Formula 1

The world championship rivals were on another level

November 23, 2021August 22nd, 2023

Mika Häkkinen shares his thoughts on the recent Qatar Grand Prix.

If Formula One was a tennis match I would say it was ‘advantage Hamilton’ following his dominant wins in Brazil and Qatar. Although Max Verstappen leads the World Championship by eight points, Mercedes have responded by giving Lewis Hamilton a car he can fight to defend his title.

On Sunday, Hamilton was in control following his strong qualifying performance. His Mercedes did not have same straight-line speed advantage he enjoyed in Brazil, when he took a new engine, but through Qatar’s sweeping curves his car had a clear advantage over his Red Bull-Honda rival.

After the dramas in Brazil it was Verstappen’s turns to take a grid penalty in Qatar as a result of failing to slow down for a double-yellow flag – one of Formula One’s most important safely rules, which requires drivers to slow down and be prepared to stop.

Just like Hamilton did in Brazil, Verstappen recovered quickly in the race, moving into fourth place on the first lap. The world championship rivals were on another level, the competition far behind.

It was interesting to see Pierre Gasly help Verstappen to gain another position. It’s sometimes easy to forget that Red Bull owns two Formula One teams and, with the championship at stake, we should not be surprised that Red Bull Racing and Alpha Tauri are going to work together when the need arises.

Verstappen pushed hard, but Hamilton was already four seconds ahead when the Red Bull driver moved into second position. This was a controlled performance from Hamilton, and he covered off any attempt by Red Bull to put his strategy under pressure.

We are seeing a sporting war between Mercedes and Red Bull. It’s a battle between Hamilton and Verstappen, team bosses Toto Wolff and Christian Horner, and the 2000 people who work for them. We have already seen some tense moments and we will see some more.

In the middle comes the FIA with an incredibly tough job to do. They made some difficult decisions in Brazil and they had to do the same in Qatar. What it shows is that the officials are trying hard to take a balanced approach, to let the drivers race but also to make everyone remember the rules have to be followed. Otherwise we have chaos.

It was brilliant to see Fernando Alonso finish on the podium for Alpine. He started racing in Formula One 18 months after I retired, and his first podium was over 18 years ago! Congratulations to him for keeping the focus, fitness and passion to race at this level for so long.

Once again Alonso showed his great skill at the start of the race, taking advantage of a good grid position following the penalties awarded to Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas in the second Mercedes. I thought his move around the outside of Pierre Gasly on Lap One showed all his years of experience and the confidence that brings. It was like ‘old times’ to see Hamilton-Alonso on the leaderboard.

The tire failures suffered by a number of cars – including Bottas, Gasly and Nicolas Latifi – showed the extent this Qatar track put pressure on the front tires, particularly the front left. It was another reminder that when teams go to an entirely new circuit there are always lessons to be learned.

We now head to Saudi Arabia for the penultimate Grand Prix of the season. With Verstappen only eight points in front of Hamilton, and Mercedes five points ahead of Red Bull in the teams’ championship, both championships could swing either way.

Verstappen could even win the World Championship in Jeddah if Hamilton has a bad result. But on a circuit that seems to favour cars with good straight-line speed, and Mercedes planning to use the ‘Brazil engine’ in Hamilton’s car, the defending champion will be looking for nothing less than a win.

If Hamilton wins again in Saudi Arabia and sets the fastest lap, with Verstappen finishing second – a strong possibility – the two drivers would go to the final round of the World Championship on equal points. It would be an extraordinary end to what has been an amazingly close season.

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