Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen take their title battle into the unknown this weekend as Qatar hosts a Formula 1 grand prix for the first time at a track better known for MotoGP action.
The last of three races on successive weekends from Mexico via Brazil, Qatar also starts a final run of three in the Middle East to decide whether Mercedes’ Hamilton wins a record eighth championship or Red Bull’s Verstappen takes his first.
Hamilton slashed the gap to 14 points after overcoming a series of setbacks with one of his finest career victories at Sao Paulo’s Interlagos circuit last Sunday.
Brazil was marked by suspicion and controversy, and that is set to continue at the 20th race of the season with Mercedes seeking a stewards’ review of a defensive move by Verstappen that forced Hamilton off track.
Meanwhile, fans will be on tenterhooks for the next instalment of the battle between two adversaries driving hard and at their best.
“We’re seeing a titanic battle for this year’s two championships, and the race in Brazil was just another twist in an engrossing tale,” said Formula 1’s managing director Ross Brawn.
“Mercedes had the edge (in Brazil), but it could swing back into Red Bull’s favour next time. It’s been fantastic. No one knows what will happen next.”
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said his team would come out fighting: “The final race of a triple-header can sometimes test your energy levels but with just three races to decide both championships, our motivation is greater than ever.
“Our focus is on channelling it in the most effective way,” added the Austrian.
Mercedes are 11 points clear of Red Bull in the constructors’ championship.
Qatar’s Losail circuit near Doha has regularly hosted MotoGP’s season-opening race and is fast and flowing with a mix of medium and high-speed corners and a one km long main straight.
It will be followed by another new venue in Saudi Arabia, a street circuit in Jeddah, before the final in Abu Dhabi where changes have been made to the track since the last time Formula One raced there.
“I think I’ve only been to Qatar once for a prize-giving so I’m looking forward to going back,” said Verstappen. “Hopefully we can perform well there. It always looks cool when we see MotoGP race there.”
Verstappen’s Mexican teammate Sergio Perez has raced previously at Losail, having won there in the GP2 Asia series in 2009.
Alpine racing director Davide Brivio has far more experience, having joined the Renault-owned team from MotoGP champions Suzuki last January. (Reporting by Alan Baldwin)
Qatar Grand Prix Facts & Stats by Reuters
20th race of the 22-round world championship.
Lap distance: 5.38km. Total distance: 306.66km (57 laps)
No previous Grand Prix held there.
Start time: 1400GMT/1700 local
Qatar Grand Prix
The circuit has hosted MotoGP since 2004, becoming a night race in 2008 when it also opened the season.
Qatar has signed a 10-year deal to host Formula One from 2023, after the 2022 soccer World Cup. A new circuit could be used from then.
The 5.4km Losail layout is fast and flowing and features 16 medium and high-speed corners.
The main straight is more than one km long and the surface is expected to be abrasive, which could mean high tyre wear. Overtaking could be tricky, with only one zone for the drag reduction system (DRS) to operate in.
Weather conditions will be warm and similar to what teams are used to in Abu Dhabi.
Qatar will be the 36th country to host Formula One.
Hamilton has a record 101 career victories, of which 80 have been with Mercedes, from 285 starts. He has been on the podium 179 times.
Red Bull’s championship leader Max Verstappen has won nine times this year to Hamilton’s six. Red Bull’s Sergio Perez, Alpine’s Esteban Ocon, McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo and Mercedes’ Bottas have each won once.
Ferrari have won 238 races since 1950, McLaren 183, Mercedes 122, Williams 114 and Red Bull 74.
Hamilton has a record 101 career poles and has won 59 times from pole. Team mate Valtteri Bottas has had four poles in 2021.
Verstappen has been on pole nine times in 2021, while Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was fastest in Azerbaijan and Monaco qualifying. McLaren’s Lando Norris was on pole in Russia.
2021 F1 World Championship
Verstappen is 14 points ahead of Hamilton.
Mercedes lead Red Bull by 11 points.
Red Bull have won 10 races this season, more than when they won the title in 2010 in 2012. They won 12 in 2011 and 13 in 2013, a number they can still match.
Hamilton and Bottas have now won 58 races as Mercedes teammates, matching the record set by Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello at Ferrari from 2000-05.
Hamilton’s 101st career win came in Brazil and matched the total tally of all Brazilian drivers in Formula One history: Ayrton Senna 41, Nelson Piquet 23, Emerson Fittipaldi 14, Barrichello and Felipe Massa 11 each, Carlos Pace 1.