2021 F1 Race 20: Losail International Circuit
The beginning of the desert races, Losail hosts F1 for the first time with its circuit more commonly used for Moto GP.
Qatar welcomed Formula 1 with a circuit that could best be described as a curveball for the teams and their drivers. The circuit has hosted Moto GP for years but few of the drivers had ever been to this track before, those that had could barely remember it. Initial concerns centred around the surface as the track isn't regularly used in a country that doesn't normally have a high turnout to sporting events. This week's F1 attendance was 8,000, a new record for spectators to any sports event in Qatar. Jenson Button did a few hot laps in a road-going McLaren production car as part of the F1 coverage for British broadcasting and commented on how slippery the surface appeared, this was sure to be a tyre tester.
First practice gave the drivers a chance for a real shakedown. Hamilton wanted set up tweaks and Verstappen set the pace. Practice two would see Alonso take the fastest lap, a turn of speed from the Alpine that was out of place on the grid, but as we would see in the race, quite representative of Alpine's pace at the track, kudos to the team for excelling here where others did not. Free practice three saw the return of the Mercedes speed, although several kerb strikes would leave several drivers needing to reassess how they would approach qualifying and the race if they were to be fast and without incident.
To qualifying and it was business as usual at Haas, although Mazepin was further off the pace than his teammate due to not getting as much practice time and needing extensive work done to his car. Williams returned to form with Latifi being out-qualified by Russel, who was knocked out in Q2.
Several surprises lurked in Q2 with McLaren driver Ricciardo struggling and only managing to go quicker than Russel. Leclerc appeared baffled by his loss of pace. Aston Martin driver Stroll was 12th, his teammate managing to out-qualify Perez by a tenth to make it into Q3 where he would remain tenth. Alpha Tauri will hold their heads high, qualifying 4th (that would become second) for Gasly and a very respectable 8th for Yuki Tsunoda. The red hot battle between Ferrari and McLaren hotted up, ex-teammates Norris and Sainz achieved 6th and 7th respectively. Alpine showed equal measure to Alpha Tauri managing a 5th (Becoming 3rd) for Alonso and 9th for Ocon. Hamilton led Verstappen with Bottas a whisker behind for the 1,2,3.
After qualifying Bottas was handed a 3 place grid penalty and Max Verstappen a 5 place grid penalty, this was for not slowing for double and single yellow flags respectively, although a confusing time for both drivers as there was also a green light and the ability to use DRS indicated on their steering wheel. Most felt this caused to a confusing situation for the drivers that were on their final hot lap and unable to slow and have another go, but the FIA felt it justified.
Alonso lined up in third on the soft compound tyre, with Gasly in P2 and Hamilton on Pole on the mediums. The odd-numbered starting positions were believed to have the best opportunity from the start as the cars on the right-hand side of the grid, 2nd, 4th, etc had dust to deal with that wasn't cleared due to there being no support races. This played to Alonso's advantage, making an early set of moves on Gasly. Hamilton retained 1st and began building a gap but the two cars that caught the most attention were Verstappen, with a brilliant start jumping him up the order, and Bottas, struggling on that dusty right-hand side of the grid and losing several places. The Ferrari-Mclaren battle almost felt neutralised at Losail with both teams struggling to perform, although Sainz managed to pull out a better performance. The fight that captured the attention away from the Verstappen Hamilton 1,2 was who would charge up the best, Perez or Bottas. Perez managed to cut through the field better than Bottas although it would ultimately make little difference as Bottas suffered a tyre puncture taking him out of contention. As predicted it wasn't just Mercedes that suffered a tyre letting go, both Williams suffered the same fate, teams quickly reassessed strategy and went for caution with most drivers going for a two-stop.
Step in Fernando Alonso, Perez began his charge around lap 40, but still had several places and a lot of time to make up, surely Alonso would be forced to pit? The two-time world champion shrugged off the fear of also losing a tyre and put in a spectacular drive that retained enough speed to hold the last podium place but stayed off the troublesome kerbs and managed the tyre wear. They held on all the way to the end, making him one of the few drivers to achieve a one-stop and entering a tiny club of drivers over 40 years old to stand on the podium in F1. Hamilton was ultimately too clinical for a Verstappen challenge, polishing every lap and performing faultlessly, although he lost the chance of a clean sweep with the fastest lap as a late virtual safety car and a stunningly fast lap from Verstappen got the Dutchman the purple point. Late drama was kept at bay with a virtual safety car eliminating the chance of Perez to challenge Alonso, the Mexican will be content, but probably not happy with fourth.
Two drivers that also deserve a mention were Estaban Ocon and Lance Stroll, capitalising on other teams woes and putting in a solid drive they scored fifth and sixth respectively. Ferrari can leave content that the 7th and 8th place finish was better than McLaren, nudging their lead for 3rd in the constructor's championship further into the distance. Sebastian Vettel rounded out the point places.
When F1 returns to Qatar (a ten-year deal) in 2023 (missing 2022 due to the World Cup) it is doubtful it will be a the Losail circuit, but the track proved itself this weekend, certainly if the plan for a street circuit doesn't materialise, F1 will feel comfortable here.