Lewis Hamilton wins in Qatar to tighten F1 title fight; Verstappen second after penalty

Hamilton Verstappen Qatar grid
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LOSAIL, Qatar — Lewis Hamilton inched closer to the Formula One championship lead with a dominating victory Sunday in the inaugural Qatar Grand Prix, where Max Verstappen overcame a grid penalty to finish second.

Hamilton, who also won last week in Brazil, has trimmed 17 points from Verstappen’s lead in the title race in a week. Verstappen still holds an eight-point lead with two races remaining in one of the most dramatic F1 title fights in at least a decade.

“I’m really, really grateful for these points. It’s been a hell of a year,” Hamilton said. “To be at this point in the year and have back-to-back wins is a great feeling.”

The seven-time champion started from pole for Mercedes and never was challenged on the Losail International Circuit as Hamilton won his 102nd career race. It was his seventh victory of the season.

Verstappen finished second for Red Bull, nearly 25 seconds behind Hamilton.

“It was pretty lonely at the front,” Hamilton said.

Verstappen was hit with a penalty before the race even began when he was dropped five spots on the starting grid for violating a yellow flag in Saturday’s qualifying. The Dutchman had qualified second but the stewards ordered him to drop back on the grid following Sunday hearings for Verstappen, Valtteri Bottas and Carlos Sainz.

All three were accused of not following yellow flag rules near the end of qualifying. Bottas, who had qualified third, was penalized three starting sports. Sainz was not penalized.

Red Bull was mystified by the grid penalty for Verstappen, who lost any chance to challenge Hamilton for the win when he was penalized. Red Bull principal Christian Horner criticized the penalty when it was handed down.

“We’re really struggling to understand it,” Horner said. “That’s a crucial blow in this world championship for us.”

Despite the penalty, Verstappen needed only five laps to recover and drive back to where he was originally slated to start.

“Our starting position was a bit compromised,” Verstappen said. “I know it’s going to be difficult to the end but I think that’s nice. It keeps it exciting.”

But he said he was ready for the challenges ahead in Saudi Arabia and the finale in Abu Dhabi.

“I feel good,” he said. “It’s going to be tight.”

Hamilton, winner of four straight titles, has all the momentum now. The British driver is seeking a record eighth F1 title, which would move him past Michael Schumacher.

“I’m feeling really good, I’m really, really happy with the car,” Hamilton said. “I feel fitter than ever, so that’s a positive.”

Fernando Alonso of Alpine finished third for his first podium since 2014. He was aided by the prerace penalties to Verstappen and Bottas, which moved the Spaniard up to third on the starting grid.

Sergio Perez finished fourth to help Red Bull in its push to beat Mercedes for the constructors championship.

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
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Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.