One championship down, one to go, as Red Bull’s Max Verstappen closes in on a third straight drivers’ title. But there are plenty of other fights up and down the field that are just heating up, so here are some of the topics to get excited about heading to Qatar Airways Qatar Grand Prix at the remodelled Lusail International Circuit this weekend.
Sprinting back to Qatar
The last time F1 race took place in Qatar came amid the intense title battle of 2021. The track was a hit with the drivers given its high-speed nature, and provided some dramatic moments despite being a relatively late addition to the calendar due to the Covid pandemic.
Now with two years to prepare for its full-time return, the Lusail International Circuit has been revamped with a new pit and paddock area to welcome the teams back. And there promises to be even more action, with Qatar being the fourth of six Sprint events this season, ensuring there will be competitive sessions on all three days of the race weekend.
It will also be the first Sprint event to take place under floodlights, as the previous host venues – Silverstone, Monza, Brazil, Imola, Austria, Baku and Belgium – have all been daytime races.
So qualifying on Friday night will be followed by Sprint Saturday, with the Sprint Shootout taking place in the heat of the day before the shorter race, and then the Grand Prix itself as the sun sets on Sunday evening. With FP1 taking place in daytime temperatures too, this could be the teams’ biggest challenge yet to get their set-ups right for the rest of the weekend.
Verstappen on the verge
It has looked an inevitability since very early in the season, and after repelling the early challenge of teammate Sergio Perez, Verstappen has raced away into the distance in terms of the championship standings, to such an extent that he’s set to wrap matters up with more than five races still remaining. When Verstappen won the title in Japan last year, there were just four rounds to go in Austin, Mexico, Brazil and Abu Dhabi, but this time there is the addition of Las Vegas. Plus, he’s actually likely to become champion before the race itself in Qatar...
That’s because it’s a Sprint weekend and with a 177-point lead Verstappen needs to just ensure Perez does not outscore him by more than six points on the Saturday to retain his title. That means a sixth-place finish in the Sprint – offering three points with a maximum eight for a win – would be enough regardless of Perez’s result
Across the entire weekend, Perez would need to take 32 points out of Verstappen’s lead, so he needs both a big result in the Sprint and to win the race itself, but there’s been nothing in Verstappen’s form to suggest that’s likely to happen, with Perez having failed to finish ahead of his team mate in a race situation since Baku in late April.
Mercedes versus Ferrari
The points between Verstappen and Perez are not the only ones to pay attention to at the moment though. While Red Bull wrapped up their constructors’ championship in Japan, there’s far from any clarity over who will be the runner-up this season as Mercedes and Ferrari fight it out for best of the rest honours.
Mercedes have been consistent point-scorers all year but Ferrari have found form since their home race at Monza, scoring a third and fourth there behind only the Red Bulls, and then winning in Singapore courtesy of Carlos Sainz. Charles Leclerc was then fourth ahead of Lewis Hamilton at Suzuka – where Sainz also beat George Russell – and the gap has closed to just 20 points between the teams.
The momentum is with Ferrari right now but it was Mercedes who finished the stronger of the pair a year ago, and with all four drivers contributing significantly it’s promising to be a tense fight right to the end of the season.
Lusail International Circuit has been revamped with a new pit and paddock area to welcome back the F1 teams.