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Qatar GP: Max Verstappen faces Lewis Hamilton and George Russell start threat as F1 wait on crucial tyre decision

Max Verstappen won't necessarily have a straightforward drive to victory on Sunday as George Russell, Lewis Hamilton and tyres stand in the way of him elongating his championship celebrations; watch the Qatar GP live on Sky Sports F1 at 6pm on Sunday, build-up from 4:30pm

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George Russell says his Mercedes team must 'raise their game' next season if they're to challenge the Red Bulls, while Lewis Hamilton predicts a challenging race on Sunday

Max Verstappen will be looking to celebrate his 2023 title triumph with his 14th win this season at the Qatar Grand Prix.

Verstappen starts on pole position for the second ever F1 race in Qatar but will face a big challenge from the two Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and George Russell at the start.

It's a long run down to Turn 1 and the Sprint showed the cleaner, left-hand side of the grid is where you want to be to get a good launch.

With Hamilton starting in third (on the left) and Russell in second (on the right), it could be the seven-time world champion who gets into the slipstream of Verstappen and goes for it in the first couple of corners, reminding us all of those feisty 2021 opening race exchanges.

"I'm battling the guy to the right of me for sure (Verstappen)," said Hamilton after qualifying on Friday at the Losail International Circuit.

"I'll give it everything to try and fight him. Maybe like George said, maybe he will just disappear like he does in most of the other races, but maybe we'll be able to fight. I'm trying to win the race. It doesn't matter who I'm fighting against."

However, he was less optimistic following Saturday's Sprint when discussing his targets for the race.

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Hamilton told Sky Sports F1: "I hope we can hold position. That would be amazing as a team. I think it will be difficult to beat the Red Bull. The goal is to keep the Ferraris behind and if there is any way of keeping the McLarens behind, we will do that. But it's going to be a long race."

Russell also suggested Hamilton and himself "are going to have to work together to make sure we get a strong result for the team".

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Sky F1’s Ted Kravitz reflects on a thrilling Sprint at the Qatar Grand Prix that saw Max Verstappen earn the points he needed to become world champion

The last two events in Singapore and Japan have showed both Mercedes will race each other hard, so they need to ensure they don't throw too many punches on the opening lap if they want to be ahead, or stay within touching distance.

Tyre degradation is going to be a big problem too - even without the FIA mandating three pit stops (more on that later) - so Mercedes will have two cards to play with up front.

Surprisingly, there were three Safety Cars in the Sprint, so Mercedes could split the strategy and some fortune for Hamilton or Russell with the timing of an accident could put Verstappen under a lot of pressure - if they keep him within sight.

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The best of the action from a dramatic Sprint at the Qatar Grand Prix

F1 teams wait on FIA tyre ruling

In a throwback to the 2005 Indianapolis Grand Prix, tyres may become a major storyline in the race due to safety concerns over tyre wear.

Following analysis of the tyres used on Friday, in what was meant to be the sole practice session of the Sprint event, there were concerns from Pirelli over the impact the Losail International Circuit's 'pyramid' kerbs are having.

In an attempt to reduce the impact, track limits at Turns 12-13 were revised, with the white line being moved inwards by 80cm, and an extra 10-minute 'practice familiarisation' took place ahead of the Sprint Shootout on Saturday.

Pirelli and the FIA have analysed tyre data from the Sprint, when the majority of drivers started on the medium tyres. Depending on the analysis, the FIA could enforce a mandatory three pit stop rule for Sunday's 57-lap race, along with a maximum limit of 20 full laps run on any single new set of tyres.

The consensus from drivers is safety comes first although some think, including Russell, that it should be up to the teams to take a risk on pushing the limits of a tyre.

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FIA single-seater director Nikolas Tombazis explains why the FIA are revising track limits and may enforce a three pit stop during the Qatar GP weekend amid safety concerns over tyres

"At the end of the day, we all have the data. If you to a circuit like Barcelona, which is already a three-stop naturally, nobody would attempt a one-stop because we have the data to tell you a one-stop won't work," Russell told Sky Sports F1.

"Going into the Sprint Race, nobody had the data because we only did nine laps in a row in free practice. Now we have all got the data and it's going to be clear what's possible and I think it should just be down to the teams to judge and take the risk and the reward."

In the inaugural Qatar Grand Prix in 2021, four drivers suffered punctures - Valtteri Bottas, Lando Norris, Nicholas Latifi and Russell himself.

Pirelli won't want to see a repeat of that and the way the race goes will be critical for how things pan out.

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Sky F1's Karun Chandhok meets some members of the Red Bull team who have contributed to Max Verstappen's incredible success

Can McLaren fight through the field?

But what about McLaren? Friday setbacks leave Sprint stars with work to do.

As evidenced by their win and third place in the Sprint, McLaren's strong form of recent races has absolutely transferred to Qatar's Losail circuit but setbacks from Friday qualifying have left a sting in the tail for the start of Sunday.

Norris and Oscar Piastri had initially qualified second and fourth for Sunday's grid but were eventually relegated to 10th and sixth respectively for separate track limits infringements in Q3.

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Oscar Piastri holds his nerve to claim his first Sprint win as Max Verstappen finishes second to secure his third world title

Team boss Andrea Stella acknowledged they had "a lot of work ahead of us" to make up lost ground but were nonetheless "encouraged by the performance of the car".

Norris, while unhappy with his own form so far this weekend following several untimely mistakes, believes the podium might not be out of the question from the fifth row.

"I just need to stay out of carnage. The first couple of corners are pretty sketchy. Depending on what tyres we start on, and so on, but the main thing is staying out of harm's way the first few laps," said Norris.

"We have the pace. I think we have reasonable degradation, maybe not the best, compared to the Red Bulls, but reasonable degradation. So, we want to score good points.

"I think we have pace to be on the podium but whether we can do it or not from P10 is going to be the question. So, it's a long race, we don't know what rules and stuff Pirelli are going to make us do with the tyres and things like that yet, but we'll find out soon."

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Lando Norris was frustrated with himself after making a number of mistakes in the Sprint, admitting it 'hurts' to know that he's not performing to his best

Starting grid for Sunday's Qatar GP

  1. Max Verstappen, Red Bull
  2. George Russell, Mercedes
  3. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes
  4. Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin
  5. Charles Leclerc, Ferrari
  6. Oscar Piastri, McLaren
  7. Pierre Gasly, Alpine
  8. Esteban Ocon, Alpine
  9. Valtteri Bottas, Alfa Romeo
  10. Lando Norris, McLaren
  11. Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri
  12. Carlos Sainz, Ferrari
  13. Sergio Perez, Red Bull
  14. Alex Albon, Williams
  15. Nico Hulkenberg, Haas
  16. Logan Sargeant, Williams
  17. Lance Stroll, Aston Martin
  18. Liam Lawson, AlphaTauri
  19. Kevin Magnussen, Haas
  20. Zhou Guanyu, Alfa Romeo

Sky Sports F1's live Qatar Grand Prix schedule on Sunday

Sunday October 8

  • 4.30pm: Grand Prix Sunday: Qatar GP build-up
  • 8pm: Chequered Flag: Qatar GP reaction
  • 9pm: Ted's Notebook

Watch Max Verstappen's first race as a three-time world champion in the Qatar GP on Sunday live on Sky Sports F1. The race starts at 6pm with build-up from 4.30pm. Stream F1 on Sky Sports with NOW for £21 a month for six months

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