Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Losail International Circuit, 2023

Victory is no sweat for champion Verstappen as McLaren turn up the heat in Qatar

Formula 1

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Much like the chaos that often ensues during lessons in the final week of school term, after the year-end exams have come and gone, grands prix that take place after the championship has been clinched can often get a little crazy.

Whether it’s the psychological impact of the pressure lifting from both champion and challengers when there’s nothing left to play for, or the racing gods rewarding those dedicated enough to continue to watch, the wackiest races tend to come after the title is taken.

Before the Qatar weekend, the prospect of Max Verstappen sealing his third consecutive world title was the safest bet in world sport. Naturally, he fulfilled that destiny at the first opportunity during Saturday’s sprint race.

But finishing second to Oscar Piastri was not the most satisfying way for Verstappen to secure the right to the number one on his car for another 12 months – and the world champion was determined to do better come Sunday.

Start, Losail International Circuit, 2023
Mercedes’ chance of a strong result ended at turn one
Two days earlier, Verstappen had secured the best starting position on the grid in Friday night’s qualifying session. As Saturday had shown, McLaren was Red Bull’s closest challenger in Qatar. But with Piastri and team mate Lando Norris starting sixth and tenth respectively, having failed to keep within track limits in Q3, Verstappen was instead joined at the front of the field by the two Mercedes.

Although the grid order was largely the same as it had been almost 48 hours before when Q3 ended, much had changed in the time leading up to the grand prix. Detailed tyre analysis by Pirelli had transformed the complexion of the race with serious safety concerns prompting the FIA impose a maximum stint length of 18 laps for each set of tyres. The track itself had also changed, now narrower in a crucial high speed sequence in the middle sector.

And, of course, the pole winner had transformed from a two to a three-time world champion.

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As teams were locked into a minimum three-stop strategy, tyre choice for the start of the race took on even greater significance than usual. With Verstappen and fellow front row occupant George Russell on mediums, Lewis Hamilton was sent out of the garage on soft tyres instead. As Hamilton later explained, Mercedes had a plan.

Report: Hamilton fined £21,000 for potentially “very dangerous” track crossing after crash
“Before the race, we knew that we would have different tyres,” Hamilton said. “So George was like ‘let’s just work together today’ – we were talking about just working together.”

It took exactly 10 seconds for Mercedes’ plan to go from cunning to catastrophe. Verstappen and Russell shot off the line together when the lights went out, while Hamilton used his softer rubber to stalk the pair of them on the run to the first corner. Verstappen switched slowly from left to right to cover the inside, with Russell pulling alongside to his left. Outside of the pair of them, Hamilton’s eyes lit up with so much space in front of him. But in his excitement he misjudged the space to his team mate as they entered the first corner, Russell’s left-front wheel clipped Hamilton’s right-rear, divorcing it from his car and sending him skidding into the gravel trap.

Russell was also spun around, forcing Fernando Alonso and Charles Leclerc to slam on the brakes in avoidance. That hesitation was all Piastri needed to slip by the pair of them into second.

The rest of the pack drove by the spinning Russell and through to turn two as the Mercedes driver righted his car and set off in chase. Hamilton, however, was going no further. While he initially pointed the finger at his team mate while sat stewing in adrenaline and disbelief, Hamilton later accepted Russell was blameless.

“I think in the heat of the moment, I was obviously frustrated because I thought I felt this tap from the rear end,” Hamilton explained. “But I don’t think George had anywhere to go. I think this is an unfortunate scenario. I’m happy to take responsibility because that’s my role.”

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Out front and oblivious to all this, Verstappen led from Piastri, Alonso, Leclerc, Esteban Ocon in fifth and Norris in sixth, having picked up two places at the start and two bonus positions from the Mercedes. Before the first lap was through, however, the Safety Car was deployed, neutralising the field and allowing Mercedes to replace Russell’s damaged front wing and fit new tyres – though the early stop meant he would still have to pit thrice more.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Losail International Circuit, 2023
Verstappen scorched away from Piastri at the restart
With the race set to resume at the end of lap four, Verstappen took control of the pace from the Safety Car. After slowing to an almost glacial pace at turn 13, he hit the throttle at the exit and sprinted away from the McLaren behind him, pulling out a full second before even crossing the timing line.

At the back of the pack, several cars had pitted to change tyres, giving them a neat set of three 18-lap stints to take them to the chequered flag. That promoted Russell up to 14th and within two laps the Mercedes had dispatched Sergio Perez’s hard-shod Red Bull for 13th into turn four.

Unlike so many races that Verstappen had led in 2023, Piastri kept the Red Bull within sight over the opening stint. Eventually, the McLaren pitted for a second set of mediums at the end of lap 12, emerging 13th after a three-second stop. Alonso had also pitted at this stage, but was out behind the rookie McLaren driver, as Norris followed suit soon after.

Red Bull kept the leader out for the maximum length of time they could, eventually pitting him at the end of lap 17. Throughout his opening stint, had Verstappen kept a consistent pace within the low 1’29s – something he later credited as crucial to his eventual victory.

“What really made my race was that first stint,” he said. “I think we were quite strong and good on the tyres.”

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Despite being teased with the prospect of leading a lap for only the second time in Formula 1, Alexander Albon was forced to stop at the end of the next tour, handing the lead back to Verstappen. The champion’s lead had inflated to seven seconds over Piastri, thanks to the McLaren driver having to navigate through traffic, but it soon began to grow greater still as Verstappen’s pace dipped down to the low 1’28s and high 1’27s.

Sergio Perez, Red Bull, Zhou Guanyu, Alfa Romeo, Losail International Circuit, 2023
Perez never figured and collected a trio of penalties
Behind, Norris swept by Leclerc into fourth position into turn one, while Russell continued his ascent by picking off Kevin Magnussen into turn six. The race appeared to have settled into a steady rhythm, but inside the cockpit, drivers were battling the conditions more than each other.

A brutal combination of high ambient temperatures, high humidity and unexpectedly low winds was taking its toll on drivers. By lap 15, Ocon had already emptied some of the contents of his stomach due to the oppressive heat he was facing in the car. Logan Sargeant was beginning to feel the effects of dehydration after fighting flu-like symptoms earlier in the week.

But despite the heat, Russell was keeping his cool. Pierre Gasly was the next driver to fall to him before three of Russell’s rivals ahead all pitted together at the end of lap 25; Piastri, Leclerc and Ocon.

Again, Piastri’s earlier stop forced him to fight past rivals who were yet to stop. Albon proved a particularly uncooperative foe, until the rookie stormed down the inside of the Williams into turn one. Norris pumped in a new fastest lap of the race and was now in third, five seconds behind his team mate, with Alonso circulating in fourth.

Despite the lack of wind offering the benefit of consistent balance for drivers around the lap, Alonso was caught out at turn two when he suddenly had to save a snap of oversteer, sending him running through the gravel. When he rejoined from the access road to the track proper, he did so just in front of Leclerc, who promptly punished him for it by taking sixth into turn four. The stewards were also unimpressed by the manner in which Alonso returned to the track.

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Alonso’s mishap was good news for Russell too, who gained one place from the Aston Martin driver’s error and then picked off Zhou Guanyu’s Alfa Romeo to sit in fourth behind the McLarens. Out front, Red Bull appeared in total control as ever, but leader Verstappen was given a gentle push by his race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase to pick up the pace. Verstappen responded by dipping down into the 1’26s for the first time in preparation for his second stop, which he eventually made at the end of lap 34.

Lando Norris, McLaren, Losail International Circuit, 2023
McLaren wouldn’t let Norris race Piastri
When Verstappen rejoined, he was on hard tyres – putting him at odds with the two McLarens behind him. However, Verstappen began pulling away more steadily, doubling his lead from five to ten seconds over the next seven laps. Eventually, Piastri stopped for the third and final time entering lap 44, switching onto the hards to take him to the end.

Norris knew this was his opportunity to challenge his team mate for second place and posted a new fastest lap of the race before pitting at the end of the next lap. However, despite a quick stop, Norris could only watch in frustration as Piastri shot by him on his way out of the pit lane, then snatched the fastest lap from him in the process.

After stopping out of phase during the early Safety Car period, Russell was now sitting in second place. Both he and Verstappen required one final stop to reach the end of the grand prix, with the McLaren duo now effectively sprinting to the end of the race on their hard tyres. Piastri took multiple seconds out of Verstappen until the race leader finally came in with under 10 laps remaining, rejoining less than four seconds ahead of the rookie.

Russell also pitted for the final time, but switched to soft tyres for the last seven laps – a risky prospect, given how the same compound decayed in the sprint race. Any faint hope Russell had of potentially catching the McLarens in the closing laps quickly evaporated when the Mercedes driver struggled to extract any pace from the red-walled rubber. Leclerc was now gaining on him, Russell’s earlier advantage dropping by a matter of seconds with each lap.

Behind the leader, Norris had briefly entertained the idea of racing his team mate until he was informed in no uncertain terms that the team were not interested in them both gambling another double-podium away in the closing laps. Norris duly obliged, but there was little he or Piastri could do about Verstappen’s pace ahead of them.

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Piastri later admitted he “was a little bit surprised” McLaren called off the fight. “I would have accepted it either way. But obviously there was a lot of concerns about tyres and track limits and stuff. I think getting second and third for the team was the most important thing.”

In a year where so much had gone right for Verstappen and so little wrong, the Qatar Grand Prix had, in many ways, been the perfect example of the new world champion’s prowess. Even when an unexpected stipulation has been thrust upon him and his team in the form of three mandatory pit stops and a first corner clash had given Piastri all the spaces he needed to challenge him, Verstappen had once again risen to that challenge with ease. The world champion took the chequered flag to claim his 14th win of the season and make amends for his rare defeat in Saturday’s sprint race.

“It was, overall a good race,” Verstappen said. “I do think we had a bit more pace in hand if we really needed it but nevertheless, I don’t want to take anything away from McLaren. They’ve been doing a great job and from us, we see that they are getting closer and closer. So we have to try and of course maintain a bit of a gap.”

Less than five seconds later, Piastri claimed his best ever grand prix finish in his rookie season a day after he won Saturday’s sprint race. Not only did he describe his race as the most difficult of his career for the heat – as many others also did – he admitted that the maximum stint length had made matters more challenging due to the breakneck pace of the race.

“I think it ended up in a race where we could push flat-out the whole time or very close to,” Piastri said. “Which I don’t think I’ve been able to say in an F1 race before.”

Norris had berated himself after Friday’s qualifying session left him down in tenth on the grid. While his recovery to a third-straight podium was a welcome reward, he could not help but look at where he had been lacking through the weekend.

“I know it’s a big thing to say, but I think if things went well, if I just did a better job and didn’t make the mistakes I did over the last two days, which is why I’ve been so frustrated, because I knew what was on the cards, what we were able to potentially achieve,” he said. “And that was victories – both yesterday and today.”

Russell faded heavily on his softs to eventually cross the line almost half a minute behind the McLarens in fourth. Nonetheless, this was a remarkable turnaround given how he was quite literally turned around at the first corner. Leclerc finished on his tail in fifth, with Alonso securing sixth despite his earlier off ahead of a very relieved Ocon in seventh, who had to will himself to finish after the effects of dehydration had kicked in so early.

Valtteri Bottas produced a valuable clean drive and took advantage of trouble for rivals ahead to secure eighth, his best finish since the season-opener, one place ahead of his team mate Zhou, who rose 10 places to take ninth. While Verstappen had led every lap to win from pole position, Perez had once again been a non-factor through the race weekend in the second Red Bull. Although he claimed the final point in tenth, it was only after a combined three time penalties totalling 15 seconds for six track limits violations in the race.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Losail International Circuit, 2023
McLaren didn’t make Verstappen sweat – but the torrid conditions did
In parc ferme afterwards, drivers struggled to climb from their cars, all energy having been left out on the Losail circuit. Some were taken to the medical centre for evaluation, while most openly admitted that the physical challenge of the previous 90 minutes had been bordering on extreme. After a weekend where the sport had fallen over itself to try and avoid another Indianapolis 2005 debacle and keep drivers safe from exploding tyres, they had successfully prevented a disaster, but had unwittingly put competitors through an ordeal of a different kind.

Yet again, however, it had all been no sweat for Verstappen. While he may not have won the race in which he clinched the title, he had achieved his main aim for the weekend of winning the grand prix.

But for the second successive round, he had felt the growing challenge from the orange cars behind him. The world champion is wary of the threat they could pose to him over the final five rounds of this season – and when he returns to seek a fourth title.

“McLaren is making great steps forward, throughout the whole year,” he said. “From our side, for sure we’ll try to improve maybe a little bit this year, but of course mainly for next year.”

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Will Wood
Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...

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22 comments on “Victory is no sweat for champion Verstappen as McLaren turn up the heat in Qatar”

  1. Anyone else thought the TV coverage was even worse than normally? we missed a lot of the on track action at times, and sometimes they cut to something irrelevant like that Magnussen onboard where they were requesting him to change settings to Bravo 10-something.

    1. Roth Man (@rdotquestionmark)
      9th October 2023, 9:27

      Absolutely. Noticed this on the Saturday too.

    2. I didn’t find the coverage worse than usual.
      The pit stop amount & frequency simply made not getting everything shown on the world feed inevitable.

    3. Agreed. David Croft constantly getting things wrong didn’t help either.

      1. Tv coverage awful. Croft and Ted Kravitz even worse (as if that is possible).

        The only sky presenter that I think is really good is Martin Brundel. Di resta and Jenson were far distant in 2nd, but they got sacked..

        1. @Doggy
          Source for “Jenson got sacked”?

    4. Yeah, at some point the camera followed a Haas round a corner while at the top of the screen you could see Alonso going for a move down the inside of a Ferrari. What surprised me most was that this time it wasn’t just the direction that was bad (not using the right camera or focussing on the right thing happening), but the camerawork as well. At times the camera operators simply focussed on the wrong car at irrelevant times.

    5. YES
      All weekend. The TV director was overwhelmed, so with all the soft runners and action on saturday it was even worse. The problem with that was they pulled up replays making us miss more action which they then had to replay again…
      Showing us an insignificant DRS pass because of enormous tire delta, but then missing rejoining the track for an actual position after a pit stop with Leclerc for instance

      1. Remote production at Biggin Hill doesn’t help either…

  2. Roth Man (@rdotquestionmark)
    9th October 2023, 9:30

    What was amazing to see is how differently Max and Sergio were driving the car. Granted Max had clean air in front but it was a Sunday drive for him, it appeared on board he was cruising and this was reflected in his physical condition at the end of the race. However Sergio was on the ragged edge, all over the track, well over track limits on many occasions and got lapped by Max. He’s clearly massively overdriving but Max is in such a sweet spot it was effortless.

    1. not to take away anything from Max and his motivation, but he is the #1 driver on the team, and as such, the car is being built around him, and he is priority for setup/consideration. And because RBR are the best team by a mile, except for maybe McLaren, it should be pretty effortless. Now that Max has #1, RBR will do everything they need to to get Perez #2 in the championship, but given how careless and stupid Mercedes leadership are, they really have nothing to worry about. They will just keep pitting Hamilton on desperate strategies and dashes from the back, because that team doesn’t care about winning, only appearances. Except for Russell, they do want to build his credibility, so they might actually keep prioritizing him #1 for race engineering effort, which has clearly been the case most weekends this year.

      1. @pcxmac
        You know that Perez disagrees with you, right?

      2. @Pcxmac. I agree with you to some extent.

        But the only driver that had NO track infringement during the race was Max.

        Here, I think, there is a mix of Max killing it and Checo at his worst moment.

      3. Roth Man (@rdotquestionmark)
        9th October 2023, 16:19

        Personally I think it’s psychological with Perez, he looked in the running after Baku and it started to slip, he started overdriving and the mistakes crept in, now he’s doubting himself and has a team that isn’t behind him (Marko etc).

        I believe Newey and co create the fastest car they can full stop. It just so happens this suits Max’s V style and excellent trail braking. Not to mention his incredible feel for the car where it all looks so calm and under control but is actually the fastest way to drive these things.

        1. Roth Man (@rdotquestionmark)
          9th October 2023, 16:22

          We saw similar things with Bottas (2.0 or whatever it was called) started a season strong but it always slipped away and then went from bad to worse. Not quite as extreme as Bottas was a bit calmer perhaps and had more team support than Perez is getting. Perez is where Gasly and Albon were now (well a lot worse actually but you get the point)

  3. McLaren racing hard Red Bull? I’d wish so but they haven’t been any close, Verstappen only had to “please pick up a little bit the pace Max, but only a little bit”

  4. Well written piece, thank you.

    1. +1

      Don’t always get to see the races, but enjoy reading these summaries.

  5. “Russell’s left-front wheel clipped Hamilton’s right-rear, divorcing it from his car and sending him skidding into the gravel trap.”

    Sorry but that is not entirely correct – Lewis right rear drove against Russell’s front left would be more accurate.
    Lewis drove into Russell not the other way around like Lewis did at Silverstone 2021.

    Quite interesting that Hamilton then claimed that Max was at fault for not leaving enough space and should have taken a wider line (Max did take a wider line than Leclerc later that race and Hamilton used that as an example what Max should have done).

    1. @Jimmy Cliff
      Not many here will agree with you and mentioning Silverstone 21 will for sure provoke a reaction

    2. The Lewis-Russel crash is very similar to the one Lewis had with Piastri in Monza.

      This is in the sense that the rear of the car hits the front of the other car.

      Having said that, Lewis is not 100% at fault.
      Maybe 75% LH and 25% Russel

      1. Russell is at fault for existing?

Comments are closed.