Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Losail International Circuit, 2021

Red Bull on red alert as dominant Hamilton continues assault on Verstappen’s lead

2021 Qatar Grand Prix review

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Championship rivals Red Bull and Mercedes agree on very little these days: Rear wings, power units, track limits, even whether obeying yellow flags is mandatory or optional.

But the two shared one view in the build-up to F1’s first race at Losail International Circuit. Red Bull team principal Christian Horner remarked that of the three remaining venues, all of which are either largely or completely unfamiliar, the winding Qatar venue was the one which should suit Red Bull’s chassis best.

In a similar vein, Mercedes’ head of trackside operations Andrew Shovlin indicated the team expected better things from the following two rounds at the new, high-speed Jeddah Corniche Circuit and drastically remodelled Yas Marina. Team principal Toto Wolff went further, predicting Losail would prove their “Achilles Heel”. But it didn’t turn out that way.

Verstappen hit by qualifying penalty

As the teams familiarised themselves with a layout designed for Moto GP bikes and tweaked for F1, it rapidly dawn on Red Bull that their rivals had their W12 dialled in superbly for the track. By final practice Red Bull were still fretting over their bizarrely oscillating rear wings, which were eventually dropped in favour of their tried-and-trusted high downforce configuration. Was this the plan all along, and the slimmer wings were being worked on in practice for deployment at the upcoming tracks where they fear Mercedes will be harder to catch?

Gasly inherited Verstappen’s second place on the grid
Whatever, Red Bull fought as hard off the track as they did on it. They threatened protests over Mercedes’ rear wings, then backed down after the FIA introduced a new test, albeit one which does not yet carry regulatory force, meaning no one risks exclusion for failing to comply. Nonetheless, Red Bull insisted Mercedes’ straight line speeds had been trimmed.

For all that, there was little evidence of a diminution of Mercedes’ performance on-track. Hamilton lapped 0.455 seconds faster than Verstappen as he beat his rival to pole position. In Brazil, Red Bull had been 0.438s away.

The record books will show Verstappen was 0.597s slower than Hamilton. But that was because his fastest time in Q3 was deleted, in the latest in a series of controversies to rock the title fight. Verstappen, along with Valtteri Bottas and Carlos Sainz Jnr, were investigated for failing to slow sufficiently for yellow flags at the end of Q3.

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Start, Losail International Circuit, 2021
Hamilton resisted the soft-tyred starters around him
The Red Bull driver had passed double-waved yellow flags and was given a five-place penalty; Bottas passed a single flag and was penalised three places. This was a bonus of sorts for Mercedes: Now Bottas would also start in front of Verstappen. Sainz, the only one of the three to realise after passing the flag that he needed to back off, avoided a penalty.

Horner was furious and made his feelings about the standard of stewarding clear in one of his television appearances for Sky, which have become so frequent he is in danger of being mistaken for the fourth member of their presenting team. Here he crossed a line, and was formally warned by the stewards after FIA F1 race director Michael Masi took exception to him criticising a marshal.

Hamilton leaves rivals behind

While Verstappen’s penalty was inarguable, it robbed the race of another showdown between the title rivals. Just a week after Verstappen’s controversial off-track defence of his lead in Brazil, the prospect of a banzai lunge down the inside of Hamilton at Losail’s wide first corner was widely predicted until his penalty was announced just an hour and a half before the race began.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Losail International Circuit, 2021
Verstappen quickly recovered the second place he lost
Even so, Verstappen made such a remarkable getaway from the fourth row of the grid he almost arrived on his rival’s tail at turn one. The imperative to clear the Bottas, also starting on medium tyres, was achieved within seconds of the lights going out as the Mercedes driver struggled to find purchase from his off-line starting position. Verstappen briefly had a look at third but Fernando Alonso was in no mood to surrender than and edged the Red Bull wide while simultaneously teeing up Pierre Gasly for a fabulous pass around the outside of turn two.

Within four laps Verstappen was past the pair of them. AlphaTauri told Gasly to let the driver from their sister team by. Gasly ran wide at the final corner, which may not have been intentional, then left his DRS closed until Verstappen passed him on the pit straight. Alonso put up no more of a fight, Verstappen breezing past in the same DRS zone.

But his team’s hopes he would swiftly reduce the 3.7 second lead Hamilton had built over the opening laps were soon dashed. Verstappen had picked up slight front wing damage soon after the start, and Hamilton progressively edged clear.

“I think it happened lap one and lap three or something in turns 14 and 15,” Verstappen explained. “By trying to follow I just understeered a bit wide and this extra row of kerbs, they’re quite aggressive and I saw a few sparks flying, so I think it did damage the front wing a little bit. It just gives you a tiny bit more understeer but it was not enough damage to really impact the pace difference between the two of us.”

Nonetheless by lap 15 Hamilton’s lead had doubled. With Alonso losing around a second and a half per lap, Red Bull grabbed an early opportunity to pit Verstappen, which Mercedes responded to immediately.

Verstappen was told to look after his tyres, Red Bull potentially entertaining the possibility of a long second stint and single stop. But Verstappen urged them to press on, and by lap 3.2 he had painstakingly eroded two seconds from Hamilton’s lead, but it still stood at 6.3 seconds. Then drama struck.

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Bottas suffers blow-out

Having been passed by Verstappen immediately after the start and fallen five places to 11th, Bottas almost immediately dropped out of strategic consideration for Mercedes. Their only hope was to run him as long as possible to gain position. By lap 23 he was up to third, and plainly tilting at a single pit stop. With most of the cars behind him still dropping back, Mercedes kept him out, but they paid a high price when his front-left tyre let go without warning.

George Russell, Williams, Losail International Circuit, 2021
Both Williams drivers suffered punctures
Tyre failures are, unfortunately, not unheard of in F1, but this one caught Bottas completely off-guard. “Before, we started to get the vibrations and we’ve normally been monitoring the vibration metrics,” he explained. “But now, like, there was nothing, it was feeling like normal. And then it goes.”

Some combination of high cornering speeds, punishing kerbs and worn tyres appeared to be responsible: Pirelli, as ever, is investigating the cause. But the possibility the title contenders might risk a one-stop was now over: Verstappen returned to the pits on lap 41, and Hamilton again shadowed him.

All that remained to be settled in the fight at the front was who would take the bonus point or fastest lap. This was settled when Mercedes parked Bottas’ damaged and overheating car. Leaving nothing to chance, Verstappen came in a third time for the usual set of softs and posted a time 1.8 seconds faster than Hamilton’s best to ensure his rival only took six points off him.

Meanwhile more tyres were going pop. Both Williams drivers experienced punctures: George Russell believed it was a consequence of how hard they were driving in order to be competitive. The same might have been true of Lando Norris, who was 50 seconds ahead of team mate Daniel Ricciardo when his front-left went, to his obvious disgust, as it ended their chances of out-scoring Ferrari and probably killed off their dying hopes of beating their rivals to third in the championship.

Perez falls short of podium

The disappearance of Norris from fourth place was good news for Sergio Perez. He slipped up badly on Saturday, failing to accompany his team mate into Q3, but made amends in the race as he patiently worked his way to the front. Norris’ retirement cleared the way for him to close on Alonso, who was still gamely clinging to third in his Alpine. The A521 chassis seemed to like Losail, a rough desert approximation of the Hungaroring where Esteban Ocon took a shock win for the team in August.

Ocon couldn’t hold flying Perez off for long
Ocon returned his team mate’s favour from Hungary by rebuffing Perez as long as he could. “Tell Esteban to fight like a lion”, urged Alonso on the radio. His team mate bought him three seconds, maximum. That may have been just enough, after a late Virtual Safety Car period triggered by Nicholas Latifi’s puncture meant Perez crossed the line 2.8 seconds after Alone.

Ocon took fifth ahead of Lance Stroll, who having narrowly failed to make the cut for Q3 had a strong run to sixth. The two Ferrari drivers were the last unlapped runners, Carlos Sainz Jnr ahead of Charles Leclerc. A thoroughly unhappy Norris follow in a lapped ninth, and Sebastian Vettel nicked the final point, ruing a first lap which was even worse than Bottas managed, coming around 17th having lost seven places.

A day which began with great promise for AlphaTauri ended in huge disappointment as neither driver scored. Gasly simply lacked pace from the off and his final pit stop dropped him behind the recovering Vettel. Yuki Tsunoda lost two places in a three-wide move with Bottas and Stroll, and pitted early to have a visor tear-off removed from his rear wing, which his team estimated cost him 50 points of downforce.

The two AT02s were separated by Daniel Ricciardo who Monza triumph seems an increasingly distant memory as he notched up his fourth non-score from the six races which followed it.

Abu Dhabi showdown beckons

The title fight is now likely to run to the final race
Hamilton’s seventh victory of the season was clearly his most straightforward. That, and the fact it was achieved at a track which both teams expected would suit Red Bull better, means Red Bull have little positive to take away from this weekend.

The exception was in the constructors championship, where a no-score for Bottas meant they took a six-point bite out of Mercedes’ lead, leaving them just five behind their rivals.

Amid the PR posturing, dithering over decisions and needless controversy which has characterised too much of the last two race weekends, the positive news for F1 which emerged from the final triple-header of 2021 was this: Unless Verstappen wins big in Saudi Arabia, the F1 title fight will go down to the last race in Abu Dhabi for the first time in five years.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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153 comments on “Red Bull on red alert as dominant Hamilton continues assault on Verstappen’s lead”

  1. Red Bull and Verstappen were hampered by the circuit surprisingly being front limited and by having to run the bigger rear wing due to failures. Interestingly they were fastest through the fastest part of the track, which should bode well for Jeddah. As for Abu Dhabi, who knows?

    1. Lewis not even driving with the new Brasil engine. Apparently they are saving that one for last 2 races

      1. You don’t believe that i think. Max his engine is now 8 races old or even 9 races old and lewis his is 2 races old. You can compared it with Bottas his car there a big difference between those two.

        1. @macleod Max took a completely new PU in Russia, so he has done 6 races on this PU, but I believe he has an older engine in his pool as well.

          1. i mis count or had number 4 in mind. As i believe Lewis didn’t use his newest engine so only 1 race old against 6 i wonder if Honda has a partymode they can use 100% for the last 2 races which Lewis will do. Or take 5 places for a new one and put the engine as high possible for the rest of 2 races…

      2. @trib4udi Yes, he used engine #5, i.e., the one he took in Turkey AFAIA.
        A good move, as this way, the Brazil engine got spared from an entire race weekend’s (or FP3-QLF-race combination’s) running, so one event less for that particular engine unit.

    2. I think that this circuit will be a bit of an anomaly with regards to top speed. That back straight has quite a high entry speed, and Verstappen would be able to take even more speed in. Coupled with a fairly short back straight could mean that higher downforce doesn’t really detract from the top speed as much as in Abu Dhabi or Saudi.

  2. Many people say Hamilton should have won the 2016 season. He was the better driver. But he bad luck (Sepang, engine blow) This season RB should’ve allready won the WDC with Verstappen but he also had some serious points lost (Baku, Silverstone, Hungaroring) Now Mercedes has the momentum and stronger car for the last two races. With the Brazil engine with 16bhp more there’s nothing you’ll van do against it. It’s 70-30 for Mercedes last two races.

  3. Getting penalty on one race but having more powerful engine for the last five races looks like the greatest strategy ever this year. I don’t think Max can’t win one of the last two races.

    1. I have to agree. The new stiffer Pirelli and now the engine strategy sealed the deal for 2021 for Mercedes. Well played, I just feel sorry for Max who was the better driver this year. Lewis keeps on profiting from the Mercedes team. What a golden spoon.

      1. So disingenuous… although I think Max has performed better overall this season Mercs had to play catch-up but are looking ominous.

      2. I would have agreed that Max has been better , up until the last 2 races. Evens now after Brazil weekend ,regardless of engine, could be the championship defining drive

    2. Redbull might decide to take an engine penalty and upgrade their engine again for the last two races to get that win.
      if they do then i wouldn’t rule out Mercedes doing the exact same again.

      1. But then they both have the same life on there engine…

      2. I don’t think it’s possible. Mercedes had the time to design and build a special 2700 km engine far less than normal 7000 km engine with marginally but crucially more power. It’s a decision that needs months in preparation.

        1. @ruliemaulana They cannot do that. It needs to be an approved design

          1. It was reported by Motorsport Italy by a claim from Hywel Thomas, chief engineer of Brixworth, @f1osaurus. But yes, maybe it’s still the same spec only with more aggressive setup.

          2. Same way Honda upgraded their engine with “reliability” improvements earlier in the year and about which RBR studiously prevaricated. E.g. new engine oil. It seems two can play at this game.

          3. Merc can get away with everything. Next time they will be mounting gatling guns 007 style to machine gun anyone who dares to pass them, and they will of course be allowed to. Brackley esse delendam

        2. @ruliemaulana Please explain how they do that with homologated engines?

          What they are able to do though, is run the engine in a more powerful mode because it will have to do less mileage.

        3. @ruliemaulana the original article from the Italian division of the Motorsport network does not claim that the engines have been modified in any way, and what they suggest Hywel Thomas has suggested Mercedes could do is rather different.

          The engine specification is unchanged from earlier in the year – what Hywel Thomas is suggested to have done is to have analysed the data from both the works team and from their customer teams to work out the potential trade offs between performance and increased wear rates, with different performance maps being used.

          In particular, it seems that they’ve been looking at how aggressively McLaren has been running their engines, especially in Monza, and are basically taking the risk of running the engine with more aggressive mappings based on that.

    3. @ruliemaulana, I agree, a good tactical move.

      1. Not sure about that.
        Max will most likely be on pole, HAM 6th at best.
        This is a new track – Merc is assuming the long straight will favor them but it’s not the same as Brazil. Will the other sectors favor RBR.
        If VER gets the lead from the start and HAM has issues getting by the other 4, the time deficit could be substantial.
        Obviously the safe bet is on HAM but stranger things have happened.

    4. And then to think that Mercedes did not even fit that tuned for only a few races engine here @ruliemaulana, since they thought they would be trailing Red Bull anyway and having the older ICE would be enough to limit the damage and come home in 2nd or 3rd …

  4. What a season. Unbelievable! So many mid-fielders reaching the podium, just the right amount of unpredictable races. Alonso, Vettel, Russell on podium! Ocon’s debut win, Norris’ almost debut win, Ricciardo’s comeback win, Ferrari’s multiple near-misses with the win. Title contenders crashing into each other, falling foul of regulations.

    Even the side battles – Ferrari vs Mclaren, Alpine vs Gasly (Alphatauri) – are nicely falling on the wayside so that the battle can be the central – and only – focus in the last 2 races. Less than 10 points in both WDC and WCC with 2 races still left. Most likely, we don’t need to worry about combinations such as “If X finishes 1st, Y to finish 4th or above, if X finishes 2nd, Y to finish 8th or above”. It will simply be a winner takes all at Abu Dhabi. Wow! It is 1 season like this that makes up for 7 seasons of Merc domination!

    Too bad, the fight is in Abu Dhabi, a horrible circuit!

    1. I think Alonso is the 13th driver to reach the podium this year, the same as last season when we only had 17 races.

      But the races on the whole have been much more competitive, with several only being decided in the closing laps, and of course there has been a genuine battle for the championship between two great drivers. Definitely the best season of the turbo-hybrid era, although that of course isn’t saying much.

    2. Yes all this; but barring a disaster for one of them there is every chance the closest battle for years will be decided by Flap and Sprint points. Throw in the nonsense that was Spa, and it almost certainly will be.
      And with more sprints next year we have a F1 future where any year long WDC will be almost certainly decided by the points earned outside the main race.

    3. Hopefully the changes to the Yas Marina circuit will change the characteristics drastically. In theory both the last tracks are new ones, as most of the data from previous races at Abu Dhabi will be useless now.

      1. @Gubstar

        track is more flowing fast corners and long straights, kind of brazil to be honest, they removed all the slow speed corners, and some even slow/mid speed and turned them into fast ones…

        if the reds were keeping their free drs rear wing (yeah it was flattening to levels of drs! boost) this would be a great track for them… not sure it is so anymore, their skinny rear wings keep failing (but funnily enough, their repairs are good enough to last a full race, instead of handful of practice laps, until the next practice sessions and noone saying anything about it) i m pretty sure they were/are trying to find different kind of way (to emulate mercedes) but not perfected it yet… hence the big mouths about the mercedes wings… before that it was suspension… now trick engine or trick wing, i m sure that next excuse will be to check up ham’s sleeves to understand his tricks!

  5. Bottas started 1 place ahead of Max. While in the faster car. That guy proves everyone time what an average driver he is.

    Same in Russia where he started 5 places ahead of Max. Such an average driver in traffic.

    It’s a disgrace that this guy filled the 2nd seat of the dominant car for 5 seasons.

    Bring George in for final 2 races!

    1. Williams appears to have given up anyway, so why not…

    2. Ha, I know someone who will vote against that for sure!

    3. Without his puncture he would have been third.

      Compare the starts of anyone starting off the line. Most of them got a bad start, see Vettel. Bottas, however, made a mistake in the first corner, costing him a few places.

    4. He stayed ahead when it mattered the most , at Turkey. Thess 7 points will be very crucial. Not to mention Humgay…

      1. And he cost Verstappen a point in the Brazilian sprint.

    5. They wanted no competition for Lewis ever since he couldn’t handle Rosberg. Imagine having this team mate and that car. It’s a buy to win situation compared to video games.

      1. what are you talking about?
        nico had 22 wins, lewis 32. Nico had 1 championship, lewis 2.

        he couldn’t handle rosberg?

      2. I think Bottas is in the Merc because Rosberg gave almost no time for Mercedes to replace him AND Wolff was Bottas’ manager. That’s what happened for 2017. Then, because they got on well together and didn’t cause the team pairs, he stayed. It suited Mercedes and of course Hamilton and Bottas were fine with that.
        Had Verstappen joined Mercedes we would have had many exciting seasons, but is wasn’t to be.

      3. lexusreliability?
        22nd November 2021, 19:21


        They wanted no competition for Lewis ever since he couldn’t handle Rosberg

        You mean the same way Red Bull wanted Gasly, Albon and now Perez since Max couldn’t handl;e Ricciardo? Mind you, going on history, if Ricciardo was at Red Bull, he would be walking this championship.

        Imagine having this team mate and that car.

        ALternatively, Imagine having a Red Bull that has dominated 60% of the races and still only 8 points ahead. The hype doesn’t match the talent.

        1. Yeah or Lando since he is so much better than Ricciardo. I guess all are better than Max. But none can be as good as Lewis

    6. @trib4udi Geez, he had some wheelspin on the dirty side of the track and then got caught in the melee that is the midfield.

    7. I thought he was a brilliant driver being held back by Mercedes? I wish you guys would make up your minds.

      1. @ian dearing

        i think max’s year going the way of 2007 ham… was going well until the last 3 races… he was kind of ahead and looking set.. than one DNF second from the last race, and 7th on the final one… 1 points and all done… ham was doing well initially but all undone in the final couple races!

        max has done extremely well done but lets see what will come out of this…

      2. and ham’s almost like 2008, everything was against him including FIA… unfairly punished, crashed and all.. noone thought he was gonna get it but single point he jumped ahead in the very last corner.

  6. While verstappen has driven well this year. Its when it matters most that the greats shine. And the lesser drivers fault. Lewis is now driving impeccably. His qualifying was surblime. His race was perfect. And it was not with the spicy engine,yet… Its as though they dangled a carrot infront of verstappens and horners face at the beginning of the year. Made them chase it and now have laid down the gauntlet. Leaving verst and redbull in their dust.

    1. All max has to do is finish ahead of lewis once in the last 2 races to seal the championship.

      1. @f1fan-2000 There are lots of permutations where Verstappen can finish ahead of Hamilton in one race and still lose the WDC.

        However, the odds are still very much in Verstappen’s favour.

        1. With how competitive the Mercedes has been lately, I’d say Hamilton is the favorite right now.

        2. @scbriml
          Below are the 2007> cumulative points… if you see the numbers, it was literally between Ham and Alo, there was very little chance that Rai could finish ahead of the either two!
          ham 17 ahead of RAI and 2 races to go, and 20 max points ups for grabs!
          Ham/Alo 12 Points deficit… We know what happened in the next two races…

      2. How? Thats the question. How? I dont see any one overtaking Lewis for the rest of the season. The guy has his rocket ship again. Its over #LOAT.

    2. Wayne, Hamilton is indeed driving impeccable in both Brazil and Qatar. But you make it believe he was driving below his best in the races before Brazil, but that makes no sense to me. Lewis’ championship hopes were in great danger in USA and Mexico, so there was no reason to be driving subpar. I don’t believe it, Lewis is just as good as he was in Mexico, but now he has the car to get the results again.

      1. I agree was not my intention to imply lewis was driving below par. Thanks for fair comment.

      2. I can’t agree. Lewis since Brazil jist feels like the Lewis of his McLaren days! Horner and Marko have certainly woke the lion!

    3. You seem to have missed the amount of errors Lewis made and the dnfs by verstappen caused by Mercedes.
      So a nicely colored view but when Max wins this year, at least there are no excuses about Lewis.

      1. You have forgotten to mention that the Mercedes had an unfair advantage: when you hit it, sometimes you end up in the wall yourself. Unfair.

      2. You mean IF Verstappen wins. Although whether he wins or not, he will have deserved it, aggressive/defensive driving aside.

    4. Would you say the same when Hamilton bottled an easy win in Monza with an awful start (in the sprint race)? Or when he qualified behind his teammate in Mexico?
      Or when he went off in Imola (then spared by the red flag)?
      I could continue…

    5. Its more like mistakes and stress on Mercedes side became a carrot and it blurred the fact they were just as dominant as the last 8 years.

      1. Nothing was as big as Max’s error at Silverstone.

        In maintaining his macho ‘no-one will ever overtake me’ stance, he had a crash that could have been avoided and in reality cost him anything from 18 to 33 points.

        Before you say Hamilton was at fault, that’s irrelevant to the point. Just last week at Brazil, we saw what happens when a driver used the ‘discretion is the better part of valour’ way of driving – Hamilton, simply yielded and actually stayed in the race.

        1. Silverstone was 100% Lewis fault. He owes Max 25 points and a DNF from his side to even start talking about a fair season. Then I will leave out what Hungary did for Lewis title bid.

          1. I think you are missing the point. If Verstappen had not tried to make an ambitious move, the accident would not have happened and had he stayed behind Hamilton he would now be 26 points ahead; if he had overtaken Hamilton later he would now be 40 points ahead… That’s massive.
            In this sport, sometimes you make your luck, like Alonso did yesterday. And sometimes the opposite is true.
            I regard the DNF Verstappen by Bottas hitting him, something that was totally not his (Verstappen) fault. Does that makes sense to you?

          2. We’ve been through this, it’s literally been ruled officially he wasn’t 100% at fault.