TIGHT: Hamilton closes the gap on Verstappen with Qatar GP win
PA - Tim Goode
Lewis Hamilton stormed to a lights-to-flag victory in the desert – winning the inaugural Qatar Grand Prix to close the gap on Formula One championship rival Max Verstappen to just eight points.
With arguments, press conference sideshows, grid penalties and questions over even racing in a country with a poor history of human rights dominating the build-up to Sunday’s race, it was Hamilton who put on a show under the floodlights of the Losail International Circuit.
Sporting a rainbow helmet in support of the LBGTQ+ community, a gesture criticised by the 2022 Qatar World Cup chief executive, the Mercedes driver cantered to a win to move within seven points of Verstappen – who came home second, over 25 seconds adrift.
Fernando Alonso finished third for Alpine, taking his first podium since the 2014 Hungarian Grand Prix.
But with two races remaining of the season – both back here in the Middle East with a debut appearance in Saudi Arabia followed by the return to Abu Dhabi – the most enthralling title race in years looks set to go to the wire.
Hamilton took the 102nd pole of his career by almost half a second to Verstappen – who was then hit with a five-place grid penalty for not slowing sufficiently under double yellow flags towards the end of Saturday’s qualifying session.
The reigning champion scampered away after a good start, his former McLaren team-mate Alonso slotting his Alpine into second.
Verstappen, meanwhile, made his run down the inside into turn one and was almost collected by Alonso – recovering to take fourth place.
Hamilton would have been hoping for Mercedes team-mate Bottas to act as a rear-gunner having started one place ahead of Verstappen following his own three-place grid penalty for ignoring single-waved yellows.
But the Finn dropped down the field, occupying 11th by the end of lap one as all 20 cars made it round.
Verstappen made light work of Pierre Gasly at the start of lap four to move into the podium places and passed Alonso in the same place a lap later.
He would pit at the end of lap 17 but his wing was not changed and he emerged still in second place.
Hamilton and Mercedes responded a lap later, coming out with the length of the Losail pit straight between himself and Verstappen.
With the pair disappearing into the distance, the rest of the field were left chasing a mirage – with a puncture for the one-stopping Bottas seeing him fall down the order once more.
The same pattern followed for the leaders’ second stops, Verstappen in first and Hamilton reacting a lap later to keep the Dutchman at arms’ length.
A virtual safety car in the closing stages saw Verstappen pit for fresh tyres and improve his fastest lap time to ensure he takes an eight-point advantage to the first-ever Saudi Arabia Grand Prix in a fortnight.
“It was pretty straightforward,” Hamilton said of the victory.
“Of course I enjoy those races when you’re battling through but it was a really solid job from the team with the pit stops and the car and I can’t wait to see a replay of the race to see what happened behind me.
“It has been a hell of a year so to be at the end of the year and have back-to-back wins a is a great feeling and puts us in good stead.”
The victory never looked in doubt for Hamilton, who crossed the line to take the chequered flag, moving to within eight points of Verstappen, who set the fastest lap of the race.
Alonso’s first podium finish since 2014 was met with a fine reaction from the former two-time world champion with Bottas retiring having suffered a puncture while trying to run a long stint.
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the second Red Bull with Esteban Ocon coming home fifth for Alpine.
Lance Stroll’s Aston Martin beat the Ferrari pair of Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc with Lando Norris’ McLaren and the Aston Martin of Sebastian Vettel rounding off the top 10.
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