DOHA – Newly-crowned three-time world champion Max Verstappen cruised to his 14th win of an outstanding season for Red Bull on Sunday when he won an exhausting, frantic and often confusing Qatar Grand Prix.
The 26-year-old Dutchman, who secured his third straight title win in Saturday’s sprint race, came home 4.838 seconds clear of McLaren’s rookie Oscar Piastri, who won Saturday’s sprint, and lapped his Red Bull team-mate, erstwhile title rival, Sergio Perez.
Lando Norris finished third in the second McLaren ahead of Mercedes’ George Russell, who survived a first-corner crash with team-mate Lewis Hamilton, who retired in the gravel.
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, the Italian team’s only runner after Carlos Sainz withdrew due to fuel issues before the start, finished fifth ahead of Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon of Alpine.
Valtteri Bottas of Alfa Romeo was eighth, Perez came home ninth and Zhou Guanyu 10th in the second Alfa Romeo, but their positions were reversed due to the Mexican’s time penalties.
It was Verstappen’s 49th career victory and came complete with pole position and fastest lap, giving him a classic hat-trick to mark his triple title triumph.
“I think what made my race was my first stint,” said Verstappen. “After that I could manage the pace and keep the tyres in a good window, but the McLarens were quick and really pushed me.”
Piastri, reflecting the feelings of all the drivers, said: “It was so hot. With three stops, it was flat out every lap so it was like 57 qualifying laps… I’m happy, but it was the hardest race of my life.”
Norris said: “Well, I’m sweaty, hot, tired and happy.”
After another sweltering day, the air temperature was 32 and the track 37 when the race began in sensational fashion as the two Mercedes collided at Turn One in an accident that sent seven-time world champion Hamilton spinning out of the race.
Verstappen had made a perfect start and Hamilton, the only front-runner on soft tyres, attempted to sweep round the outside of Russell, but succeeded only in steering his rear-right tyre into his compatriot’s front wing.
The impact sent both cars spinning. Hamilton flew off, but Russell recovered to continue and make a pit stop as a safety car was deployed.
After muttered complaints, Russell apologised, but it appeared that he had nowhere to go in an incident which, for Mercedes, revived memories of the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix when Hamilton and team-mate Nico Rosberg collided and retired at the first corner.
The winner on that day, claiming his maiden victory, was a then-18-year-old Verstappen.
After four laps, the safety car came in and the race restarted with Verstappen blasting clear of Piastri to open up a lead of 1.2 seconds with Alonso third.
This move followed Saturday’s revision of the marked track limits and kerbs that had damaged the walls of several cars’ tyres on Friday and meant all the teams had to adopt a minimum three-stop strategy.
Perez, who started from the pit-lane following car changes after his crash in Saturday’s sprint, also sliced through the field to reach third before, on lap 18, after Verstappen pitted, Williams’ Alex Albon took the lead and Perez fell, after a stop, to 16th.
Albon pitted within a lap and Verstappen was back in charge ahead of Piastri and Alonso, all on a three-stop strategy.
In addition to the frantic tactical challenge of the new tyre rules, several drivers were shown a black and white warning flag for exceeding track limits –- meaning a repeat transgression would bring a five-second penalty.
For Perez, this duly came as Verstappen’s domination continued.
By lap 30, he was 22 seconds clear of Russell as he set a record for laps led in a season with his 740th in command, beating the 2013 record set by four-time champion Sebastian Vettel.
The demanding conditions took their toll on the drivers. Alonso went off at Turn Two and survived a gravel trap before re-joining via an escape road and then Logan Sargeant reported feeling nauseous and vomiting in his helmet.
“I don’t feel well, man,” said Sargeant. “I need to stop.”
On lap 42, he retired and Perez collected another five-second penalty. – AFP