Even before the first ever Qatar Grand Prix had got under way, there was drama off-track as Max Verstappen was dropped from P2 to P7 on the grid, and Valtteri Bottas from P3 to P6, for a failure to respect yellow flags in qualifying – a double for Verstappen, a single for Bottas.
As the five lights went out, Hamilton swept in front of Pierre Gasly, promoted to his first front row start by those penalties, allowing the Mercedes to hold position at the front.
Bottas, meanwhile, dropped like a stone, sinking from sixth to 11th (Vettel also dropping from P10 to P17) as Verstappen went the other way, benefitting from Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris scrapping into Turn 1 to surge to P4, while it was only a chop from Fernando Alonso into Turn 2 that stopped Verstappen going to P3 – Alonso then passing Gasly to claim P2 in the same manoeuvre.
Hamilton was moving clear at the front – but crucially for Verstappen if he was to keep his race hopes alive, the Dutchman was quickly through on Gasly and Alonso to hold P2 by Lap 5 of 57, with only his title rival around four seconds up the road from him.
Verstappen was moving forward, and so was Sergio Perez in the sister Red Bull, Perez climbing from his P11 to P6 by Lap 9. Bottas was moving less quickly, with Toto Wolff moved to radio the Finn on Lap 8 to give him the hurry-up – Bottas quickly responding by passing Yuki Tsunoda and Lance Stroll to move to P9 by Lap 10.
Out in front, Hamilton and Verstappen quickly settled into a race of their own, Hamilton able to slowly open the gap to his rival to 7s by Lap 15 – with Verstappen a further 22s clear of Alonso, with Norris ahead of Perez after Gasly pitted for a first time on Lap 13.
Lap 17 caught Mercedes’ eye, as Verstappen brought his Red Bull RB16B in for a stop, taking on hards and holding onto P2 as he emerged just in front on Alonso. Hamilton radioed to Mercedes to tell them his tyres were still okay, but they brought him in a lap later anyway to cover off Verstappen.
Hamilton wasn’t best pleased, telling the team it was “definitely way too early to stop” but was brusquely told that with the pace advantage he was enjoying – sufficient for Hamilton to be 10s clear of Verstappen when he emerged from his stop – it had been worth mirroring Red Bull.
With the halfway point reached by Lap 29 of 57, the order was: Hamilton, 7s up from Verstappen, with Bottas third but yet to stop, ahead of Perez, Alonso, Gasly, Norris, Ocon, Stroll and Sainz – Perez getting past Alonso after a titanic scrap on Lap 29 through the first sequence of corners.
Bottas was dramatically forced into his first stop on Lap 33 when he appeared to suffer a puncture, Bottas sliding into the gravel at Turn 7, before recovering to the pits for hards, emerging P14 as Perez was promoted into P3 behind Hamilton and Verstappen.
The big question now was whether Hamilton or Verstappen would feel compelled to stop again in light of Bottas’ issues – Verstappen in a comfortable position in P2, 50s ahead of third-placed team mate Perez by Lap 40.
Verstappen answered the question on Lap 41 when he stopped for mediums, Hamilton unsurprisingly responding a lap later for the same tyres, as the pair of them maintained status quo at the front.
Perez stopped on Lap 41 too, emerging P7 as Alonso was promoted into the podium positions – with Alonso telling his team to ask fifth-placed Ocon to “defend like a lion” (a reference to Ocon’s comments about Alonso’s defence that enabled his Hungary win) to keep Perez behind.
Ocon listened, too, but despite some energetic sparring on Lap 47, Perez was through on the Alpine driver and up to P5 – although the Mexican questioned Red Bull’s decision to sacrifice track position by two-stopping him.
Bottas’ tyre issues were seemingly mirrored by the Williams drivers of George Russell and Nicholas Latifi on Laps 50 and 52, with both drivers suffering left-front tyre problems – while Bottas was retired from the race on Lap 50, bringing to an end a miserable evening under the floodlights for the Finn.
Latifi retired on Lap 55, with a Virtual Safety Car called out, Verstappen taking the opportunity to dive into the pits for softs. Perhaps Red Bull were hoping the move would spook Mercedes – but there was no such luck, as Hamilton duly swept across the line to secure back-to-back wins after Interlagos. He had been, quite simply, untouchable all evening.
Verstappen’s stop at least allowed him to put on soft tyres, Verstappen claiming the fastest lap bonus point along with his 18 points for P2, his lead reduced from 14 points to eight points over Hamilton, with two races to go.
If Verstappen felt a little jaded, Alonso felt pure joy, as he benefitted from the VSC to hold onto P3. “Finally we got it,” said Alonso after the race. “I’m so happy for the team.” Perez took P4 and will likely have some questions over Red Bull’s two-stop move for him, while Ocon took fifth, to move Alpine a decisive 25 points clear of AlphaTauri in their fight for fifth in the constructors’.