the Dutchman faced an uphill battle without the presence of his wingman. Verstappen could overturn the disadvantage ( as seen in Mexico ), but starting on the dirtier side of the track in P2 posed an added challenge.
The Alpha Tauri drivers had stolen the limelight with their performances in the practice sessions, and they didn't disappoint in Qualifying. While Gasly qualified P4, Tsunoda set the 8th quickest time. Both drivers would start on the soft tyres, which would give them extra grip at the start of the race. With Alpha Tauri level on points with Alpine in the Constructor Championship, the battle for P5 promised to be a closely contested affair.
Like Alpha Tauri, Alpine had displayed excellent pace in all three practice sessions. Alonso and Ocon didn't falter, setting the 5th and the 9th quickest time, respectively. Although Ocon struggled with brake problems in Qualifying, Alpine hoped to repair it by race day. With the Alpine drivers starting on the soft tyres, priority was to make up positions early on the race, especially against their rivals, Alpha Tauri.
Both McLaren and Ferrari had only one driver in the top 10. While Norris ended up ahead of Sainz, Ricciardo trailed Leclerc in the latter half of the field. With Leclerc's car going through a chassis change, things didn't look good for Ferrari. Colder track temperatures had affected the balance on the Ferraris. As for McLaren, they were struggling with outright pace all weekend. Both teams faced a long evening with McLaren knowing that it couldn't afford a mediocre weekend against a resurgent Ferrari.
Vettel out-qualified his teammate Stroll at Aston Martin. The team looked destined to finish P7 in the Constructors, and finishing in the points was the priority. Stroll got a free tyre choice for the race start, and with an optimal strategy, the team had the pace to secure a double-points finish.
Williams and Alfa Romeo were locked in a tussle for P8 in the Constructors, with the latter still 12 points adrift. Unless there was a slip-up by those in the top 10, having a points-scoring weekend seemed unlikely for either team. Alfa Romeo, however, seemed to be having better weekends than the Williams in the recent races.
Haas F1 was having a troublesome weekend with Mazepin's car undergoing extensive repairs and replacements. Nevertheless, the mechanics were able to get both cars ready for Qualifying. The team would remain backmarkers, however.
Sunday kickstarted with a lot of drama as the verdicts from the investigation ( from Q3 ) came to the fore.
The stewards, after much deliberation, gave Bottas a three-place grid penalty for ignoring yellow flags. Verstappen also got penalized, which saw him drop back to P7 for the race start. Meanwhile, Sainz escaped any punishment after data showed that he had slowed enough.
As a result of the penalties, Sainz would eventually start P5, Bottas P6 and Verstappen P7.
C1, C2 and C3 were the tyres available, with Pirelli recommending a two-stop strategy for the 57 lap race.
Those in the latter half of the field went with mixed tyre choices. While Perez, Stroll, Leclerc, Ricciardo and Mazepin chose the mediums, Russell, Raikkonen, Latifi, Giovinazzi and Schumacher ( used ) persisted with the soft tyres.
The five red lights went out, and it was a clean getaway for all cars. Hamilton, under threat from the grippier soft tyres on Gasly and Alonso's cars, cut across to mitigate their challenge into turn one. The Briton held on to the lead. His title contender Verstappen made up three positions at turn one but got pushed out onto the grass by Alonso. Nevertheless, the Dutchman secured P4. Meanwhile, Alonso pressured Gasly and got the better of the Frenchman for P2.
Further down the field, Schumacher got past Latifi for P18, while Giovinazzi overtook Russell for P14. Raikkonen was up to P12, while Stroll and Perez had broken into the top 10. Bottas had a shocking start in the other Mercedes and had fallen back to P11.
Perez got past Stroll for P9, while Hamilton extended his gap at the front with the fastest lap. Meanwhile, Latifi reclaimed P18 from Schumacher.
Verstappen began to pressure Gasly for P3, and at the final turn, the former went wide. The mistake allowed Verstappen to close up and get past for P3 on lap 4. Verstappen was now the quickest man on track as he tried to hone in on Alonso for P2. It was "job done" for the Dutchman, and Verstappen now trailed Hamilton by 4 seconds.
Meanwhile, his teammate Perez continued his charge through the field with an overtake on Tsunoda for P8. Lap 6 saw Leclerc overtake Raikkonen for P12 and Perez pressure Sainz for P7. The Mexican completed the overtake but ran wide at turn one, which allowed Sainz to reclaim the position. Meanwhile, Ricciardo got past Russell for P15.
Perez finally got the better of Sainz on lap 8. Replays showed that Verstappen had suffered endplate damage after going over the kerbs at turn one. The front wing had also suffered imbalance on the Red Bull car, and the team asked Verstappen to be careful. Further down the field, Ricciardo continued his recovery with an overtake on Giovinazzi for P14.
Perez got past Ocon for P6, while Tsunoda lost two places to Stroll and Bottas on lap 9, getting relegated to P11. At the front, Hamilton was setting blistering lap times and stretching his lead over Verstappen. Norris began to pressure Gasly for P4, but the latter held the fort. Tsunoda was the first driver to pit, an early stop for the rookie, switching to the mediums.
Bottas got past Stroll for P9, while Raikkonen was the next driver to switch to the mediums on lap 11. Gasly lost two positions to Norris and Perez in the space of 2 laps. The Frenchman pitted on lap 14 and switched to a used set of medium tyres. Meanwhile, Vettel got past Russell for P13, and Hamilton extended his lead over Verstappen to 7 seconds.
Bottas overtook Sainz for P7 ( lap 15 ) while Perez relegated Norris to P5 ( lap 16 ). Further down the field, Giovinazzi switched to the medium tyres on lap 16. Hamilton continued to hammer in blistering laps as Bottas got past Ocon for P6.
Red Bull surprisingly pitted Verstappen for hard tyres on lap 18. The Dutchman rejoined in P2, having built a gap to those behind. Ricciardo also pitted for hard tyres on the same lap, while Gasly got past Schumacher for P14. Meanwhile, Hamilton informed Mercedes that he was happy with his tyres and wanted to extend his stint. However, the team decided to pit him for hard tyres on lap 19 to cover off against Verstappen. The Briton rejoined in the lead, now with a 9 seconds buffer.
Perez was the next driver to pit for the hard tyres on lap 20, the Mexican rejoining in P12. Hamilton was the fastest man on the track as Tsunoda got past Mazepin for P15. Perez battled with Vettel for P11, but the latter delayed the inevitable overtake. Meanwhile, Mazepin lost P16 to Raikkonen on lap 22. The battle for P4 ended with Bottas getting the better of Norris on lap 23. The round of pit stops continued with Schumacher switching to the used mediums ( lap 23 ) and Alonso and Stroll choosing the hard tyres ( lap 24 ). Alpine timing of Alonso's stop allowed the Spaniard to rejoin the race ahead of Ricciardo and Perez, gaining track position on the latter.
Giovinazzi overtook Mazepin for P16, while Verstappen was the fastest man on the track. Ocon pitted for the hard tyres on lap 25, while Perez got past Ricciardo for P8. Norris pitted for the hard tyres on lap 26, and Alonso got past Leclerc for P5. Perez, who had also closed up on the Alonso-Leclerc battle, tried to follow Alonso with an overtake on Leclerc but delayed it until a few corners later. He was now P6 and hunting down Alonso.
Ricciardo and Vettel pitted on lap 27, with Vettel switching to the mediums and Ricciardo the hards. Ferrari decided to double stack with its drivers on lap 28, switching both to the hards. Meanwhile, Perez got the better of Alonso for P4 despite some dogged defence on lap 29.
Hamilton, Verstappen, Bottas, Perez, Alonso, Gasly, Norris, Ocon, Stroll and Sainz were the top 10 on lap 30.
Raikkonen pitted for the 2nd time, switching to another set of hard tyres on lap 32. Meanwhile, at the front, Hamilton and Verstappen were setting blistering lap times. Disaster struck Bottas on lap 33 when he reported a puncture on the left front tyre. The Finn had gotten into contention for P3, extending his stint on the medium tyres when the front left gave way. He had to tiptoe his way around the circuit and also went across the gravel, losing time and track positions to Perez and Alonso before he finally entered the pits. Mercedes had to change the front wing on his car besides switching him to the hard tyres. Bottas rejoined in P14.
Tsunoda and Gasly pitted for the hards and mediums, respectively, while Raikkonen got past Schumacher for P17. Latifi got relegated to P16 by Tsunoda on lap 40, while Giovinazzi got the better of Schumacher for P18 on lap 41. Verstappen and Perez pitted for medium tyres on lap 42, the latter taking on a used set. Hamilton followed suit a lap later. On the track, Bottas got past Ricciardo for P12, while Raikkonen overtook Latifi for P16. Perez was the fastest man on lap 44 as he began his quest for P3. Tsunoda got past Russell for P14 on lap 45.
Perez, with his fresher tyres, was honing in on Stroll and Ocon for P5. Alonso in P3 was aware that he would come under threat from Perez towards the end and asked Alpine to request Ocon to defend against Perez with all his might. Perez got past Stroll for P6 on lap 46 and then tried to get past Ocon for P5 on 48. The Frenchman couldn't defend in the DRS zone but fought back a few corners later, which delayed Perez's charge. Nevertheless, Perez bagged P5 and now had Norris in his sights.
Meanwhile, at the front, Hamilton and Verstappen were exchanging "fastest laps".
Hamilton, Verstappen, Alonso, Norris, Perez, Ocon, Stroll, Sainz, Leclerc and Vettel were the top 10 on lap 49.
Raikkonen got past Russell for P15, while McLaren detected a slow puncture on Norris' car. The Briton got forced to pit for new mediums on lap 51. Norris immediately got past Gasly for P10. Meanwhile, Mercedes decided to retire Bottas after discovering multiple issues with his car. There was more drama on lap 51 as Russell suffered a puncture on his left front tyre and had to return to the pits for soft tyres. Williams' woes didn't end there as Latifi too suffered the same fate, a lap later and had to retire from the race, grinding to a halt at one of the run-off areas.
Those drivers on a one-stop strategy seemed to be in peril with their worn-out hard tyres. More teams feared delaminations, and Alonso in P3 got told to avoid the kerbs altogether. Perez now trailed Alonso only by 8.5 seconds, and the gap was reducing with every lap. Meanwhile, Norris got past Vettel for P9 on lap 54.
The stewards decided to enforce the Virtual Safety Car to allow safe extrication of Latifi's stricken Williams. The VSC period allowed Verstappen to pit for soft tyres, which would secure him the point for the fastest lap of the race. The VSC ended on the final lap, and it was a race to the finish line in the battle for P3 between Alonso and Perez.
Hamilton took the Chequered Flag and the victory at the inaugural Qatar GP. Verstappen came home in P2, having secured the extra point for the fastest lap at the end. Alonso held off Perez's charge to score his first podium in 7 years!
P4 was the best that Perez could achieve, followed by Ocon and Stroll. The Ferraris of Sainz and Leclerc were 7th and 8th, with Norris and Vettel completing the top 10.
Ricciardo split the Alpha Tauris of Gasly and Tsunoda in P12, followed by the Alfa Romeos of Raikkonen and Giovinazzi in P14 and P15, respectively. Schumacher, Russell and Mazepin completed the classified finishers.
The entire weekend, Hamilton and Mercedes had been unchallenged. With Verstappen getting relegated to P7 ( due to the penalty ), Hamilton's task got simpler at the start. The Briton remained flawless at the front, building and managing the gap en route to a fine victory. The win helped him reduce the deficit to Verstappen to 8 points. Mercedes looked set for a double podium finish until Bottas' puncture on lap 33. The team was pushing its luck by extending Bottas' first stint and had to bear its consequences. It was a wretched weekend for Bottas, who first suffered from a grid drop and then had to charge through the field after a poor start only to have his race cut short due to a puncture and PU issues. Mercedes saw its lead in the Constructors trimmed down to 5 points, and with two races remaining, fortunes could change quickly.
Like Brazil, it was damage limitation day for Verstappen and Red Bull. Despite the grid drop, the Dutchman made overtaking look easy and finished 2nd only to Hamilton. He also bagged the point for the fastest lap, losing 6 to his title challenger. Although Verstappen still led the title battle, it was an uphill task to keep a resurgent Hamilton at bay in the final two races. As for Perez, after the disappointment of Saturday, he responded in style and almost got on to the podium. He wasn't in agreement with Red Bull for pitting him for the 2nd time, but it did prove to be the correct decision in the end. The battle with Ocon, coupled with the VSC period, denied him the opportunity of attacking Alonso for P3 at the end. He was now just 13 points shy of Bottas in the fight for P3 in the Drivers' Championship. The results helped Red Bull outscore Mercedes by six points and reduce the deficit to only five in the Constructors.
Meanwhile, the FIA gave Christian Horner ( Red Bull Team Principal ) a formal warning for his choice of words while criticizing a marshall who he believed was to blame for Verstappen's grid penalty.
After Hungary, this was the best weekend for Alpine. Alonso achieved his first podium of the season ( after a gap of 7 years ), having managed to eek more life out of his worn hard tyres at the end. While Ocon delayed Perez's charge, the VSC at the end gave Alonso the respite he needed from the charging Perez. Alonso also got the "The Driver of the Day" award, and deservedly so. Ocon produced a stellar drive in P5. The combined tally of 25 points allowed Alpine to open a gap of the same margin to Alpha Tauri in the battle for P5. This weekend would prove pivotal if Alpine held onto P5 at the end of the year.
Aston Martin finally broke into the top 10 with both its drivers after quite a few races. While Stroll bagged P6, Vettel took the final point in P10. The team made the right strategic calls, and despite a one-stop strategy, both drivers did a commendable job with tyre management. The 9 points took Aston Martin's tally to 77, but the deficit to Alpha Tauri was still a sizeable 35 points.
P7 and P8 were the best that the Ferrari drivers could achieve, but that was enough to outscore McLaren again. Like many others, Leclerc and Sainz pitted only once in the race, and the Ferrari mechanics did a stellar job with double-stacking. The result saw Ferrari extend their lead to 39.5 points over McLaren.
It was a weekend to forget for McLaren. While Norris fell out of P4 due to a slow puncture, Ricciardo had to undergo fuel management for most of the race. Norris finished P9, with only two points to show for his efforts. It was another lacklustre weekend for Ricciardo in a lowly 12th. Time was running out for McLaren to overturn their poor run of form.
Alpha Tauri flattered to deceive. After the heroics of Saturday, both drivers fell backwards in the race. The lack of speed was unexplainable, despite having a two-stop strategy. Gasly and Tsunoda eventually finished outside the points. With Alpine scoring a podium and opening a 25 point gap, Alpha Tauri looked to be out of the reckoning for a P5 finish in the Constructors.
The Alfa Romeo drivers made up positions at the start, but with a mediocre strategy ended in P14 and P15. The decision to start on soft tyres didn't pay off, and both drivers struggled to make inroads even after stopping twice. It seemed unlikely for Alfa Romeo to overtake Williams in the final two races.
Williams had a dismal day with punctures and delaminations on both Russell and Latifi's cars. While Latifi had to retire, Russell managed to continue and finish in P17. As for Haas F1, P16 and P18 were the best that Schumacher and Mazepin could achieve. Like Williams, it had been a troublesome weekend for Haas. It seemed like Haas would be the only team to go point-less in 2021.
Hamilton and Mercedes had the momentum, and with the title battles being as close as they were, anything could transpire at a new track like Saudi Arabia. Although the next race was a fortnight away, there was no time to rest for the teams or their drivers.
It was time for the final push, through the streets of Jeddah, followed by the season-ender in Yas Marina, Abu Dhabi.
But in Qatar, the glory belonged to Hamilton and Mercedes! Hamilton sailed to victory under the lights of Losail!