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Qatar GP Takeaways: Verstappen reigns, Hamilton falters, McLaren next up

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Following each race weekend this year, theScore's editors offer their takeaways. We continue the 2023 schedule with the Qatar GP.

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Verstappen's 3rd title puts him in rare territory

It wasn’t climactic, or even unexpected, but Max Verstappen ascended to a place only a few have reached by clinching his third world championship during Saturday’s sprint race in Qatar.

Verstappen is the 11th champion to claim three drivers' titles and only the fifth to win three straight, joining the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Michael Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel, and Juan Fangio. Verstappen has now faced differing levels of competition in each of his three title campaigns, but there’s no doubt 2023 was the most lopsided. While external foes were nowhere to be found, the Dutch pilot turned the spotlight on himself as he aimed to put together arguably the most consistent season in the sport’s history.

“This (championship) is the best one,” Verstappen said Saturday. “I think the first one was the most emotional one, because that's when your dreams are fulfilled in F1. … So for me, this one is probably the one I’m most proud of in a way because of consistency.”

There’s no shortage of material to marvel about when it comes to the Red Bull driver’s 2023 season. In a span of less than two calendar years - 644 days to be exact - Verstappen has gone from a promising title challenger to three-time world champion (Dec. 12, 2021 - Oct. 7, 2023). He’s broken the all-time record for most consecutive wins with 10 in a row this year, and his 14th victory of the year Sunday now puts him on the heels of tying his own record for most wins in a season, which he set last year with 15.

Forget the numbers for a second, though. As seen countless times before, greatness is often lost on the general viewers as they become desensitized to it. It's boring, or the feats are only for Wikipedia as some would say. Verstappen has fallen victim to that by making the difficult look extremely easy. His ability to fool onlookers into believing the extraordinary is ordinary isn't the only aspect that deserves appreciation, though. His stone cold, blunt, and almost robotic nature while dismantling the opposition is something of a rare combination.

Never before has a top driver in the sport so openly and so often talked about retirement from F1 while performing at the level Verstappen has. It’s been no secret that Verstappen doesn’t plan to spend his entire motorsport career in F1. There are no records, accomplishments, or feats that can change his mind it seems, but it’s here where we find what separates him from the rest of the greats. For the likes of Hamilton, Schumacher, and others, Formula 1 was their legacy. For Verstappen, it only appears to be a single chapter that will one day end.

“I have quite a few more years in me to be able to operate at my best,” Verstappen added. “But yeah, we'll see how long that is. To be honest, I think it's more about how long I want to be here.”

Almost like a mercenary, the 26-year-old arrived to achieve his goals and will depart once he feels fulfilled and ready for the next challenge. No one knows exactly when Verstappen will leave F1, but his 2028 contract expiry seems like a safe bet. While his third title may feel like a formality in the grand scheme of the Verstappen era, it’s also a moment to remember and appreciate that nothing lasts forever. Even greatness has an expiry date, though Verstappen seems destined to walk away long before his date arrives.

“I mean, if you told me you have to retire tomorrow for whatever reason, you know, my life is good,” Verstappen said. - Valente

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Ramifications of Hamilton's rare blunder

This was bound to happen at some point.

After their entertaining Suzuka squabbles, a clash between Hamilton and George Russell felt almost inevitable. Sunday's crash, which saw the closely matched Mercedes teammates collide on the opening lap after they went three abreast into Turn 1 alongside Verstappen, was correctly dubbed a first-lap racing incident; trying to squeeze three F1 cars into one corner rarely ends well for everyone involved, especially nowadays with the width of these enormous machines.

The seven-time champion, despite suggesting in the heat of the moment that he was "taken out" by Russell, later conceded he was at fault for the contact that ended his race almost immediately after it began. Fair play.

It didn't have to be this way, though, and comments from both the team and Russell - who recovered to finish fourth - were at odds with what went down on the track in Qatar.

"I felt so disappointed for us both, because we spoke this morning, we knew we were going to work together, and we both said we both want to be standing on that podium, it doesn't matter what order, we're here for the team," Russell explained.

The two drivers, running different tire strategies - Hamilton on the fast-starting softs and Russell opting to match pole-sitter Verstappen on mediums - had a fleeting opportunity to take the fight to the newly minted 2023 champion. With Carlos Sainz unable to start the race due to an issue with the fuel system, Mercedes also had a golden chance to significantly extend its lead over Ferrari and take a firm hold of second place in the constructors' standings.

The team wasted it.

Once adrenaline and racing instinct kick in, it's hard for any driver to take a more conservative approach when there's a chance to make a quick overtake off the line. But it's still odd that Hamilton would make such an aggressive first-turn move around the outside, with his teammate in close proximity, considering the pre-race strategy discussions that would have been fresh in his mind. It was an exceedingly rare miscue from the decorated 38-year-old, and the surprise in the aftermath is a testament to his typically pinpoint overtaking accuracy; we're simply not used to seeing him make mistakes.

In theory, there's a pathway to a conflict here - iconic veteran in competition with a younger driver hungry to establish himself as the long-term face of the team - but Toto Wolff has too much experience to let anything fester, and there's been nothing to suggest the drivers themselves are keen to quarrel. This will, in all likelihood, be a one-off. - Nesci

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Could McLaren make next run at constructors?

The 2023 constructors' championship is already iced, with Red Bull clinching in Japan. However, an interesting trend is developing, and it might indicate that the team will have trouble retaining its title.

For three straight races now, McLaren has outscored the champs.

Team Singapore Japan Qatar* Total
McLaren 24 33 47 104
Red Bull 14 26 34 74

* includes sprint race points

Including the sprint race, that's four consecutive events where McLaren has earned more points than Red Bull.

A lot of that falls squarely on Sergio Perez, who has collected a grand total of five points in the past four race weekends, including a DNF in the Qatar sprint and Japan GP, while driving the championship car. That might be something Red Bull just has to get used to, though, with Checo seemingly locked into his 2024 seat. And even if this continues and the team does ruthlessly cut Perez, could Daniel Ricciardo or Liam Lawson as potential replacements perform significantly better?

That'll be up to McLaren, which is simply operating better as a team right now. Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri are coming off back-to-back double podium performances and not only look shockingly quick on some exhausting circuits - particularly Singapore and Qatar - but their pit strategy and reliability have easily been better than their peers in the midfield. Everything is clicking right now for the Woking-based outfit. Even the pit crew is firing on all cylinders.

McLaren's sights should no longer be set on being better than just Mercedes, Ferrari, and Aston Martin. The crosshairs are on the kings.

It's far too early to forecast for next year, but teams are already very hard at work on their 2024 cars. Norris and Piastri both finding ways to get reliably on podiums as the season reaches its denouement is a huge boon toward that development. And no team is in a better position to challenge Red Bull for the constructors next year - if anyone can. - Bradburn

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Qatar littered with safety concerns, questions

The Qatar Grand Prix delivered thrilling action on the track and a championship-crowning celebration. Yet it was the concern over driver safety that stuck as a final impression of the second-ever Formula 1 event at the Lusail International Circuit.

The aftermath of Sunday’s race was jarring, as multiple drivers were sent for medical attention due to the effects of Qatar’s boiling temperatures. Even more horrifying and shocking were the first-hand accounts of what driving in the heat and humidity was like.

“These temperatures, everything goes blurry. The last 25-30 laps, it’s just blurry in the high-speed corners,” Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll said Sunday. “Blood pressure dropping and just passing out basically in the car in high-speed corners with the high G forces.”

Stroll needed an ambulance after the race for dehydration issues, but he wasn’t the only one who suffered. Williams saw Logan Sargeant retire from the race due to health concerns, while Alex Albon was treated for acute heat exposure. Multiple drivers stated they opened their visor for fresh air during the event. Alpine’s Esteban Ocon even admitted to his team that he vomited in his helmet on Lap 15.

"I felt ill during this race. It was insane how hot it was. It was like you were inside an oven," Mercedes’ George Russell noted. “I sometimes train in saunas and you push your body to the limit and you get to a point where it's too hot and you're like, 'I want to get out.' That was the feeling from about lap 12."

The alarming conditions made many, including some drivers and team principals, wonder if F1 crossed the line when it comes to driver safety.

“We are in a car that gets extremely hot, in a very physical race,” Lando Norris said Sunday. “On TV it probably doesn't look that physical but when you have people who end up retiring it is too much; for the speeds we are doing it is too dangerous. It's something we need to speak about because it shouldn't have happened in the first place."

“I think we are close to the limit when you have drivers stopping because they are not able to continue," Ferrari principal Fred Vasseur added, according to Reuters' Alan Baldwin. “They have the lucidity to stop but they could also crash. It means that we have to pay attention. I think we were very close to the limit or over the limit this weekend.”

Sunday’s race was just the culmination of a weekend plagued with problems. Concerns with the Pirelli tires handling the circuit’s distinct pyramid-shape curbs over a long distance forced adjustments to track limits Saturday before a mandatory 18-lap stint maximum was imposed for Sunday’s race.

Formula 1 has come a long way in terms of safety. But this weekend’s events felt like multiple steps backwards as the sport irresponsibly and unnecessarily attempted to walk the tightrope. That's problematic considering Qatar is scheduled to be on the Formula 1 calendar through 2033. Next year’s race is set for December, which should alleviate some of the temperature worries, but it's still a safe bet that there will be many concerns that need to be discussed before the sport’s top 20 drivers feel comfortable returning. - Valente

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