Ten things we learned from F1's 2021 Qatar Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton made it two wins on the bounce in Formula 1's inaugural Qatar Grand Prix to close in once more on championship leader Max Verstappen, as the season fast approaches its conclusion. We pick out the key talking points as relations between the rival Mercedes and Red Bull squads deteriorated further, drivers complained about unclear rules and an F1 legend ended a seven-year podium wait

Ten things we learned from F1's 2021 Qatar Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton may still be trailing in the 2021 Formula 1 world championship battle, but the Mercedes driver laid down the gauntlet to Max Verstappen and Red Bull with a second dominant victory on the trot in Qatar.

After Verstappen's victory in Mexico, Hamilton has come alive and with two races to go it's still all to play for in the drivers' championship, although a DNF for Valtteri Bottas has helped Red Bull to close in the constructors' race.

Meanwhile as a double world champion ended his own personal drought, McLaren's dwindling form continued and a huge opportunity was missed by a first-time front-row sitter.

Here are 10 things we learned from the 2021 Qatar Grand Prix.

Hamilton's dominant win has turned the tides in the title fight

Hamilton's dominant win has turned the tides in the title fight

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

1. Hamilton and Mercedes have all the momentum in the title fight (by Luke Smith)

There was a point on Saturday in Brazil when, after it had been confirmed that Hamilton would be starting from the back of the grid for the sprint race, it looked possible the title could be settled in Qatar.

But the turnaround in form Hamilton and Mercedes have produced over the past two weekends has totally changed the dynamic in the title race. Red Bull's strength from Austin and Mexico has dissipated, with Hamilton producing two 10 out of 10 displays - as per our driver ratings - to get himself back into the thick of the fight.

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The gap is down to just eight points, and Red Bull had zero response to Mercedes' pace in Qatar. Given this was the track Mercedes was most concerned about during the run in, the performance will serve as a giant confidence boost.

Hamilton also appears to be in one of his difficult-to-beat runs, with Wolff pointing to the setback on Saturday at Interlagos as having sparked something inside the seven-time world champion.

"They have woken up the lion on the Saturday at Interlagos," Wolff said. "He's absolutely on it - brutal, and cold-blooded. This is the best in Lewis, and we've seen it in the past."

Verstappen recovered well from seventh to second, but never had the pace to trouble Hamilton

Verstappen recovered well from seventh to second, but never had the pace to trouble Hamilton

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

2. Even without the penalty, second was the maximum for Verstappen (LS)

Verstappen's grid penalty for failing to slow for yellow flags may have denied us a possible side-by-side moment with the title contenders into Turn 1. But for outright pace, it did not have a big bearing on the end result.

Much as in Brazil, Red Bull simply didn't have the pace of Mercedes in Qatar, something all the more concerning given Mercedes did not run the fresh Interlagos engine. Verstappen started well and was within four seconds of Hamilton once he got to P2, but then stood little chance of bridging the gap.

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It's a concerning outlook for Red Bull. The team has taken a step back since Mexico, and can't pin it solely down to Mercedes' form. The advantage that made this look like Verstappen's championship to lose has now left his title seem more in the balance.

Jeddah will be an unknown for all teams, but so was Qatar. Red Bull must ensure it does not face similar struggles throughout that weekend, or it may go to Abu Dhabi needing a result to deny Mercedes the titles.

Alonso took his first podium since the 2014 Hungarian GP

Alonso took his first podium since the 2014 Hungarian GP

Photo by: Alpine

3. Alonso's podium was exactly why he came back to F1 (by James Newbold)

Much has changed since the 2014 Hungarian Grand Prix. Back then, Hamilton was a mere one-time world champion, Verstappen was a Formula 3 racer yet to set foot in a F1 car, and Ferrari's next big thing was Jules Bianchi.

Fernando Alonso's seven-year wait for his 98th F1 podium was finally ended in Qatar as the 40-year-old marked his return to F1 with a third place finish. The result was assisted by a puncture for Bottas and the Virtual Safety Car that halted Sergio Perez's charge, but it still required all of his experience to nurse his tyres and execute the tricky one-stop.

It was fitting that Alonso should at least have one podium to show for an impressive comeback season that arguably reached its peak with his defence against Hamilton in Hungary - that aided teammate Esteban Ocon's victory push - and could have yielded a rostrum visit in Sochi had the rain not intensified, after he made his class show in the initially intermediate conditions.

Departing F1 following three years of toil at McLaren in 2018, many wondered whether we'd ever see Alonso in F1 again. In his time away, he succeeded in winning the World Endurance Championship title for Toyota, along with a Le Mans 24 Hours double, although has found the Indianapolis 500 a tougher nut to crack.

This year, he's appeared a man more at peace with himself than the often agitated figure who frequently proclaimed that drives to 15th in a woefully McLaren-Honda were among his best-ever, knowing a points finish represents a good day at the office for Alpine. But, as has always been the case with the Spaniard, whenever there is the slightest sniff of a result he comes alive and ruthlessly maximises it. Qatar was one such example, and showed exactly what he returned to F1 for.

Gasly went wheel-to-wheel with Hamilton off the line, but finished outside the points on a tough day for the Frenchman

Gasly went wheel-to-wheel with Hamilton off the line, but finished outside the points on a tough day for the Frenchman

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

4. AlphaTauri saw a huge opportunity pass by (LS)

Pierre Gasly cut a dejected, baffled figure when he came to the written media pen following the race. He had gone from the front row of the grid to finishing outside of the points, one lap down, and was at a loss to what had happened.

"Our pace was shocking," Gasly said. "At the moment we don't really have the answer. We tried to stick with Fernando [Alonso] for the first few laps. I could barely make it, and then after that we tried to go for an aggressive two-stop strategy but the pace was never there."

Gasly added he could have made five stops and he would still have had zero pace, questioning whether the part changes made after the damage he picked up in qualifying may have caused the issue. teammate Yuki Tsunoda also struggled massively for pace, in part after getting a visor tear-off stuck in his rear wing.

Not only does it end a decent spell of form for AlphaTauri, but is compounded by Alpine's 25-point haul with Alonso in third and Esteban Ocon in fifth. The two teams had been tied on points in the fight for P5 going to Qatar, with AlphaTauri very much in the ascendancy. Now, the fight looks as good as over with two races to go.

McLaren only scored two points in Qatar after Norris's puncture, helping Ferrari extend its advantage

McLaren only scored two points in Qatar after Norris's puncture, helping Ferrari extend its advantage

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

5. Norris's puncture continued McLaren's miserable recent run (by Megan White)

Having taken just four points in the last three races, McLaren now finds itself languishing almost 40 points behind third-placed rivals Ferrari in the constructors championship. The Italian team trailed by 17.5 points after the Russian Grand Prix, where Lando Norris was a contender for victory, but McLaren's torrid run since then has seen momentum shift decidedly in favour of the Scuderia.

Its two points in Qatar, following one point apiece in Mexico and Brazil, contrasts starkly with the 47 picked up by Ferrari across the three races, with Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc finishing seventh and eighth respectively last weekend.

McLaren team boss Andreas Seidl admits the triple header "didn't go their way", with Daniel Ricciardo once again failing to finish in the points - his third pointless race since Austin - after a Qatar race compromised by extreme fuel-saving.

This was compounded by the "dangerous" puncture Norris suffered, dropping him from a prospective fourth place to a lowly ninth at the finish. The Woking-based outfit now has a lot of work to do in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi if it has a chance of taking back third place.

Drivers remain uncertain over what is permitted in wheel-to-wheel racing

Drivers remain uncertain over what is permitted in wheel-to-wheel racing

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

6. Driving standards in wheel-to-wheel fights still remain unclear (LS)

The big talking point on arrival in the Qatar paddock on Thursday was Mercedes' request to review the incident between Hamilton and Verstappen at Turn 4 in Brazil.

After a lengthy wait, the stewards confirmed on Friday that they did not deem the new video evidence - Verstappen's onboard camera - to be significant enough to have the case reopened.

It led to a long discussion between the drivers in Friday's briefing about what is and is not allowed in wheel-to-wheel battles, and how to treat the driver on the outside of the corner, with Norris vocal in his belief that it showed his penalty handed down in Austria was unfair.

Some came away saying it was clear (including Verstappen) but many, including Hamilton were less certain.

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"There was no outcome," said GPDA director George Russell. "I do appreciate you need to judge every single individual case by case. But for me that was not even close to the line, it was well beyond the line."

"We need black and white rules," added Alonso, who has been vocal throughout this year about stewarding consistency. "When they are grey, sometimes you feel you are benefitting from them, and sometimes you've been the bad or the idiot on-track again."

Race director Michael Masi felt it was "clear" to the drivers what is expected, even if there was not total agreement.

"Some of them might agree, some of them disagree, and that's always with each and every one of them, they have agreed and disagreed all the way through," he said.

"So we've drawn, given them some overall guidance, but also been very clear on the fact that each and every case will be judged on its merits."

Delayed confirmation of Verstappen's penalty made for a frustrating wait for fans

Delayed confirmation of Verstappen's penalty made for a frustrating wait for fans

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

7. The wait for penalty decisions is frustrating fans (by Jake Boxall-Legge)

Late penalty decisions are a bit of a meme in Formula E, where the order of drivers crossing the finish line is very much subject to change - especially with the quantity of variables crammed into a single 45-minute race. By comparison, F1 has been held up as an arena that can opt for quick decisions, aided by the zillions of camera angles that FOM's broadcast team has at its disposal.

But although Formula E can sometimes deliver a late verdict, its stewards at least aim to make a same-day delivery. At Brazil and now at Qatar, F1 has slept on two particularly large decisions - the outcome of the Hamilton/Verstappen off-track incident right-to-review at Brazil's Turn 4, and Verstappen's double-yellow transgression in Qatar qualifying.

The stewards, when reviewing Verstappen's defence against Hamilton against Brazil that left both drivers running out of road, did not have the Red Bull driver's overhead camera available when making their decision during the race. Mercedes then submitted its right to review application, but the verdict to throw it out was delayed until Friday.

Verstappen's qualifying incident was also not investigated immediately, and the Dutchman was not required to meet the stewards until 1pm local time the following day - and even then, his five-place penalty on the grid for the race was not revealed until an hour and a half before the race was set to begin.

Not only does that create problems for the teams and drivers, who do not know which outcome they're preparing for, but it also leaves the fans confused.

FIA race director Masi stated "it was obviously relatively late, [drivers] not being here, long day, etc. So do it this morning - everyone's fresh," but the fact that the race was fast approaching with nobody being sure of the final grid (which was initially wrong, as Bottas' similar penalty for ignoring a single yellow in qualifying originally put him down to fifth, not sixth) left everyone frustrated that a decision could not be reached sooner.

By all means sleep on a big decision, but at least call it early the next day.

There was yet another war of words between Red Bull and Mercedes, this time on the topic of 'score marks'

There was yet another war of words between Red Bull and Mercedes, this time on the topic of 'score marks'

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

8. Relations between Mercedes and Red Bull have hit a new low (LS)

Mercedes and Red Bull have contributed enough political drama for the entire grid this year, with tensions only growing over the Qatar weekend.

Mercedes' rear wing design was Red Bull's point of attack once again, with team boss Christian Horner saying the team was ready to lodge a protest. The team pointed to the apparent score marks on the end of the main plane as suggesting the wing was flexing, something Wolff called "a ghost".

The FIA has introduced new rear wing load tests as part of a fact-finding mission, something Horner said he was "delighted" about. But Wolff remained uncertain if it would avert the possibility of a protest, saying Red Bull had been "erratic".

The Friday press conference between Wolff and Horner was incredibly tense. Horner said there was "no relationship" with Wolff, adding: "It's interesting to see how people react under pressure, how they react when they're challenged. It's by far the most intense political title fight we've been involved in in our time in this sport."

It is intense, but as we head into the final two races and the margins narrow in both championships, it would be awful for such a brilliant on-track fight to be settled in court. Hopefully the week off before Saudi Arabia will cool things down and ease some of the pressure.

Horner apologised for his remarks criticising a marshal

Horner apologised for his remarks criticising a marshal

Photo by: FIA Pool

9. Horner was wrong to blame the marshal (JBL)

As the heat of the championship battle continues to intensify, tempers have flared drastically. Horner, across multiple media appearances, has been on something of an offensive in his accusations that Mercedes have been running an illegal wing, speaking vaguely about "score marks" and inviting the Sky F1 pundits to "do their research"; forgetting that in a court of law, it's the accuser who must provide evidence to form a case.

But Horner's crusade didn't stop there. Following Verstappen's failure to adhere to the double-waved yellows after Gasly was stranded on the Losail main straight with a punctured tyre, Horner was quick to blame the marshal who produced the warning flags for interrupting the Red Bull driver's lap.

"I think it's just a rogue marshal that's stuck a flag out and he's not been instructed to by the FIA," Horner told Sky.

"They've got to have control of their marshals. It's as simple as that because that's a crucial blow in this world championship for us. We're starting P7 at a track you can't overtake at, that is massive."

Naturally, the FIA didn't take too kindly to that, summoning Horner to the stewards' room post race - having breached Articles 12.2.1 f) and 12.2.1 k) in the FIA International Sporting Code, which describe misconduct towards the FIA members and marshals working on behalf of the circuit.

To his credit, Horner apologised for his comments, and as a result escaped with a warning and must attend a stewards' seminar next year as penance. Although the FIA drew attention to the comments being made "under the pressure of competition", Horner is an F1 veteran now and must surely know the value of exercising restraint in his media appearances. Quoth Jose Mourinho, "I prefer not to speak. If I speak I am in big trouble."

With two weeks between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Horner might be best served booking in appointments with a podiatrist and a dentist, because he's been well and truly caught with his foot in his mouth lately.

Hamilton wore a special helmet livery in support of the LGBTQ+ community

Hamilton wore a special helmet livery in support of the LGBTQ+ community

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

10. Hamilton's human rights stand is crucial for F1 (MW)

Donning a rainbow-liveried helmet in Qatar in support of the LGBTQ+ community, Hamilton took a bold stand for human rights.

In a country where same-sex marriage is illegal and amid human rights concerns ahead of the 2022 World Cup, the Mercedes ace said sports visiting places with poor records are "duty bound" to raise awareness.

"These places need scrutiny, and it needs the media to speak about these things", he said. "Equal rights is a serious issue."

Hamilton has previously spoken of the "massive problem" surrounding human rights in some of the countries F1 visits for races, and spoke to officials in Bahrain about the matter earlier this year.

It was another reminder of the ambassadorial role Hamilton holds for F1, both on and off the track, even amid one of the most tightly-fought campaigns in many years.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 1st position, waves from Parc Ferme

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 1st position, waves from Parc Ferme

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

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