The F1 title battle that is going on right now between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen is without hyperbole one of the best championship fights in the history of the sport and today was another incredible chapter in this storybook season. Today's Qatar Grand Prix was the twentieth race of twenty-two races this season and it was jam-packed full of drama from start to finish. After Hamilton's win last week in Brazil, Verstappen's lead in the Driver's Championship was cut down to only fourteen points. Hamilton took a new engine in his Mercedes car last week and the incredible pace he showed in Brazil carried over to Qatar, winning pole position in qualifying on Saturday.
The end of the qualifying session was chaos with Alpha Tauri driver, Pierre Gasly, puncturing a tyre at the very end of the session bringing out caution flags. Under caution, drivers are required to slow down but with it being the end of the qualifying session everyone was pushing to still get their final lap in, especially Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas who were in contention to win the pole position. Both Verstappen and Bottas were summoned to the steward's office and one hour before the start of the race it was announced that Verstappen was given a five-place grid penalty and Bottas was given a three-place grid penalty for failing to slow down under caution flags. Based on Hamilton's pace advantage in qualifying, it was already looking like it was going to be a relatively easy win for Hamilton, but the grid penalty for Verstappen basically secured the win for Hamilton before the race even started. You would think that meant today's race was a snoozefest, but that couldn't have been further from the truth.
Hamilton did easily pull away at the start and cruised to an easy victory, but the entire rest of the field was engulfed in chaos. There were so many incredible battles up and down the field today with teams trying to make different strategies work. Some of those gambles paid off and others failed miserably.
The biggest winner of the race start was Verstappen, who jumped up three places and then easily passed Fernando Alonso and Gasly a few laps later. Verstappen separated himself from the pack in second place but never had a chance to catch Hamilton who had already built up a comfortable lead. Verstappen didn't let the grid penalty ruin his race and he did everything he needed to do to minimize the damage in the championship battle. With Hamilton finishing first and Verstappen finishing second + winning the extra world championship point for the fastest lap, Verstappen's lead in the Driver's Championship with only two races left in the season is only eight points. This epic world championship battle is going to come down to the last race of the season. Incredible.
It was a smart, tactical race for Verstappen to make the best out of a bad situation, especially when you compare it to the race that Bottas, who also received a grid penalty, had today in Qatar. Bottas is in his final season as a Mercedes driver, with it already being announced by the team that they're replacing him next year. Bottas immediately dropped down to eleventh place from sixth place on the race start. He was stuck in the midfield for several laps before being told by the team to go out and attack. Bottas responded by pulling off some great moves to make it all the way back up into the fight for the podium.
In the middle of the race, every team was debating if they could make their tyres last long enough to only make one pit stop. Mercedes told Bottas to stay out when everyone else was pitting hoping that he could pull off the one-stop strategy. That plan failed miserably.
After battling up to third place, Bottas fell back outside of the top ten after the puncture and then had to retire the car a few laps later, ending his race. Dumpster fire of a race for Bottas scoring zero points, which was a huge blow for the Mercedes team in the Constructors Championship. Mercedes had a clear pace advantage over Red Bull in Qatar but then end up leaving the race losing points to Red Bull with Verstappen finishing in second and Sergio Perez finishing in fourth. The Driver's Championship is separated by eight points, the Constructors Championship is only separated by five points. This season is delivering on every level.
Sergio Perez had a great race to finish in fourth, after starting in eleventh due to a very disappointing qualifying session. He immediately started making up places at the start of the race and was dicing it up in the midfield to be in podium contention. The end of the race came down to Perez trying to hunt down Alonso who was holding onto third place.
Alonso and the Alpine team made the risky decision to try and pull off the one-stop strategy. Several other teams were trying to stretch their tyres to make that strategy work, but the race ended in chaos with almost every person trying to make that strategy work puncturing their tyres. Alonso had the difficult task of trying to make his tyres last until the end without puncturing and holding off a charging Perez who was on new tyres and had a clear pace advantage. Luckily for Alonso, the race ended with a virtual safety car due to another driver's tyres puncturing which allowed him to nurse his tyres home to claim his first podium since 2014.
If you haven't been following F1 for that long, it might be hard to understand why this podium is such a big deal. Alonso is a two-time world champion and a living legend on the F1 grid. When you talk about the other incredible world championship battles throughout history, Alonso was a major part of a lot of those fights. He won back-to-back world championships in 2005 and 2006. Finished third in the epic 2007 world championship battle between Kimi Raikkonen and Hamilton, losing that world championship in the last race of the season. Then he finished second in the Driver's Championship in 2010, 2012, and 2013. The 2012 season was another epic finale with Alonso losing again in the last race of the season against Sebastian Vettel. Alonso left F1 after the 2018 season and everyone thought that might be the last time that we would ever see him race an F1 car. He made his triumphant return this year and has had a pretty decent season after knocking off the rust early in the season, but has never really been in contention for a win or a podium this year. He capitalized on his opportunity today after a very strong qualifying and ran a perfect race to hold onto the podium. Racing will always be about who finishes first, but in F1 these types of battles and moments are what make F1 so much fun to watch. Even when the race was easily won by Hamilton, the ending today had me on the edge of my seat. It was a special moment seeing Alonso back up there. Get ready to see a whole episode dedicated to this storyline in "Drive to Survive" next season.
Today was fun. I'm soaking up every moment of this season and as I said at the beginning of this blog, this race was another incredible chapter in this storybook season. Two races left to decide both championship battles. The next race, the Saudi Arabia Grand Prix, is two weekends from now then the final race is the next weekend after that in Abu Dhabi.
And finally… LIGHTS OUT AND AWAY WE GO for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix on December 5th. I leave you with this incredible double pit stop from Ferrari today. It's always fascinating to me how they can change four tyres in under three seconds.