Just a day after sealing his third consecutive world championship, Max Verstappen capped a phenomenal weekend for Red Bull by taking a calm and considered win in Sunday night's Qatar Grand Prix at Lusail.
A first corner clash between Mercedes team mates George Russell and Lewis Hamilton opened the door for McLaren's Oscar Piastri and Lando Norris to join Verstappen on the podium for the second time in 24 hours.
Russell survived the first lap incident to take fourth ahead of Charles Leclerc and Fernando Alonso, but Hamilton retired in the gravel and subsequently took responsibility for the costly collision.
The 2023 world championship might have been decided by last night's sprint race, but there was still a Grand Prix to win in Qatar with Max Verstappen eager to round off a memorable weekend with another victory to go along with the title. Starting from pole position ahead of Mercedes' George Russell and Lewis Hamilton made it looked like a sure thing, but uncertainty over last minute changes to tyre usage rules limiting drivers to 18 laps per stint meant everything was actually surprisingly up in the air as the drivers prepared to get underway.
Waiting for the start under the floodlights, the grid looked somewhat depleted. Having qualified in P12, Carlos Sainz had been ruled out due to a fuel leak on his Ferrari. Meanwhile Verstappen's Red Bull team mate Sergio Perez - rather than lining up 13th as originally planned - was waiting on pit lane after overnight repairs broke parc ferme rules.
The medium compound was the overwhelming choice for drivers to start on, with Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas the only exceptions in the top ten going for the soft tyres along with Liam Lawson and Kevin Magnussen further back. Perez was waiting on pit lane on the hard compound. When the lights went out, Verstappen leapt away and cut across the front of Russell to fend off an attack, and as a result the two Mercedes ended up colliding heading into turn 1. Hamilton was left sitting in the gravel while Russell limped back to the pit lane. Radio communications with the Mercedes pit wall indicated that unsurprisingly all was not well between the pair.
Verstappen led the field behind the ensuing safety car with Oscar Piastri having been handed second after a flying start that put him ahead of Fernando Alonso, Charles Leclerc, Esteban Ocon and Lando Norris in sixth. Bottas, Lawson and Magnussen took the opportunity to pit and shed their soft tyres, Magnussen getting released from his pit box right into the path of Lance Stroll but without incurring as penalty.
With Piastri caught napping, Verstappen kept the lead at the restart while Russell was already up to 14th and vying for position with Perez. He soon pulled off the move around the outside of turns 4 and 5 indicating the Mercedes had emerged from the lap 1 incident unscathed. Nico Hulkenberg also snatched eighth from Yuki Tsunoda leaving the AlphaTauri under attack from Alex Albon, but the Haas was immediately hit by news of a ten second penalty for being incorrectly positioned in Sainz' vacant spot on the starting grid a classic 'oops'.
The first round of scheduled pit stops were underway by lap 12 when Alonso came in from third for fresh mediums, dropping him to 15th. Piastri, Leclerc and Norris were quick to respond in order to protect against the undercut, but Verstappen remained out until the last minute to come in on lap 17. He came back out just behind Alex Albon, but the Williams had to pit next time by leaving Verstappen in charge eight seconds ahead of Piastri and Alonso, while Norris and Leclerc were locked in a ferocious battle over fourth as Alpine pair Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly watched on from behind with Russell nipping at their heels.
Piastri, Leclerc and Ocon all pitted again at the end of lap 25, kicking off the second round of tyre changes. Meanwhile the track limits violations were racking up, and Perez became the first to hit the threshold and earn himself a five second time penalty which he served when he pitted on lap 32. Verstappen finally pitted on lap 35 for hard tyres this time, shortly after Alonso had squandered his own new set by running off into the gravel at the final corner. That meant he dropped two positions as he scrambled to get back on track right in front of Leclerc, for which he was later reprimanded by the stewards.
Verstappen's lead was now seven seconds over Piastri with Norris up to third, both McLarens sticking to mediums. Russell moved into fourth ahead of Zhou, who was quickly picked off by Leclerc, Alonso and Bottas before he pitted. The pit stops were growing increasingly divergent thanks to the 18-lap cap, and all the stops were getting appreciably slower as the crews toiled in the stifling night time humidity.
More track limit penalties were rolling out: a second one for Perez and firsts for Stroll, Gasly and Albon. Meanwhile Williams' Logan Sargeant became the second driver to retire from the race, having struggled valiantly through the evening despite feeling increasingly unwell from dehydration. Looking unsteady on his feet, he needed to be helped out of the cockpit by the mechanics.
Verstappen was in for an unusually slow final stop on lap 52 suffering from a sticky front left. That cut his lead over Piastri to under four seconds, with Norris also closing up on the pair and agitating to be allowed to fight his team mate. Russell decided on a set of softs for his final stint as he resumed in fourth ahead of Leclerc, Alonso, Ocon and Bottas. Behind them, Gasly had succeeded in passing Stroll but went off in the process and told to give the place back; before he could do so, Perez pounced putting the Frenchman out of the top ten. Gasly didn't like that and quickly struck back, only to be hit by another penalty.
Verstappen had pulled away again and duly won the race by just under five seconds - more than comfortable, although not as huge as he has been used to in the past. Piastri and Norris joined him on the podium, with Russell hanging on to fourth from Leclerc despite struggling on the final set of softs. Alonso was sixth having complained of an uncomfortably hot race seat, with Bottas, Perez and Zhou collecting the final points.