The Qatar Grand Prix 2023 race weekend at Lusail was always going to be full of action and drama – it decided whether or not Verstappen would become World Champion for the third time in a row: not even during the main race on Sunday, but during the sprint on Saturday.
Verstappen only had to place in sixth position or higher in the 19-lap sprint in order to claim the World Championship title. He qualified for the sprint in third, after Piastri qualified on pole and Norris in second. Victory was not to be for Verstappen, with Piastri claiming the win – his first in Formula 1 – impressive, given this is his rookie season, and that he beat his teammate Lando Norris to the task.
However, this was more than enough for Verstappen, who came in second – for the first time in Formula 1 history, a title had been claimed during a sprint. In fact, Verstappen didn’t even need to finish the race for his title to be confirmed – the closest contender, Red Bull teammate Sergio Pérez, crashed out of the race, automatically crowning Verstappen the champion before he even drove beneath the chequered flag. Max Verstappen had driven home to victory in the World Drivers’ Championship once more, joining the ranks of Lauda, Piquet, and Senna with now three titles under his belt.
Verstappen had, of course, also qualified on pole for the main race, with Russell and Hamilton behind him. It had been a disappointing qualifying session for the McLarens, who qualified in sixth and tenth after Norris failed to set a lap time in Q3. Sainz wasn’t even on the grid, a fuel system issue forcing him to sit out the race entirely. Unfortunately for Hülkenberg, he pulled into Sainz’s empty grid spot, resulting in a 10-second penalty for the German Haas driver.
Due to tyre safety concerns, this race had been provided with mandated tyre stint lengths, with a maximum of 18 laps on each new set of tyres. This meant that drivers no longer had to be concerned about tyre wear, with a mandated three-pit-stop race ahead of them. This undoubtedly led to much of the chaos that unfolded on the track.
As the lights went out, Verstappen pulled ahead, but Russell and Hamilton were right on his tail. Into turn one, Hamilton drove around the outside of Russell, but squeezed him between himself and Verstappen, colliding with the side of his teammate’s Mercedes. Both Mercedes spun off the track, Hamilton into the gravel and losing a tyre. Russell was able to get going again with significant damage, but this was the end of Hamilton’s race. This was reminiscent of the Spanish Grand Prix in 2016, where a similar incident saw the Mercedes of Rosberg and Hamilton crash out in lap one. Neither driver was happy, Russell saying “come on! Two races in a row!” and Hamilton saying that he had been “taken out by my own teammate” over team radio. However, Mercedes was quick to smother any whispers of “Brocedes?”, Hamilton taking full responsibility for the incident in his post-race interview.
Piastri, however, benefitted well from this collision, moving up from sixth to second place. The safety car came out, and Russell, along with a few other drivers, pitted. Russell had fallen from second to near the back of the grid – he had a lot of positions to make up.
The safety car came in on lap four, and Verstappen shot off into the distance to restart the race. Piastri was taken by surprise at this restart but soon caught back up with the Red Bull. By lap 12, the drivers began to make their mandated pit stops, unable to pit any later than lap 17. Piastri and Norris both pitted but were rising through the ranks towards the front of the grid, as was Russell, who had made a fantastic recovery, placing himself in second before pitting on lap 15.
This pit stop was when the torturous conditions of the race became very apparent. As he drove into the pit lane, Russell opened his visor to allow some air to reach his face. Ocon also commented in his post-race interview that, at around lap 15, he had vomited inside his helmet from the sweltering heat inside of the car – “it was honestly horrible”.
The heat proved too much for some, such as Sargeant who had to retire at lap 40, saying “I’m not feeling well at all” … “I need to stop”. Stroll said in his post-race interview that he was “passing out in the car”, and Russell was forced to drive with his wrists so that he could use his hands to direct air towards his face.
By lap 26, the drivers had begun to make their second pit-stops. Alonso reported that his seat was burning, and asked if water could be thrown over him during his pit stop. However, this was not allowed, so Alonso had to continue baking in his car. For McLaren, the pit stop went somewhat more smoothly, managing to set a record-breaking 1.80s time. Norris exited right behind his teammate Piastri in second.
Norris was told to hold his position behind his rookie teammate, but he questioned this decision, saying “why do you want to do that? We have a big gap, I’m clearly a lot quicker.” McLaren responded, saying that they were worried about Russell behind them in fourth, who may put on soft tyres and so Norris would be needed to defend his position. In my opinion, Norris’ annoyance was justified. McLaren’s excuse seemed a little weak, as both Norris and Piastri would have been able to defend against Russell equally well. However, this complaint is not something that we haven’t seen before, Norris making the same appeal in Suzuka. Piastri was allowed to maintain his second position, and Russell proved less of a threat, dropping back 27 seconds behind Norris by lap 56.
As the chequered flag waved, Verstappen crossed the line to take the victory once more. Piastri achieved his best placement in a Grand Prix, finishing second, and Norris returned to the podium for the third time in a row. Russell finished in fourth, with Leclerc, Alonso and Ocon behind. Bottas, Pérez and Zhou rounded off the points – a disappointing day for Pérez, who managed to rack up 3 track-limits penalties, but an excellent drive from both Alfa Romeos, scoring them some valuable points.
The conditions of the Lusail Grand Prix were intolerable; it was excruciating for the drivers, and the complaints from them have not been lacking. The FIA have acknowledged that action had to be taken immediately to prevent something like this from happening again. The Qatar Grand Prix is scheduled for later in the year in 2024 – we can only hope that the conditions are far more acceptable. Nevertheless, this race weekend was gripping from start to finish. A dramatic crash at the first corner of the Grand Prix, a world-record pit stop, and a World Drivers Championship victory leaves viewers excited to saddle up for the coming Texas Grand Prix.