Martin Brundle: F1 title tension rises as Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes raise game vs Max Verstappen in Qatar
Amid an F1 title battle that is intensifying both on and off the track, Martin Brundle delves into the drama of the Qatar GP; On Lewis Hamilton finding form at pivotal moment, Max Verstappen sticking with him despite "harsh" penalty, and all the other big stories
Last Updated: 24/11/21 1:00pm
This Formula One world championship is becoming very intense, emotional, and at times personal, and the Qatar Grand Prix heightened that.
I've not experienced such intensity before. This is a season which is unfolding on a swathe of contrary opinions, camera angles, images, data, information, misinformation, social media posts, and not a little bitterness and mistrust. It felt more like a movie than a motor race on Sunday.
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You may have often heard me say that two championship protagonists usually raise their games to an altogether higher plane, they find an overdrive gear with which they can maximise every press of a pedal and turn of the wheel, on every corner and each lap.
Under the floodlights of Qatar, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen appeared to be in a different category of racing such was their relentless pace out front in pursuit of critical world championship points. Those two drivers remarkably appear to be the calmest members of their team from time to time.
Formula One was rather winging it with the triple header of Mexico/Brazil/Qatar. It wouldn't be fair to say we 'got away with it' because there's an immense amount organisational skills and can-do attitude involved as F1 approaches having delivered 39 races during this awful pandemic, but as I watched Ferrari and Mercedes crews dispute who was starting 5th on the race grid for example, the cracks were showing up.
I've personally spent 41 hours in the air for those three races and I likely had it easiest of anybody as I went directly from each race to the next and only had myself to worry about. Five races in six weekends including two completely new venues in Qatar and Saudi Arabia are a tall order for everyone involved in delivering this blockbuster, and after the summer break next year it's ten races in thirteen weeks…
Speaking to some friends who work in F1 teams on the way home in the early hours of Monday morning, they were stepping off that plane and heading directly to the factory to prepare for debrief meetings on Tuesday. Impressive dedication but brutal at the same time.
Two to go: How it stands in the title chases
|1) Max Verstappen||351.5|
|2) Lewis Hamilton||343.5|
|2) Red Bull||541.5|
There can be no doubt that Hamilton and Mercedes have raised their game at a pivotal point of the championship. Lewis has found renewed trust in the factory simulator and works late into the night at the track as he impressively finds new motivation for an eighth title despite his relative age, trophy warehouse, and significant bank balance.
Mercedes have some powerful car set up tools and a fresh engine too for the remainder of the season which will ensure they are very fast, and no doubt they will be watching each other like hawks regarding interpretation of particularly the aero regulations. You couldn't help but feel both teams were on their best behaviour with their rear wing elements in Qatar.
Only Max can mathematically win the championship at the penultimate round in Saudi Arabia but, given the high-speed track layout there and such prodigious recent performance of the Mercedes, that will only happen if Lewis has a problem.
Max told us on Sky F1 that he doesn't dwell on the 'what ifs' around for example his tyre failure in Azerbaijan and being skittled in the first corner in Hungary, or possibly losing the title despite at least nine victories, which makes him a stronger person than me.
I thought the grid penalties for him and Valtteri Bottas were harsh on Sunday. The FIA, who do a generally tremendous job in refereeing the highly complex world of F1, have had a torrid and indecisive couple of weeks since waving through the infamous turn four incident between the championship contenders in Brazil.
I'm a fully paid up advocate that yellow flags must be respected as an absolute priority, but from the cockpit on Sunday the drivers would have been on their final qualifying effort exiting the last corner with no visible flags, no incident warning lights on their steering wheel or messages from the pit wall, a blaze of red lights in the night time sky at the finish line indicating the qualifying session is over (one red light and the chequered flag would be sufficient), spotting the DRS activation line which had been re-enabled, pulling up through the gears whilst then working out what that car (Pierre Gasly's three wheeling Alpha Tauri) on the right hand side was actually doing.
There were mitigating circumstances to say the least and with no trackside yellow warning panels, but green panels on the pit wall for the pitlane weighbridge, I would have missed the relatively poorly lit sole marshal post correctly waving a flag or flags on the left-hand side every time.
The fact that Carlos Sainz was exonerated because he lifted off the throttle after the stationary car rather underlines the confusion, but rules are rules I guess. We were at a brand-new to F1 venue late to the calendar and that showed.
In the end it made no difference to Verstappen, except he lost any chance of a run at Hamilton in the first corner. And Bottas would have finished third despite a difficult start had he not been the first driver to find out that the Pirelli front tyres could take no more than 30 laps of punishment against the aggressive secondary kerbs.
Both Williams drivers George Russell and Nicholas Latifi, and McLaren's Lando Norris, who would still make ninth place in McLaren's 900th race start, were among others to suffer too.
Just as in Brazil the week before, Red Bull had no answer to Mercedes' speed. Meanwhile Fernando Alonso was in tremendous form for Alpine throughout and benefitting from the grid penalties he started a fine third and finished an even more impressive third. No wonder the fans voted him driver of the day as he took his first podium since Hungary 2014, and you've simply got to love a Hamilton, Verstappen, Alonso podium combo whoever you support.
The races remaining in F1 2021 - live on Sky Sports
|December 5||Saudi Arabian GP|
|December 12||Abu Dhabi GP|
Sergio Perez came in a disappointed fourth after his poor grid position and a two stop strategy put him in relentless traffic all evening, but at least it helped Red Bull close the Constructors' points gap to Mercedes to just five, with a maximum of 88 team points still on the table.
Esteban Ocon finished a fine fifth for Alpine cementing a very strong result for the team in their battle with AlphaTauri, who with Pierre Gasly and Yuki Tsunoda clearly had a car set-up which fired its tyres up well for qualifying but rather destroyed them in race mode.
Aston Martin were rightly very satisfied with Lance Stroll's fine 6th place and Seb Vettel, who ran wide in combat in the very first corner, achieving 10th place for a much needed double points finish.
Once again the Ferrari duo of Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc ran in close formation for most of the race, including a double-stack pit stop after radio issues, but on this occasion finishing 7th and 8th almost a lap behind. Their main satisfaction therefore being that they are now 39.5 points ahead of McLaren for third in the Constructors' championship.
When we head back to Qatar in 2023 it will be a heavily revised circuit, the drivers generally enjoyed this layout more than the fans or the many broken cars, or more likely a circuit on the downtown 'Corniche' similar to where we are heading next in Jeddah. Don't miss that one.