Max Verstappen took victory at the Qatar Grand Prix ahead of Oscar Piastri and Lando Norris, but there was huge drama behind as Mercedes duo Lewis Hamilton and George Russell collided at the start.
Hamilton retired after sliding into the gravel following contact with Russell at Turn 1, but Russell was able to recover well and finish fourth for Mercedes.
Norris questioned McLaren team orders in being told to hold station behind Piastri in the final stint, but it was another massive haul of points for McLaren in a quite frantic Qatar Grand Prix on Sunday.
Pre-race changes followed by in-race drama at Qatar Grand Prix
News came through before the start that not only would a huge amount of pit stops be taking place in the race, with the FIA announcing a maximum of 18 laps on one set of tyres being allowed during the Qatar Grand Prix due to safety concerns, Carlos Sainz would not start at all due to a fuel system leak on his Ferrari – and Nico Hulkenberg would receive a 10-second time penalty for later accidentally starting the race from Sainz’s vacant P12 grid slot.
So 19 drivers took to the grid, all requiring at least three stops, with Verstappen on pole ahead of both Mercedes drivers, due to the qualifying results from Friday setting the order for the Qatar Grand Prix.
And at the start, there was immediate drama.
Lewis Hamilton, starting on soft tyres, managed to pull alongside George Russell heading towards Turn 1 as Verstappen covered the lead.
Hamilton looked to sweep around the outside of his Mercedes team-mate, but the pair collided and the seven-time World Champion was sent sliding backwards into the gravel, with a tyre ripped off his W14 in the process.
Russell had damage of his own and pulled into the pits for a front wing and tyre change, swearing over team radio after being spun around in the melee himself and relegated to the back of the field.
“Let us know if you’re okay, mate” came the call from Pete Bonnington on the Mercedes pit wall, and Hamilton’s response: “Yeah, I got taken out by my own team-mate.”
As for Russell’s assessment, once he had calmed down and got back out on track, he said over team radio: “So sorry, guys. I wasn’t even looking behind, I was just focussed ahead and he just came from nowhere.
“****ing lost for words, honestly. I’ve just seen the replays on the TV screen, couldn’t do anything, totally sandwiched. It’s ****ing lap 1.”
In amongst that melee, Oscar Piastri, winner of Saturday’s Sprint, snuck underneath Fernando Alonso on the inside of Turn 1 and up to second behind Verstappen, with Alonso in third, along with Charles Leclerc and Esteban Ocon rounding out the top five.
A lengthy Safety Car later, the racing got back underway again and Russell was clearly on a mission, down in 14th and with a point to prove.
He quickly scythed past Sergio Perez, who was running on hard tyres, before diving ahead of Zhou Guanyu and Logan Sargeant to make his way back into the points.
But given the limits on the times the drivers could have on their tyres, it wasn’t long before the drivers were forced to pit for the first time in what would be a metaphoric strategic minefield of a Qatar Grand Prix, with a maximum of 18 laps allowed on one set of tyres.
Alonso lost position to Leclerc at the first round of stops before a smart move saw the Aston Martin driver ahead again, but with the first stops spread across the field, the division in strategies meant that ‘true’ track position was difficult to decipher until after the 18-lap intervals of the race in which drivers had to pit.
Verstappen, though, was able to pull out enough of a gap to Alex Albon behind to pit and return comfortably in the lead. Piastri pitted around two seconds behind Verstappen, but the Red Bull driver emerged from the pits around nine seconds ahead of the McLaren man, who was his nearest challenger.
Norris was also making moves in the sister McLaren, however, swooping around the outside of Leclerc at Turn 1 to put himself a net fourth place on the road.
Russell looked to replicate that move on Pierre Gasly for ninth place, but complained of being squeezed off track by the Alpine driver as the Mercedes man continued his recovery mission.
Track limits have been a big topic of conversation all weekend, with Leclerc and Lance Stroll given time penalties for going off track too many times during the Sprint, and several drivers including Perez and Albon were given black-and-white warning flags for track limits before the race had even reached its halfway point.
But a couple of laps after his warning, Perez was punished with a five-second penalty for breaching track limits once again, proof that the drivers needed to stay within bounds at Lusail.
At the second round of stops, Norris’ progress continued as an excellent second stint saw him leapfrog Alonso in the pits, making it a net double McLaren podium in what was turning into a sterling recovery from 10th on the grid.
Having struggled with heat under his seat in his Aston Martin, Alonso had a rare off at Turn 2 as he suffered oversteer into the left-hander, rejoining the track via the escape road and losing track position to Russell and Leclerc behind.
Though given the way darted across the track in coming back onto the road, Alonso was soon investigated by the stewards for potentially rejoining the track unsafely.
At the back, Logan Sargeant reported he was feeling unwell behind the wheel – far from ideal in the heat and humidity at the Qatar Grand Prix, and while he tried to soldier on, he had to eventually retire from the race.
Elsewhere, Perez was punished with a second five-second penalty for track limits breaches, with race engineer Hugh Bird informing him and saying: “This is hurting our race”, with the Red Bull driver running on the fringes of the points.
Several drivers opted to pit on the lap 40 mark, a key point in the race given that drivers would be able to go to the end on their final set of tyres at that time.
McLaren’s pit crew were on top of things throughout, clocking a remarkable 1.8s stop, and when the official time is confirmed, will be perilously close to the world record time clocked by Red Bull in Brazil several years ago.
Norris emerged closer behind Piastri from his final stop as a result of another rapid stop, and was closing in on his team-mate but was told to hold position by McLaren, with a huge haul of points on the cards and the team looking to cover what would be a charging Russell behind after his final pit stop.
“Why do you want to do that?” Norris quickly responded when told he would be holding the fort. “We have a big gap [behind], I’m clearly a lot quicker.”
A six-lap dash on soft tyres would be Russell’s tyre of choice after a remarkable recovery drive having been facing backwards at Turn 1, rejoining fourth and 17 seconds behind Norris.
Fortunately for the McLaren pair, as was the case in the Sprint, the soft tyre was unable to make headway compared to those on medium and hard tyres.
Elsewhere, despite having made his way back into the points, a five-second penalty for Stroll left him a sitting duck for Perez and Gasly behind and primed him to drop out of the points once again.
But at the front, having been rarely troubled throughout proceedings on Sunday, it was another victory sealed for Verstappen as he took race win number 14 for the season at the Qatar Grand Prix.
After the chequered flag, a third five-second penalty for Perez dropped him down to 10th, behind Zhou Guanyu.
Race classification: 2023 Qatar Grand Prix
1 Max VERSTAPPEN Red Bull 1:27:39.168 57 laps
2 Oscar PIASTRI McLaren +4.833
3 Lando NORRIS McLaren +5.969
4 George RUSSELL Mercedes +34.119
5 Charles LECLERC Ferrari +38.976
6 Fernando ALONSO Aston Martin +49.032
7 Esteban OCON Alpine +62.390
8 Valtteri BOTTAS Alfa Romeo +66.563
9 ZHOU Guanyu Alfa Romeo +76.127
10 Sergio PEREZ Red Bull +80.181*
11 Lance STROLL Aston Martin +81.652
12 Pierre GASLY Alpine +82.300
13 Alexander ALBON Williams +91.014
14 Kevin MAGNUSSEN Haas +1 lap
15 Yuki TSUNODA AlphaTauri +1 lap
16 Nico HULKENBERG Haas +1 lap
17 Liam LAWSON AlphaTauri +1 lap
18 Logan SARGEANT Williams DNF, illness
19 Lewis HAMILTON Mercedes DNF, collision
20 Carlos SAINZ Ferrari DNS, fuel system leak
*Five-second penalty applied post-race.