Could McLaren spring a surprise on Red Bull in Qatar?

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Oscar Piastri, Max Verstappen and Lando Norris.

The nature of the Lusail International Circuit could work in McLaren's favour.

With Max Verstappen needing just a lowly points finish to secure the 2023 Drivers’ title, will the Qatar Grand Prix throw up any surprises?

The MotoGP venue will be hoping to raise its reputation as one of Formula 1’s toughest challenges, with the fast and flowing Lusail International Circuit rewarding smoothness and consistency from both car and driver.

With the latest generation of Formula 1 cars having never raced in Lusail, we take you through what the teams need to overcome to conquer Qatar.

How has the circuit changed for 2023?

With the Covid-19 pandemic still affecting the Formula 1 calendar in 2021, the Qatar GP was a late addition to the evolving schedule and it served as a trial event for the country who were interested in a regular calendar slot.

A ten-year contract was signed for a Qatar GP, which commences this season and runs until 2032. The event did not take place in 2022 as Qatar were focusing their efforts on hosting the football World Cup.

The Lusail International Circuit was opened in 2004 and primarily designed for MotoGP racing, therefore the intention was for Qatar to switch venues for 2023. However, this has been delayed, and Formula 1 returns to Qatar’s second-largest city.

Whilst no changes have been made to the layout, the circuit itself has been resurfaced and, of less importance to fans, the facilities have been upgraded to meet the demands of Formula 1, including larger pit garages, improved paddock and race control building. As a small win for travelling spectators, there are upgrades to the grandstands, fan zones and accessibility to the circuit.

What are the characteristics of the Qatar circuit?

The 16-turn, 5.4 kilometre layout is a smooth, sweeping configuration consisting of mostly medium-to-high-speed corners that will require near-constant steering inputs from the drivers, with one of the few moments of respite coming from the one kilometre start/finish straight.

The 57-lap race will have some of the higher average speeds of the season, and the 2021 pole position time was a 1:20.827, set by Lewis Hamilton. However, as one of the world’s newer racing circuits, the run-off zones are generous, and the tedious track limits topic is likely to resurface this weekend.

Despite initial fears that the difficult-to-follow Formula 1 cars of 2021 would struggle for wheel-to-wheel racing at the Lusail circuit, there were a respectable number of overtakes at the inaugural event.

However, this was helped by frontrunners Valtteri Bottas, Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez starting further back than anticipated for a mixture of reasons. With only one straight to really speak of, the 2021 event had only one DRS zone, and it’s not yet known if an additional one can be shoehorned into the layout.

The flowing nature of the track and a lack of big braking zones certainly makes passing tricky, but drivers are helped by the one kilometre straight and the multiple racing lines available through the right-then-left sequence of Turns 1 and 2. If racing remains close in the first sector, a half-chance at overtaking could exist at the left hander of Turn 6, which is one of the tighter corners of the circuit.

Whilst the new track surface will be an unknown element for Pirelli and the teams, high-speed nature of the circuit will make the venue one of the most demanding for tyres, even with the event being run as a night race, which only tends to drop the air temperature down to the high-twenties. As a result, Pirelli will be bringing a harder range of available compounds to Qatar; the C1, C2 and C3 tyres.

If all has gone well with the track resurfacing, the cars will be treated to a relatively bump-free surface, with little to unsettle the cars apart from the usual corner kerbs. It will be one of the warmer events of the season, but teams should be able to manage brake and engine temperatures due to the higher airflow speeds and lack of big braking zones.

The spanner in the works could be the Sprint format. Under the current regulations, teams will have just one free practice session to fine-tune their cars for the rest of the weekend. Get it wrong, and teams could face a weekend of damage limitation across the Saturday Sprint race and Sunday’s Grand Prix.

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Who is expected to do well at the Qatar Grand Prix?

After Verstappen secured one of his most dominant victories of the season at Suzuka, the Red Bull team will head to Qatar confident that their Singapore blip is well and truly behind them. Qatar should play to the strengths of the RB19, which has very good aerodynamic efficiency, and has been kind to its tyres in all conditions.

McLaren’s reinvigorated MCL60 car shone at the high-downforce Suzuka circuit, but they conceded that they still felt their car was lacking in the lower-speed corners compared to Red Bull. With there being fewer low-speed corners at the Lusail International Circuit, they will fancy their chances of getting closer to this season’s runaway leaders. They will just be hoping that historical issues with drag don’t prevent a shot at continued success.

Ferrari’s recent uptick in form will have given them confidence that they can finish ahead of Mercedes in the Constructors’ Championship, and regularly fight nearer the front. However, their self-confessed “inconsistency” still lingers over them, along with their history of tyre wear issues in 2023, making their podium chances difficult to read.

Mercedes have been one of the most vocal about the limited practice time available to prepare a car for an entire Sprint format weekend. With Mercedes believing their W14 car to be overly-sensitive to finding the right setup window, they will be anxious to fully optimise the Friday’s free practice session.

Aston Martin are another team that have favoured the higher-downforce tracks, but their inability to keep up with the development pace of rival teams might mean they fall short of their early season heroics.

Their drop-off almost put them back into the clutches of Alpine at the previous race, and they will be looking to distance themselves from the midfielders and prove that they can still compete against the frontrunners.

Further back, Williams will be hoping a difficult couple of races are behind them with an improved showing. Whilst high downforce hasn’t typically been their thing in 2023, their strong showings at Silverstone and Zandvoort can provide hope of getting back into the points.

The improved form of AlphaTauri, however, has caught their attention, and it will be interesting to see if the Italian team can make some last-ditch attempts to move off the foot of the Constructors’ Championship.

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