Hamilton cruises to victory over Verstappen in Qatar

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Lewis Hamilton cut the points difference to drivers' championship leader Max Verstappen with a straightforward lights-to-flag victory for the pole sitter in Sunday evening's floodlit Qatar Grand Prix.

Verstappen quickly overcame his pre-race grid penalty to charge up to second place in just five laps, but he wasn't able to match the Mercedes driver's overall pace leaving him with too much ground to make up. The two sparred over the bonus point for fastest lap, which ended up in Verstappen favour.

A strong weekend for Alpine saw Fernando Alonso on the podium in third for the first time since 2014 ahead of Sergio Perez, an outcome that means the gap between Mercedes and Red Bull in the constructors standings is down to just five points after a terrible start for Valtteri Bottas was compounded by a puncture and retirement.

Fernando Alonso (ESP) Alpine F1 Team with Karel Loos (BEL) Alpine F1 Team Race Engineer on the grid. 21.11.2021. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 20, Qatar Grand Prix, Doha, Qatar

The sun might have been setting over Losail International Circuit, but it felt more like high noon on the grid as the 20 drivers assembled for the start of the inaugural Qatar Grand Prix. Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton was on pole, but behind him there had been a dramatic overnight shake-up since qualifying. Max Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas had both been handed grid penalties for yellow flag infringements during Saturday evening's session, resulting in AlphaTauri's Pierre Gasly being promoted to the front row alongside Hamilton and ahead of Alpine's Fernando Alonso and McLaren's Lando Norris, with Bottas sixth behind Charles Leclerc followed by Verstappen. Of this new-look top four, only Hamilton was on medium tyres for the start - leaving him potentially under threat from those on the quicker but less durable soft compound.

It meant all those carefully planned race strategies the teams had worked on during the night were now in disarray, making it anyone's game when the floodlights came on and the start lights went out. Hamilton put in a text book start to leave Gasly standing and easy prey for Alonso, but the big news was a giant leap for Verstappen into fourth ahead of Norris, Esteban Ocon, Carlos Sainz and Yuki Tsunoda who had got the jump on Sergio Perez for eighth leaving him clashing with Lance Stroll. Meanwhile Bottas had suffered a nightmare start from sixth on the grid and was already out of the top ten.

Red Bull family ties meant that Gasly made it easy for Verstappen to get by at the end of lap 4, leaving the Dutch driver with just Alonso to take care of to undo those pre-race penalties. Sure enough it took just a lap until he blasted past the Alpine down the main straight, resulting in Hamilton holding a four second lead over Verstappen followed by Alonso, Gasly, Norris, Ocon, Sainz and Perez who was already back ahead of Tsunoda and Stroll while Bottas remained mired in traffic in 11th. However things were not going entirely Verstappen's way as he reported end plate damage on his front wing over the team radio resulting in a touch of oversteer that caused him to start losing ground to the race leader although he was already well ahead of the third place runner.

Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 W12 leads Pierre Gasly (FRA) AlphaTauri AT02 at the start of the race. 21.11.2021. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 20, Qatar Grand Prix, Doha, Qatar

Perez made a spirited attempt to pass Sainz in turn 1 on lap 7 only to be repelled, but he finally got it done next time around and moved up to seventh with Ocon now in his sights. Further back, Bottas had been given a firm instruction by Mercedes boss Toto Wolff to start making some progress and he responded by having a go at dispatching Stroll as the pair closed on Tsunoda. Both of them did succeed in overtaking the Japanese driver, who swiftly dived into pit lane to exchange his opening set of soft tyres for a new set of mediums putting him at the back of the field. Bottas was also then able to take care of business with Stroll to move him up to ninth.

Tsunoda's team mate Gasly was also on the slide, falling from fourth to sixth in a matter of minutes after being passed by Norris on lap 12 and by Perez on lap 14, which prompted the french driver into making a pit stop for new mediums. Two laps later Perez was able to pick off Norris for fourth. Bottas was also now in the groove, passing Sainz and Ocon to put him up to sixth and right on the tail of Norris.

Verstappen's ever-increasing margin over Alonso gave him a chance for a 'free' pit stop and a change to the hard tyres which he executed on lap 17, and Mercedes responded by calling Hamilton in next time by despite the driver grumbling that his existing mediums had been in good shape and that it had been far too early to stop if he was to make it to the end of the race without a further service. Both drivers returned to the track in unchanged positions ahead of a flying Alonso, and on lap 20 it was Perez' turn to pit which saw him back out in traffic behind Vettel in 12th who initially proved resistant to being passed, which held up Perez and allowed Alonso to pit on lap 24 to dispense with his opening set of softs for a set of the hard compound and crucially still come back out ahead of the Red Bull.

Valtteri Bottas (FIN) Mercedes AMG F1 W12. 21.11.2021. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 20, Qatar Grand Prix, Doha, Qatar

Bottas had remained out on track having found a way past Norris for fourth into turn 1, the McLaren pitting shortly after and dropping to tenth. It left Bottas and Sainz as the top two cars yet to stop, Sainz having missed the initial call from the Ferrari pit wall due to radio interference before finally coming in on lap 28 and double-stacking with Leclerc on pit lane. But Bottas had pushed things too far, and on lap 33 he suffered a left front puncture that send him skittering into the gravel: while he was able to get back out on track it was a long, slow slog back to the pit lane to finally take on a set of hard tyres and a new front wing before resuming back down in 13th. It was a lesson learned by anyone still harbouring any thought of going the rest of the race without making a further stop.

Hamilton's lead at the front over Verstappen remained just under eight seconds as the pair traded fastest lap attempts for that vital bonus point, with Perez now 50s further back having succeeded in pressuring Alonso into ceding third place. Norris was now up to fifth ahead of Ocon, with Stroll in front of the two Ferraris of Sainz and Leclerc. Vettel rounded out the top ten with Gasly running in 11th from Daniel Ricciardo and Valtteri Bottas.

Verstappen pitted for a second time at the end of lap 41 followed by Perez next time by with both pit stops slickly conducted by Red Bull. Mercedes carefully covered Verstappen off and brought in Hamilton next for a change to mediums. He and Verstappen remained a country mile clear of Alonso in third but Perez had dropped behind Stroll meaning he had work to do to re-pass the obstinate Aston and then pick off Ocon for fifth on lap 47 as it dawned on the Mexican that the other cars ahead might not be planning on making another stop and he could well have forfeited his own prospective podium by doing so.

George Russell (GBR) Williams Racing FW43B. 21.11.2021. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 20, Qatar Grand Prix, Doha, Qatar

However abrupt punctures in quick succession for both Williams drivers sounded new alarms for everyone about overextending their runs on worn tyres. Norris also suffered a tyre issue but had time to pit for a new set before it became a full-blown emergency. Meanwhile Bottas had been called in by Mercedes to retire the car due to damage from his earlier incident; his exit also put the team on the back foot in the battle for fastest lap as he would no longer be able to pit late to deny it going to Verstappen, while Hamilton would have to remain committed to taking the win rather than making a last minute stop for new tyres in an attempt to set that quickest time.

A Virtual Safety Car to retrieve Nicholas Latifi's car gave Verstappen the chance to make a final stop for fresh tyres at no cost in terms of track position, securing him the bonus point and ensuring the points gap between the pair stands at eight points going into the final two races of the season. The VSC ended in time for the final lap to begin, but the short grace period had allowed Alonso to make it to the line without drama ahead of Perez, Ocon, Stroll, Sainz, Leclerc, Norris and Vettel.

Despite his inherited front row start, Gasly missed out on points in 11th followed by Ricciardo, Tsunoda and Alfa Romeo pair Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi. Mick Schumacher finished in 16th ahead of George Russell who had been able to resume after pitting for his puncture, with Nikita Mazepin last on track after Latifi and Bottas retired.

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