All over before the main event? Six Qatar Grand Prix talking points

Formula 1

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Formula 1 returns to Qatar this weekend with the drivers’ championship set to be decided. While that is likely to be a formality, there are other notable points of interest besides.

The Losail International Circuit first hosted a grand prix in 2021, and this weekend’s race is the first in a 10-year deal to have F1 racing in the country.

Only three drivers on the grid know what it feels like to win at the track. Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez picked up victories during GP2 Asia’s visit to Losail in 2009 and Lewis Hamilton won F1’s inaugural Qatar Grand Prix.

After this race, the teams have a two-week break for a breathless rush into the final rounds with five races in the space of six weeks. But, barring a shock, the championships will be long over by then – and are likely to be decided before Sunday’s grand prix.

Here are the talking points for this weekend’s race..

Verstappen poised to seal third title

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Suzuka, 2023
Expect Verstappen to lock up the title before the grand prix
As it is a sprint race weekend, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen could be crowned 2023 champion on Saturday rather than Sunday. Any tension in the title fight may have long evaporated, and it will take an against-the-run-of-play result from Perez to prolong the title fight until the main event.

Verstappen has a lead of 177 points, with 180 left to score this year. He needs to finish the sprint race with a lead of 172 points to be crowned, meaning sixth place would be enough if team mate Sergio Perez wins. And if Verstappen doesn’t get the job done then, he only needs a lead of 146 points at the end of Sunday to become champion. Perez would have to win on both days to prevent that from happening.

Therefore Verstappen will still likely claim the record for winning an F1 title with the most grands prix to spare, it’s just a question of how many still remain once he’s crowned.

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How will tyre handle the desert heat

There’s only so much that going to Bahrain and Abu Dhabi every year can tell you about what to expect in terms of the weather for Qatar. The Pirelli tests that have taken place since the race there in 2021 would bring a more contemporary understanding, but since those tests the circuit has been resurfaced, creating further unknowns.

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren, Losail International Circuit, 2021
Losail’s quick corners proved tough on tyres in 2021
F1 will race at night but the air and track temperatures will still be high, unlikely to dip below 31C at any point. The sole practice session and sprint race qualifying are at 4:30pm local time on Friday and Saturday respectively, and it will be around 36C at that time on both days. Uncomfortable conditions for everyone to work in.

When F1 raced at Losail in 2021, the 17-year-old track surface did lead to high tyre degradation. Many could complete the race on a one-stop strategy and the front-runners tended to go for two pit stops which was Pirelli’s preferred strategy for teams to use (Verstappen made a third to ensure he scored the fastest lap bonus point in his close title fight with Hamilton).

Three drivers suffered front-left tyre failures during the race, a potential threat all involved will be alert to. A smoother track surface now should mean less abrasion and therefore less wear, but the heat could still lead to other challenges such as marbles.

Teams will not be able to simulate exactly what will be their biggest challenge with the tyres due to practice taking place at a different time to the races, but Pirelli have nominated the hardest rubber they have used so far this year – the C1, C2 and C3 compounds.

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F1’s Middle East expansion

F1’s first race in the Middle East was in 2004, and it did not add another there until 2009. In 2020 there were three races on the Arab peninsula as the Bahrain International Circuit stepped up to host two events in the pandemic-hit season, then the Saudi Arabian and Qatar grands prix joined in 2021 and F1 now had four rounds in the Middle East.

Following Qatar’s one-off disappearance last year when the country, population 2.6 million, was busy holding the World Cup, F1 has four Middle East rounds once more. As much as the relationship between F1 and the USA has become a hot topic in recent years, most of the motorsport money still lies in the Middle East. In fact, it’s Middle Eastern money propping up teams and venues in other continents, so sport being hosted in Arab countries is not really representative of the influence they have over the financial, logistical and sporting operations of international competitions.

But one thing to keep an eye on is how much F1 enjoys being back at Losail. The track has been hosting motorcycle racing world championships since 2004 and will do so until at least 2031, the World Endurance Championship is heading there next season for the first time on a six-year contract.

F1’s contract is to race in Qatar, rather than specifically at Losail, but the circuit renovations indicate that the venue has prepared itself to be the long-term home of F1 if plans for a Qatari street race in Doha never get off the ground.

Will there be a change for second place?

Ferrari are poised to pass Mercedes for second in the standings
The occupant of the runner-up spot in the constructors championship may be about to change hands again. Aston Martin were the closest rival to the dominant Red Bull in the points table until the Spanish Grand Prix, round seven of the championship, when Mercedes moved past them.

Seven rounds later Aston Martin lost third place to Ferrari. The Scuderia are now 20 points behind Mercedes and coming off a run of form that includes a win, a third place and two pole positions from the last three rounds. Mercedes, meanwhile, have got one third place and a fastest lap in that time.

If Ferrari were to finish one-two in the Qatar sprint race, they could cut their gap to Mercedes down to as little as five points. They had absolutely no answer to Mercedes’ pace the last time F1 raced at Losail, but that was under a different set of technical regulations. They were quicker than Mercedes in Bahrain this year and are enjoying a strong upswing of form.

With their increased car understanding since then, expect Ferrari to be putting their SF-23s further up the grid than Mercedes can get their F1 W14s this weekend, even if it’s not by enough to get them past their rivals in the standings come Sunday night.

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Andretti Autosport

Guenther Steiner, haas, Albert Park, 2023
Haas’ Steiner and other have opposed new teams entering F1
The on-track action in Qatar will have no impact on whether Formula One Management decides to welcome Andretti Autosport into the world championship. But the biggest political development of the year so far will undoubtedly be a subject of much discussion among the sport’s top players.

The FIA announced yesterday it had approved Andretti’s bid to join F1, deeming it the only suitable candidate from the various entities that had applied. Andretti could become the first new team admitted to the series since Haas in 2016.

It’s already clear what FOM’s position is. The views of F1’s 10 existing teams are also well-known, but it remains to be seen whether the FIA’s declaration that Andretti deserves the chance to race against them has won over any of the sceptics.

Whatever they make of it, it is likely to remain a focus of interest not only in Qatar, but also at the following United States Grand Prix, where F1 would look very silly to resist the arrival of an American team into the world championship.

Another American struggle

Sargeant needs an incident-free weekend at minimum
The only driver yet to secure his place on the Formula 1 grid for 2024 is Williams rookie Logan Sargeant. His recent run of form has to cast doubt on his chance of staying in F1 for a second season.

Sargeant has retired from two of the last four grands prix, is the only full-time driver yet to score a point in 2023 and has still not outqualified his team mate Alexander Albon. His best starting position was tenth at the Dutch Grand Prix, while Albon has made Q3 on five occasions this year and qualified as high as fourth.

If Sargeant continues his recent downwards trajectory this weekend then he will be weakening his case that he deserves to stay in F1, and at a crucial point in his season. Unsurprisingly, in recent weeks there have been rumours of various drivers who may be considered for his seat next year.

A trouble-free and competitive event in Qatar would put him in a good position to then be delivering his best on home soil at Circuit of the Americas. That makes it a tough time for him to have to take on an unfamiliar track with only a single hour of practice.

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Author information

Ida Wood
Often found in junior single-seater paddocks around Europe doing journalism and television commentary, or dabbling in teaching photography back in the UK. Currently based...

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33 comments on “All over before the main event? Six Qatar Grand Prix talking points”

  1. I’m very curious to see how the FIA will spin the story of this season’s driver’s championship not being won at an actual Grand Prix. I’m pretty sure that officially, the sprint thing is not even called a race. May as well give Max the trophy after FP1.

    1. Correct, it was changed from Sprint Qualifying to Sprint Session.

    2. There is no need to spin this. Verstappen will be crowned world champion after the sprint. Don’t act like it’s not part of the race weekend just because you don’t like it.

      1. Yeah this. I get that people get some weird allergic reaction whenever they even hear the word “sprint,” but it’s not different than in other racing series where points are given, for instance, to the driver that takes pole position in qualifying.

    3. “this season’s driver’s championship not being won at an actual Grand Prix”

      It is also not won by the Qatar sprint – that is just the moment that mathematically nobody can catch Max anymore this year. The points collected over the whole season (including races to come) win you the championship.

      If there were no sprints in 2024 to begin with, Max would have been mathematically out of reach after the Japan race.
      So sprints delayed the point and at same time moves the moment from coming Sunday to Saturday.

    4. José Lopes da Silva
      3rd October 2023, 16:31

      Do you know that Nelson Piquet was crowned 1987 champion at the Japanese Grand Prix?

      1. Tommy Scragend
        3rd October 2023, 18:13

        As was Senna in 1988, Prost in 1989, Senna in 1990, Senna in 1991…

        So what?

        1. I think the point is that Piquet technically sealed the championship when Mansell crashed on the Saturday of the Japanese GP weekend, as his injury ruled him out of the final two races of the year. But that is obviously not relevant to a scenario where points are awarded for non-racing sessions.

        2. Exactly. The amount of whining over sprint races/sessions is nauseating. I love it because the bad drivers don’t have endless practice to setup their cars and practices are replaced by something actually entertaining.

    5. I thought “Grand prix” meant all the official F1 race related events held for that weekend, i.e. the Final Practice sessions, the Qualifying session(s), the Race, and the Sprint Race if there is one. If so, then whether Max wins the World Drivers’ Championship at the Sprint Race or the Race, he will still have won the WDC at the Qatar Grand prix.

    6. Makes no sense to give him the trophy after fp1, mechanical problems happen every so often even in the modern era, so they have to run the sprint to be sure.

  2. stegosauruswrecks
    3rd October 2023, 14:25

    As I predicted back in April, it’ll all be over before they get to Austin…the most BORING F1 season in my life and I’ve watched F1 since the 60’s

    1. BW (@deliberator)
      4th October 2023, 2:27

      A matter of opinion, of course, but I would suggest that 2004 was more “boring”. At least in 2023 Perez and Verstappen were two wins a piece after 4 rounds. 2004 was ridiculous domination by MSC and his Ferrari. In fact, I recall the only “highlights” of the first half of the season were Button’s pole at Imola and Schumacher’s crash at Monaco.

    2. I struggle to see the difference between this and the 2014-2020 era other than it involves another team. Makes me believe some people only find F1 interesting when their team is winning which is a pity imho since the sport is much richer.

      1. 2014-2020 had a lot more good racing. The dominance is less the problem than these pigs they call F1 cars now and having Nico Rosberg alongside Lewis. Nico won 7 races in a row at one point. Lewis has never won more than 5 in a row.

  3. Won’t Max equal the record for winning it with the most races left? Because Schumacher clinched his 5th title in the 2002 French GP, which also meant there were 6 races left to go.

    1. Won’t Max equal the record for winning it with the most races left?

      Only if you ignore the fact there are more races than there were for any of the previous seasons with seriously dominant scores.
      If you look at the more reasonable marker of percentage of the season remaining, then no it isn’t a record, it isn’t even second place.

      Still, if you want a Wikipedia, sub-page “record” then the page might not get deleted.

      1. It’s a different points system now.

        If we had the same points system as back then, Verstappen would have already clinched the title with 7 races remaining.

  4. Yes, although that was 6 out of 17 whereas it’s 6 out of 22 now (35% to 27%).

    Still, it nicely illustrates how bad the other teams have been.

    1. And historically, after such level of dominance (2001 and 2002) the fia intervened to make regulations to weaken ferrari, creating a 3-way team battle in 2003, red bull had a fairly dominant 2022 (which would be their 2001) and a very dominant 2023 (would be their 2002), let’s see if they do anything then or if stopping dominance was just a thing of the past.

      1. They surely didn’t seem to bother (or were very unsuccessful) between 2014 and 2021, so I think it is a thing of the past.

  5. Verstappen poised to seal third title – Indeed & on Saturday in all likelihood.

    How will tyre handle the desert heat – Difficult to judge beforehand, but good thing that having the Qatar GP occur with very high daytime temps will only be a one-off thing for everyone’s sake on trackside.
    I don’t recall any Pirelli tests, though, but only Alpine doing private testing with Piastri in May last year in 2021-spec machinery.

    F1’s Middle East expansion – Nothing wrong per se & as for Qatar GP’s long-term home, Losail indeed might be that, after all, or perhaps both simultaneously some day, which could happen with Jeddah & Qiddiya.

    Will there be a change for second place? – I doubt because Mercedes is generally better at operational things.

    Andretti Autosport – Indifferent.

    Another American struggle – I still doubt he’d get sacked hastily & who knows, perhaps he’s already signed with a formal announcement on either the US or LV GP weekend. Certainly a possibility at the very least.

    1. Verstappen poised to seal third title


      1. Ironically I’m guessing this means you’re only counting the titles with a dominant car and not the hard fought one.

    2. #3 all the way through

  6. …and I am here hoping that Max does indeed wrap the title on Saturday so maybe he wont bother to race on Sunday, making Sunday’s race more interesting to watch (I’m kidding of course).

    1. …and I am here hoping that Max does indeed wrap the title on Saturday so maybe he wont bother to race on Sunday, making Sunday’s race more interesting to watch

      Food for thought:
      If Max picked a comfy chair and sat and watched every sprint and ever GP from now until Christmas, could Perez even come close to the WDC?
      Surely every F1 fan would like that?

      1. It depends if without verstappen perez would suddenly get comfortable with the car again and drive like early season: if so yes, if not no chance, he would be beaten by other cars pretty often.

      2. Perez would have to score maximum points, which means winning all races, sprint races and fastest laps.
        In that case, Perez would would outscore Verstappen by 3 points.
        I cerrainly don’t think he has the consistency to do so.

    2. I think Max rather pass on the sprint race so he can be champion on sunday…

      1. I think Max does not leave anything on the table, ever. This mentality (also seen at Senna and Schumacher) is part of his success as you would expect from any athlete.

  7. Perez would have to score maximum points, which means winning all races, sprint races and fastest laps.
    In that case, Perez would would outscore Verstappen by 3 points.
    I certainly don’t think he has the consistency to do so.

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