Fernando Alonso scores his first podium since 2014.
Lewis Hamilton shone brightest under the lights in Lusail as the seven-time World Champion put in another commanding drive to take his seventh win of the season, reducing Max Verstappen’s championship lead to a mere eight points.
Verstappen, though, will be more than pleased with his second-place finish, given that he took a five-place grid penalty hours before the start of the race for failing to slow down under double-waved yellow flags during qualifying on Saturday.
Behind Verstappen, it was the old warhorse Fernando Alonso who took his first podium since Hungary 2014, putting in an absolutely stunning drive on a one-stop strategy to hold on to his third place, fending off a late-charging Sergio Pérez.
Behind Pérez, it was Alonso’s teammate Esteban Ocon in fifth, who made it a solid double points finish for Alpine, contributing to their Constructors’ fight against AlphaTauri.
Lance Stroll finished sixth ahead of the Ferrari duo of Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc, who took positions seventh and eighth respectively, while Sainz’s former teammate Lando Norris finished ninth.
Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel, who had a rough start, fought his way back through the field to take the final points place to round off the top ten.
With Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas handed grid penalties for failing to slow down under double yellow flags, it was AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly on the front row with Hamilton, giving the young Frenchman his best-ever Formula One start.
Behind Gasly, Alonso saw himself up to P3, and one sensed that the wily old veteran could cause all sorts of chaos for Hamilton at the start. Hamilton, though, got off as well as Alonso, who ate the young Frenchman up and took his second place.
Speaking about good starts, Verstappen, who started seventh due to his grid penalties, was another one with a great start, making up three places in the opening lap. He managed to get past Gasly, who ran wide heading into the main straight on Lap 4, and by the next lap, the young Dutchman overtook Alonso as well.
Hamilton, however, had already built up a lead of over four seconds by the fifth lap. It wasn’t the same smooth sailing for Hamilton’s teammate, though, who was struggling down in P11.
By Lap 11, Hamilton led Verstappen by more than six seconds, and it was looking more and more likely that it would be a two-horse race once again, given that Alonso was almost a full pit stop behind in third place and a good 21 seconds adrift.
Bottas, on the other hand, had made up some ground after getting the hurry-up from his team boss, seeing himself into the points and in P9.
Up front, such was Hamilton’s pace that by Lap 17 of the scheduled 57, the Mercedes driver was almost about to lap the backmarkers.
Verstappen was the first of the frontrunners to box, coming in on Lap 18. Mercedes immediately reacted, bringing in Hamilton the next lap. A smooth stop for the Brackley team saw Hamilton rejoin nine seconds ahead of the championship leader.
Bottas, meanwhile, had managed to make his way up to fourth place by Lap 22. With Hamilton having a comfortable lead over Verstappen, Mercedes kept Bottas out, hoping to disrupt Red Bull’s strategies.
That move backfired spectacularly, however, as Bottas, who didn’t pit until Lap 32, saw his left front tyre get punctured, because of which he had to limp back to the pits for not only a tyre change but also a new front wing given the damage sustained as he scraped his car back to the pits.
Given what they saw happen to Bottas’ tyres, Red Bull called in Verstappen for another stop on Lap 42, which was again immediately responded to by Mercedes, who brought in Hamilton. Interestingly, Red Bull called in Sergio Pérez as well, who rejoined in seventh place.
Hamilton, meanwhile, led from Verstappen, while Alonso held on to the third place ahead of Lando Norris. With Pérez chasing down the pack in front of him to get to the podium places, Alonso was on the radio to his team, asking them to tell Ocon to hold up Pérez.
As the second Red Bull driver tried to hunt down Alonso, the second Mercedes driver received a different treatment of fortune, becoming the first retiree of the race on Lap 51. Williams’ George Russell, who would be replacing Bottas at Mercedes next season, suffered front wing and tyre damage the same lap, with the track being rough on those exceeding the limits even by an inch.
As Russell rejoined the track, his teammate Nicholas Latifi suffered a similar puncture to Bottas’, damaging his front left tyre. Latifi’s damage meant the Canadian couldn’t manage to get his car back into the pits, and the Williams driver eventually parked his car off the gravel near the escape road.
Latifi’s off-track car, which the marshals were tending to, eventually brought out the Virtual Safety Car. The VSC effectively ended the race, with drivers having to reduce their speeds by 40% and not being allowed to overtake, which meant that Sergio Pérez, who was trying to hunt down Alonso for the final podium place, saw his charge end.
Eventually, the VSC did end on the final lap, which saw Hamilton take a chequered flag quite comfortably; he finished a good 25 seconds ahead of Verstappen in second, who, for his consolation, managed to knick home the fastest lap point. Alonso held on to his third place, taking home his first podium since his comeback.
Hamilton’s second win on the trot means the championship battle is going down to the wire, with only eight points separating the two contenders.
Red Bull, though, will feel like they missed out on taking the Constructors’ lead, given Bottas’ retirement and Verstappen’s second-place and Pérez’s fourth-place finishes. They now trail Mercedes by five points in the Constructors’ standings.
Alonso’s podium and Ocon’s fifth-place finish sees Alpine take a 25-point lead over AlphaTauri, who had a Sunday to forget. Gasly stopped early, but it meant he had to stop again, after which the young Frenchman just couldn’t charge back into the points.
Aston Martin, meanwhile, scored their first double points finish since France, while Ferrari’s double points finish ahead of the lone-scoring McLaren of Lando Norris means that the Scuderia now have a solid 39-point lead over their British rivals for that third-place fight in the Constructors’ Championship.
After three intense weeks of racing, Formula One heads into a two-week break before the final showdown gets underway. We once again visit the unknown in Jeddah for the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix before heading to the season finale in Abu Dhabi.
The break probably comes at the best time for Red Bull and Max Verstappen, who have simply had no answer to Mercedes’ and Hamilton’s pace over the last two races. Both Verstappen and Red Bull will need to pull out all the big guns and more if they want to leave Jeddah with the championship lead.