A night after clinching his third consecutive world title, Max Verstappen was in no mood to take the foot off the gas as the Red Bull driver sauntered to his 14th win of the season at the Formula One Qatar Grand Prix.
On a night when the high humidity level forced the drivers to wear ice vests, fans at the Lusail International Circuit released a loud gasp of shock as seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton crashed out of the race in the very first lap after colliding with team-mate George Russell.
But Verstappen, like so often this season, was oblivious to the drama behind as he dominated the 57-lap race to stay on course to break his own record (15) for most wins in a single season. With five races to go, the Dutchman needs just two wins to set a new mark.
Sprint race winner Oscar Piastri and Lando Norris finished second and third respectively, rounding off a good weekend for the McLaren team, rising from their P6 and P10 grid slots after losing lap times over track limits violations in qualifying.
“I think what made the race was my first stint,” said Verstappen, who finished 4.8 seconds clear of Piastri. “After that I could just manage my pace, making sure that my tyres were always in a good window. But the McLarens were quick again today, I had to push for it, so it was definitely a tough race out there. It was a bit close for comfort I think in that last stint. But the pace was OK. Another win, unbelievable,” added the 26-year-old.
The race became an intense and complicated one as the drivers were mandated for three pit stops due to tyre safety reasons after Pirelli warned of the risk of blowouts.
There was a change in the grid too with Red Bull’s second driver Sergio Perez starting from pit lane after changing several power unit components and making significant repairs – including the preparation of a new chassis – after the Mexican’s crash in the sprint.
Ferrari too suffered a blow as Carlos Sainz was ruled out of the race due to a fuel system issue developing on his car, meaning the Scuderia would only be represented by Charles Leclerc.
More drama awaited at the start and it was heartbreak for Hamilton. The Brit tried to go round the outside in the first corner, but in turn rammed into compatriot Russell, who himself was looking to make a move on Verstappen.
Hamilton was immediately out of the race, finding his Mercedes beached in the gravel on three wheels, while Russell dropped down the field and had to pit for a new front wing. While Hamilton, in frustration, blamed his younger team-mate for the incident, he later accepted his fault and apologised to Russell.
Russell had started second on the grid with Hamilton third and looking likely to increase the 26-point gap between them and third-placed Ferrari in the constructors’ standings.
“I just feel really sorry for my team, there was an opportunity today to get some good points,” Hamilton later said. “I felt the tag from behind but I don’t think George had anywhere to go. I’m happy to take responsibility. It’s massively gutting, it’s rare this happens to me.”
To Russell’s credit, the 25-year-old ended up fourth after having to make four pit stops in total. Ferrari’s Leclerc was fifth and Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso came sixth. Esteban Ocon was seventh for Alpine with the Alfa Romeo pair of Valtteri Bottas and Guanyu Zhou eighth and ninth and Red Bull’s Sergio Perez demoted to 10th after a five-second post-race penalty for exceeding track limits multiple times.
Verstappen, meanwhile, was untroubled on the night with team boss Christian Horner lauding his champion over the radio by saying: “That was a proper quality drive.”
At one point he had a 25-second advantage over Piastri, but the Australian rookie crawled back in the final stint. But it was not enough to put pressure on Verstappen, who set the fastest lap and cruised to his 49th career victory.
The only thing that troubled him was the Lusail heat, which touched 37 degrees on track at one point, with humidity making it worse. Verstappen later labelled the Qatar Grand Prix as “one of the toughest ‘’ races of his career as drivers struggled throughout in hot and tricky conditions. Alonso asked for water to be poured over him at a pit-stop, while Williams’ Logan Sargeant retired with dehydration as Verstappen and Piastri both laid on the floor of the cool-down room while waiting for the podium.
“[It is] one of [the toughest races of my career], and in the top five probably,” Verstappen said. “I am already sweating quite a bit, but we will enjoy it quite a bit, but there are still a few races [in the season] that we want to try and win.”
Qatar Olympic Committee President HE Sheikh Joaan bin Hamad al-Thani presents the winner’s trophy to Max Verstappen of Red Bull after his win in Formula 1 Qatar Airways Qatar Grand Prix 2023 at Lusail International Circuit Sunday. Reuters
First placed Max Verstappen of Red Bull celebrates with his trophy on the podium after the race. REUTERS