In the weekend just gone, we round off the final triple header, as we near the end of the 2021 Formula one season.
We start, as we always do, in Q1. This time, in Qatar, hosting its first ever Grand Prix event, meaning that there was potential for some drama. In this session, this was limited, with the usual candidates of Nikita Mazepin and Mick Schumacher of Haas being P20 and P19 respectively. Joining them would be both the Alpha Romero’s of Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi (P16 and P18 respectively). This weekend saw the announcement that Giovinazzi would be leaving the team, being replaced by a driver from F2, Guanyu Zhou, making him the first official Chinese driver in the sport. The final driver to be knocked out in Q1 would be the Williams of Nicholas Latifi in P17.
Moving into Q2, we saw many of the consistent top ten drivers put on the medium compound tyres. This mix of strategy, especially on a new track, gave this session some serious potential for a shakeup in the running order. This potential was realised when the Red Bull of Sergio Perez was only able to qualify P11, despite putting on softs at the end of the session. The Ferrari of Charles Leclerc and the McLaren of Daniel Ricciardo were also unable to make it into Q3, only managing P13 and P14 respectively. The other two positions were filled by the more commonly seen drivers in Q2, with Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll claiming P12, and George Russell in his Williams taking the final spot, P15.
In Q3, we saw all the drivers return to the soft tyres, meaning that there would be a return to the usual order. This saw Sebastian Vettel’s Aston Martin taking P10, almost a full second behind the Alpine of Esteban Ocon in P9. Alpha Tauri’s Yuki Tsunoda took P8, behind the Ferrari of Carlos Sainz (P7), and Lando Norris in his McLaren (P6). P5 was taken, rather surprisingly, by Fernando Alonso of Alpine, just behind the Alpha Tauri of Pierre Gasly in P4. Valterri Bottas claimed P3 for Mercedes, less than a tenth of a second behind Verstappen.
This meant that the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton took his third Pole Position in the last 16 races. There was some drama at the very end of the session, as Gasly suffered a puncture on his front right tyre after mounting the curb on the final corner. This brought out the yellow flags in Sector three, meaning all drivers in the area had to slow down. Despite this, both Bottas and Verstappen continued to push up until they crossed the line, passing the stranded Alpha Tauri in the process. For ignoring these yellow flags both drivers were due to be served with grid penalties.
Before getting underway, the FIA had decided that Bottas would serve a three place grid penalty for failing to slow for single waved yellows, whereas Verstappen would be given a five place penalty for failing to slow under double waved yellows, a decision which was met with anger and confusion from Red Bull boss, Christian Horner. This meant that Bottas would start from P6, with Verstappen starting from P7.
As the five lights go out and the race begins, Hamilton, on the mediums, is able to maintain the lead ahead of Gasly and Alonso, who are busy fighting between themselves for P2. Further back, Verstappen gets away brilliantly, and is able to ease his way past Bottas, Sainz and Norris by the exit of turn one, and is eyeing up a move on Alonso, but is pushed wide by the Spaniard as he begins to make a move on Gasly, going round the outside of turn two, and finishing the move off by taking the inside of turn three. Another to have a lightening start, was Ocon, climbing from P9 to P6. Bottas on the other hand, had a terrible start, falling out of the points paying positions, to P11. Another to have a bad start, saw Vettel, who saw himself running wide on the first corner, falling back to P17.
It takes until Lap four for Verstappen to pass his old teammate, Gasly, on the main straight after the Alpha Tauri went wide coming out of the final corner, and on the following lap, the Dutchman passes Alonso, also on the main straight. Despite this quick work, Hamilton finds himself with a comfortable four second gap to his Championship rival. Further back, Perez is able to make quick work of Tsunoda for P8.
Perez is able to pass Sainz on Lap seven, and Bottas is able to make an overtake on lap nine, as he went three wide with Tsunoda and Stroll going down the main straight, going down the inside of the Alpha Tauri at turn one. Stroll was also able to go around the outside, making Tsunoda lose two places in oe corner.
By lap ten, the gap between Verstappen and Alonso in P3 was 12 seconds, with the Red Bull still over five seconds behind Hamilton. Behind, Bottas had picked off Stroll going into turn one for P9. On lap 11, Tsunoda and Raikkonen pit from the Softs, onto the Mediums. On the following lap, Norris is able to pass Gasly going into turn one.
By lap 13, Perez is able to breeze past Gasly on the main straight, and on the next lap, Gasly pits, also swapping the Softs for Mediums. Two laps later, Bottas is able to pass Sainz for P7 going into turn one. On lap 16, Perez is able to pass Norris on the main straight for P4. Bottas is able to pick off Ocon at the same spot on the following lap.
Verstappen pits on lap 18 from the mediums, putting on a set of hard compound tyres, returning to the track, still in P2. This triggers Hamilton to pit the following lap, also putting on the Hards, returning still in the lead. Perez pits on lap 20, puts on the Hards, and returns to the track in P12.
By lap 23, Bottas had picked off Norris at turn one for P4, and Perez is able to pass Vettel further back. Alonso pits on Lap 24, putting on the Hard compound of tyre, returning to the track in P8, crucially, ahead of Perez. Stroll also pits, returning into P13. Norris pits the following lap, returning just behind Gasly in P11.
On lap 27, Alonso and Perez have caught Leclerc on the main straight, and by turn two, both had found their way past the Ferrari, who pits the following lap. Sainz comes in on the same lap, returning in P10, with Leclerc returning in P13. On Lap 29, Perez is able to make his way past Alonso, remaining side by side with the Alpine until turn four.
By lap 33, Bottas was the only driver yet to pit, a decision which has cost him dearly, as he gets a puncture on his front left tyre, with half the track left to go around to reach the pits. He pits for hards, and a new front wing, returning in P14. By lap 37, both the Alpha Romero’s and Alpha Tauri’s are the first to make another stop, shortly after, Verstappen pits on lap 42, with Perez also pitting, both swapping for Medium tyres, returning to the track in P2 and P7 respectively. Mercedes pull Hamilton in on the next lap, returning comfortably ahead of the Red Bull.
On lap 46/57, Perez is able to pass Stroll for P6 on the main straight, and catches Ocon, who was told to “defend like a lion” by his teammate, Alonso. Despite being on much older tyres, Ocon does what he can, forcing Perez around the outside of turn one, keeping with the Red Bull until turn six.
Norris pits on lap 50 after suspecting a light puncture on his front left tyre, ruining his race and allowing McLaren’s Championship rivals, Ferrari to claim more points than them for the fifth weekend in a row. Bottas retires on the next lap as Russell also suffers a front right tyre failure. On the start of the next lap, Latifi gets the same issue, parking up next to a marshal’s post, bringing out the VSC. This allows Verstappen to pit onto the Softs for an attempt at the Fastest Lap, however, hinders Perez, who must remain around nine seconds behind Alonso until the VSC is removed.
As we get onto the final lap, Hamilton is unable to attempt his fastest lap, but the VSC ends just in time for Verstappen to try his hand at it. Hamilton crosses the line to win in Qatar by 25 seconds, with Verstappen claiming P2, and the extra point for Fastest Lap, with the final step on the podium being claimed by Fernando Alonso, his first time on the podium since 2014, and his 98th in total. Perez comes home in P4, missing out on back to back trip to the podium due to a VSC. Ocon claims P5 for Alpine, just ahead of Stroll (P6), who put in a quietly brilliant performance. The Ferrari pair of Sainz and Leclerc take P7 and P8, with Norris able to recover to P9, with Vettel recovering from his poor start to take the final points paying position (P10).
Overall, a pleasantly surprising affair in Qatar which saw Hamilton close the gap between himself and Verstappen to just eight points.
The driver of the day is a tough one, but I think it goes to Fernando Alonso, with his clean racecraft, good start, and perfect tyre management saw him pull off a strategy which saw many of the other drivers fail. An honorary mention must go to Perez, following his immensely impressive recovery drive, one which likely would have seen him stand on the podium for the fourth time in five races if not for the VSC.
The first loser of the weekend will be Bottas, after being unable to climb up the field until he had already been ruled out of fighting for P2. Despite the puncture not being his fault, it certainly compounded the misery of his race. The second loser has to be Norris, as without the puncture, he was set for a comfortable top five finish, a result which has quickly become rare for McLaren, with their last coming all the way back at the USA Grand Prix.
Featured Image Credit: BBC