Oscar Piastri took victory in the sprint race in Qatar on Saturday evening, but Max Verstappen did everything he needed to do to become the 2023 FIA Formula 1 World Drivers’ Champion.
In a race interrupted by the safety car on no less than three occasions, Piastri took the chequered flag first ahead of Verstappen and Lando Norris, meaning a double top three finish for the McLaren F1 Team.
Having started from pole position, Piastri held onto the lead at the start, but the race was quickly neutralised by the safety car as Liam Lawson spun his Scuderia AlphaTauri car into the gravel at turn two.
Norris and Verstappen, from second and third on the grid, made sluggish getaways and lost several positions on that opening lap, meaning George Russell ran second for the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team.
Russell was running the soft Pirelli tyre for the nineteen-lap race, as were the two Scuderia Ferrari drivers, while Piastri, Verstappen and Norris were all using the medium compound. This would see a big swing in performance during the race.
Following the resumption after Lawsons car was retrieved from the gravel, Piastri judged the restart well, but Russell had the tyre pace advantage at this stage and was able to make a pass for first into turn six.
The race was then neutralised again as Logan Sargeant spun out at turn nine, the Williams Racing driver losing control of his car and spinning, much like Lawson, into the gravel trap where he was unable to escape.
Russell continued to use his tyre advantage at the lap seven restart to pull a gap over Piastri, with the Australian forced to defend from the Ferraris. However, it was not long until the medium-shod runners had the advantage, and from defending, Piastri went onto the attack and closed down the gap to the race leader.
Verstappen was also making gains, passing both Carlos Sainz Jr. and Charles Leclerc to run third, while on lap eleven, Piastri took over at the front of the field, passing Russell down the straight into turn one.
The race was interrupted once more when three cars – BWT Alpine F1 Team’s Esteban Ocon, MoneyGram Haas F1 Team’s Nico Hülkenberg, and crucially Oracle Red Bull Racing’s Sergio Pérez – all collided at turn two.
Ocon, on the soft tyre, was trying to defend his position from Hülkenberg, and the two came out of turn one side by side. Unfortunately for both, Pérez had got a run on them both and was making it three wide going into the next corner. However, Ocon pulled across Hülkenberg, feeling it was only those two in the battle, and the squeeze made contact inevitable. All three drivers were out – Ocon and Pérez in the gravel trap and Hülkenberg with damage in the pits.
Pérez’s retirement ensured Verstappen the championship, with the Mexican now unable to score as many points as his team-mate.
Russell wanted to pit behind the safety car, feeling his tyres were gone, but his pit wall felt staying out offered him the best chance of scoring points. At the restart, he was left behind by Piastri, while Verstappen slipped through into second place not long after.
Verstappen attempted to close the gap on Piastri but was unable to do so sufficiently before the chequered flag, meaning the Australian claimed his maiden Formula 1 triumph, albeit in a sprint race.
Norris took advantage of the tyre struggles from Russell, Sainz and Leclerc to claim the final spot on the podium, while Russell held onto fourth, just ahead of his Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton, who had moved up to fifth thanks to Ferrari’s struggles and the Ocon/Hülkenberg/Pérez crash.
Sainz took sixth at the chequered flag ahead of Leclerc, but there was to be trouble for the latter post race, with a five second time penalty relegating him out of the points. Seventh therefore went the way of Williams’ Alexander Albon, while the final point went to Aston Martin Aramco Cognizant Formula 1 Team’s Fernando Alonso.
Pirelli will now investigate post-race whether their tyres can withstand long stints around the Lusail International Circuit, with the possibility of limited stint lengths being implemented should tyre integrity be called into question.
But no one can take the day away from either Piastri or the latest three-time World Champion Verstappen.