Qatar GP conclusions: Lewis Hamilton alarm, pivotal moment for Max Verstappen

Oliver Harden
Qatar Grand Prix Conclusions 2023.

Max Verstappen was on dominant form in Qatar, but other conclusions came from his title-winning weekend.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen celebrated his F1 2023 World Championship triumph in perfect fashion by winning the Qatar Grand Prix.

After clinching his third consecutive title in Saturday’s sprint race, the Dutchman was dominant from pole position and was joined on the podium by McLaren drivers Oscar Piastri and Lando Norris.

On the day Mercedes team-mates Lewis Hamilton and George Russell finally came to blows, here are our conclusions from Lusail…

Max Verstappen is on a trajectory to become the greatest ever

The third World Championship is a pivotal point in the career of a grand prix driver.

With rare exceptions, it is the moment at which someone goes from being another one of the 34 World Champions to joining any and every conversation about the very greatest drivers in history.

There is a reason, for instance, why Fernando Alonso continues to race at the age of 42, clinging to the hope – however slight – that a third title might still somehow come his way. When Lewis Hamilton clinched his third in 2015 to equal the tally of his boyhood idol Ayrton Senna, meanwhile, he announced his only target for the remainder of his career was to “carry the baton” as far as he possibly could.

Max Verstappen? If it wasn’t already obvious by now, he’s a little different.

He has long maintained that his only ambition in life was to become World Champion, even if just the once. Anything he achieves this side of 2021, he says, is merely a bonus.

His 2023 season has been littered with suggestions – from him – that he may retire from F1 before his time, potentially as soon as 2028 when his current contract expires, as if attempting to downplay just how much this sport means to him.

Yet with his third title now secured having just turned 26, Verstappen is on a trajectory that could feasibly see him remembered as the best ever.

Already you can sense that long-held stances are being rapidly re-evaluated, even Bernie Ecclestone – convinced even throughout the Hamilton and Michael Schumacher eras that Alain Prost was the greatest – among those now bowing before Verstappen.

For most racing drivers a year like 2023 would be regarded as the absolute zenith, but for Max it really could prove to be just another notch on the bedpost.

With 2022’s headline statistic of 15 wins almost certain to be shattered over the remaining five races of this season, who’s to say Max won’t be back soon for an assault on his own record of 10 consecutive victories achieved between Miami and Monza?

In an environment as still as Red Bull, with a convincing case as the greatest team ever seen, in 2023 Verstappen has evolved into the rampant, rampaging warbot he always dared to become, so far advanced of his peers in terms of both technique and temperament.

Together team and driver have set a new standard, Verstappen’s consistent excellence consigning the entire concept of the occasional off weekend – a recurring theme of Hamilton’s dominant period – to the past.

Where will it end? How can it end? With team and driver already hitting heights like this at what is still such any early stage of F1’s current rules cycle, it is almost guaranteed that they will remain untouchable until the next regulation changes in 2026 at the very earliest.

It would be daunting if it wasn’t so inevitable; if the success of Verstappen – this unique, irresistible mix of nature and nurture – wasn’t a case of nature taking its course; if it wasn’t a simple matter of destiny.

That baton Hamilton spoke of eight long years ago, when Verstappen was still just a rookie in what seemed like a different world?

Now it can be said, without any remaining doubt, that it has changed hands once more.

Watch out, Lewis and Michael: Max is coming for you.

Lewis Hamilton: Yesterday’s man?

When the Wolff is away, the Mercedes drivers will play. And not very nicely either.

With the Mercedes team boss absent as he recovers from knee surgery, Hamilton and Russell got too close for comfort on a number of occasions at the previous race at Suzuka, but with fifth place their limit on the day – and a deficit of almost a minute to race winner Verstappen to worry about first – the tension between the drivers was easy enough to drain away.

But a first corner collision in Qatar, as both were lining up moves on Verstappen in the only chance Mercedes had all night to make an impression on Red Bull? Different story.

It will help that Hamilton took responsibility for the contact, albeit only after initially blaming Russell in the heat of the moment over team radio, but for the seven-time World Champion – guilty of not leaving enough room on the inside – this is the latest in what has become a worrying pattern of uncharacteristic mistakes stretching back to his previous opening-lap retirement at Spa last year.

What’s the first thing to go when a racing driver starts to decline and how does it manifest itself? It varies from driver to driver, but the higher they climb the more noticeable the fall.

In the case of Hamilton, three months short of his 39th birthday, increasingly the answer seems to be spatial awareness with a series of strange errors he would never have made at his peak as recently as three years ago.

It started with the sight of him being launched through the air after a very similar incident with Alonso at Spa 2022 and includes his penalty for squeezing Piastri under braking at Monza just five weeks ago, the needless clash with Russell at the start here only increasing suspicions that Hamilton’s golden days – along with his precision and judgement in racing situations – are long gone.

He arguably remains the best of all when it comes to managing a set of tyres over a stint, as the closing laps in Singapore underlined recently, but on balance is probably the slower of the Mercedes drivers on outright pace these days, with the mistakes growing alarmingly in frequency.

When Hamilton signed a new two-year contract with Mercedes ahead of Monza, he spoke enthusiastically of taking the team “back where we belong” and refusing to “stop until we do” – yet the possibility went unspoken that time could catch up with him before he gets the chance.

Like his former rival Sebastian Vettel, never the same after a series of spins in the second half of 2018, the final years of his career could get quite undignified on this evidence.

All the more reason to rue the opportunity taken from him to walk away with his head held high as an eight-time World Champion after Abu Dhabi 2021…

Lando Norris’s temperament risks holding him back

The first little doubts about Lando Norris’s temperament came courtesy of an episode of Drive to Survive a couple of years ago.

Narrowly beaten to sixth on the grid by Daniel Ricciardo in their first qualifying session as team-mates at Bahrain 2021, Lando effectively locks himself away in his room within the McLaren hospitality unit.

“One-nil down already,” he sighs, unable to face the world and already fearing the worst alongside an established grand prix winner.

This early crisis of confidence was endearing given the way his time alongside Ricciardo unfolded – little did Lando know that he would soon emerge as the breakthrough star of the season with Daniel barely able to drive the McLaren – yet it was an extreme overreaction in the circumstances and provided a worrying insight into how easily Norris could be blown off course.

Much has changed since then, but almost three years on Norris remains without a victory to his name having panicked himself out of a win in Russia later that season.

By his own admission he has been waiting half his life for the team to provide him with a winning car, yet despite being the quicker McLaren driver almost throughout that time he has now seen two victories – first Monza 2021 and now the Qatar sprint – go to a team-mate.

With the McLaren drivers losing their final Q3 laps to track limits breaches in Friday qualifying, the contrasting reactions of Norris and Piastri offered a glimpse into the psychological solidity of both men.

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As Piastri digested the news of his drop to sixth on the grid with the ease with which he has handled everything else during his debut season – what a shame, oh well, let’s try again tomorrow – Norris looked as though his world was falling apart, his mood darkening and his face changing in parc fermé having already berated himself over team radio on the in-lap.

And when the same happened in the sprint shootout on Saturday, Norris ruining his final lap at the very last corner to hand pole to Piastri and effectively clear his team-mate’s path to victory, it was almost too much to take.

“It hurts me,” Norris admitted after the sprint race. “It annoys me to such a high level… I try to reset and refocus and not think of it, but it’s impossible for me not to think of it… I let myself down.”

For all the talk of a future move to Red Bull – and in so many ways Norris is the most Red Bull driver that Red Bull have never had – what chance would a sensitive soul like Lando possibly have alongside a mentality monster like Verstappen, arguably the toughest competitor F1 has ever seen?

Many remain convinced Norris is a potential World Champion in the right car, but in the Dutch lion’s den there would be a serious risk of Max bending and breaking him, taking the light from Lando’s eyes as he has done to so many others already.

And now at McLaren, the team he made his own, Norris finds himself increasingly unsettled by a Verstappen clone, Piastri oozing the composure and self-certainty he himself continues to lack – and now having already achieved the win, any win, Lando craves so much.

“I think of the negative things way more than the positive things,” Norris said on Saturday night. “It’s just me, it’s not like [it’s] a problem. It’s just the way I think, it’s the way my head works.”

Does that sound like World Champion material to you?

Norris may have all the talent in the world, but the temperament? That invariably is the difference between the very good and the truly great.

Lawrence Stroll sent his own son to slaughter by signing Fernando Alonso

Will Lawrence Stroll be forced to sack his own son? It is a question sections of the media have asked, often accompanied with a mischievous smile, all year long.

Highly unlikely, for Lance Stroll is the very reason the Aston Martin team exists in its current form, but reports over the Qatar weekend indicated that father and son may walk away together in the relatively near future. If it ever is going to happen, that will probably have to be the form it takes.

One thing we can be certain of, though, is that the younger Stroll – caught shoving his own trainer in the garage after a fourth straight Q1 exit on Friday – is currently experiencing the most punishing period of his seven years in F1. It is a crisis point his father really should have seen coming.

Look at the team’s driver recruitment since the Aston Martin rebrand and Stroll Sr has been eager to partner his son with former World Champions of a certain age, luring first Vettel and then Alonso. Such high-profile signings not only bring status to the project but – in theory – act as good benchmarks for Stroll Jr.

Whenever Vettel finished ahead of Lance, it was to be expected because he was four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel; on the occasions Lance was in front, he looked like a potential world beater.

It worked well enough for two years with Vettel long past his peak, but Stroll Sr’s big mistake was thinking the same would happen with Alonso, who has remained at an astonishingly high level even into his early 40s and for more than 20 years has taken some perverse pleasure from pulling his team-mates apart limb by limb.

Did Lawrence not even consider that this might happen to Lance? Maybe love really does blind after all.

In 2023 Stroll has merely become Alonso’s latest victim, losing his will and joining a hit list that includes Giancarlo Fisichella, Nelson Piquet Jr, Felipe Massa and more.

With seven podiums this season, Alonso has taken the team to heights they have rarely seen – but the price has been paid by Lance, who has rudely discovered the limit of his own ambitions in F1 by being exposed to a force of nature.

Aston Martin proudly boasted the signing of Alonso on the first morning of the summer break last year, just four days after Vettel announced his retirement.

But as Stroll celebrated his latest major coup, he had inadvertently just sent his own son to slaughter.

Should F1 have backed Bridgestone over Pirelli?

First things first: the manner in which both the FIA and Pirelli handled the tyre safety concerns in Qatar was both refreshingly transparent and highly professional.

In ordering tweaks to track limits, arranging an extra 10-minute practice session to validate the changes to the circuit and imposing unprecedented stint-length restrictions for the race, both governing body and tyre manufacturer demonstrated a flexibility and commitment to do whatever was necessary to ensure a safe event with minimal interruption.

A far cry from Indy ’05, the show did go on.

And yet, as Haas team principal Guenther Steiner pointed out, the very fact these emergency measures were required at all was “embarrassing” for F1. It was not the first time that particular word has been mentioned in the same sentence as Pirelli over the last 12 years.

(Indeed, as recently as the Dutch GP in late August, Pirelli’s extreme-wet tyre – the one they have never, ever been able to get right – was once again heavily criticised by the drivers with Russell, a GPDA director, describing it as not fit for purpose and “a complete waste of time” before calling for it to be shelved.)

So it came as a surprise when just hours after the FIA statement was released detailing the sidewall separation issue on Saturday, it was widely reported that Pirelli have won the tender to remain as F1’s sole tyre supplier from 2025 with an announcement set to be made within days.

Flying solo since 2011, Pirelli faced the first serious threat to their status this year as Bridgestone suddenly developed a taste for F1 again and launched an application to return.

Despite having the support and trust – two things Pirelli have always lacked – of many within the paddock from their previous spell in F1, Bridgestone’s proposal appears to have been rejected despite making a similar offer.

Why? Chief among F1’s concerns, it seems, is that had they secured the contract from 2025, Bridgestone would have had just 12 months to create a full tyre collection for the current cars before working on an all-new range for F1’s next major rules reset in 2026.

A challenge, no doubt, but one – by the very nature of submitting a bid – an organisation of the might and expertise of Bridgestone clearly felt was achievable.

With Pirelli already said to be signalling their intention to withdraw at the end of their reported new deal, here perhaps was an opportunity missed to shake them by the hand, thank them for their efforts – and the memories like, er, Silverstone 2013 – and bring back Bridgestone.

Might Stefano Domenicali, the F1 chief executive who worked closely with Bridgestone during his time with Ferrari, be already regretting his choice at the end of another problematic Pirelli weekend?

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