Qatar Grand Prix: 5 Things to Know Going Into the Race

Formula 1 now heads into its last race of a triple-header with a first-time visit to Qatar. The season is winding down, with only three races remaining, but the on-track action, behind-the-scenes drama, and the fights for championships are all heating up. 

The 2021 season may very well go down in history as one of Formula 1’s best, with a tight and titanic battle between two of the best drivers in the sport making headlines week after week. The fight between teams is no less dramatic, with a resurgent Red Bull finding success after playing second fiddle to one of the sport’s most dominant forces, the Mercedes GP squad, for several years.

There are three races to go and everything to play for; these are the five stories everyone will be talking about heading into the Qatar Grand Prix.

A new track will pose challenges for drivers and teams with no one having the benefit of experience on the Losail Circuit

A general view of the start-finish straight during previews ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Qatar at Losail International Circuit on November 18, 2021 | Clive Mason/Getty Images

Formula 1 teams and drivers will face a new challenge this coming weekend, racing on a track that they have never seen before. The Qatar Grand Prix is at the Losail International Circuit, outside Qatar’s capital city, Doha.

Built to host MotoGP in 2004, the middle-eastern circuit is 3.4 miles long with many medium to high-speed corners. The main straight is over one kilometer, or about 0.62 miles, long and features plenty of passing opportunities. 

Due to its location along the Persian Gulf, the weather will be hot with zero chance of rain.

It is next to impossible to determine which team might have an advantage at the Losail Circuit since none have raced here before. But, the final three races of the season are all at middle-eastern tracks that share similar characteristics, so a solid performance in Qatar could bode well for the last races of the year.

Can Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes GP keep the momentum going? Or will Red Bull and Max Verstappen hit back with dominant performances of their own?

Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes W12 leads Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing RB16B Honda during the F1 Grand Prix of Brazil on November 14, 2021 | Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Lewis Hamilton and his Mercedes W12 race car looked unstoppable in Sao Paulo. Despite an engine change grid penalty and a disqualification, the Briton looked in a different league as he charged through the field for the win. 

Christian Horner, Red Bull Racing’s team principal, called the Mercedes F1 car “unraceable.” Max Verstappen had no answer for Hamilton’s pace and ultimately finished 10 seconds behind at the checkered flag.

Red Bull Racing believes that the Mercedes F1 car was close to 20 mph faster on the straits in Brazil. This could be due to the new engine fitted to Hamilton’s car or due to a brilliant performance from the seven-time champion as he fights for his eighth title.

Horner thinks there might be something fishy going on with the rear wing on Hamilton’s car, but as of now, he has not filed an official complaint. That has the potential to change if Mercedes continues to be significantly faster than the Red Bull.

Max Verstappen sits 14 points ahead of Lewis Hamilton in the driver’s championship. Another win from Hamiton would see the points gap close even tighter. Verstappen will be keen to put some distance between himself and Hamilton as there is every chance that the Mercedes man can close the gap and overtake Verstappen for the title.

Red Bull will also want a strong performance out of Sergio Perez as the battle for the team’s championship comes down to the final rounds. 11 points are all that separate the two competitors, and a solid result from Perez will go a long way to closing that gap.

Neither team has a clear advantage at the Losail Circuit, but Hamilton needs another win to keep the title fight going.

McLaren is up against a wall in their battle with Ferrari for third place in the standings

Charles Leclerc of Monaco driving the (16) Scuderia Ferrari SF21 leads Lando Norris of Great Britain driving the (4) McLaren F1 Team MCL35M Mercedes during the sprint ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Brazil on November 13, 2021 | Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

The start of the 2021 Formula 1 season was all about McLaren. Team driver Lando Norris put in a series of superb performances with multiple podium finishes, and a win by Daniel Ricciardo at the Italian Grand Prix helped McLaren build a 17.5 point advantage over Ferrari. 

Ferrari introduced an engine upgrade in Russia for the Sochi Grand Prix and clawed back the points deficit. Ferrari’s drivers, Charles LeClerc and Carlos Sainz Jr., have put in some remarkable performances in the latter half of the season to build a 31.5 point advantage over McLaren. 

Daniel Ricciardo’s car failure in Sao Paulo and a first lap punctured tire on Norris’ car did not help McLaren in their bid to finish third in the constructors’ championship. With three races to go, McLaren is in a tough spot. They need Norris and Ricciardo to finish ahead of the Ferrari duo to stop the momentum. 

Ricciardo has looked strong in the past two races, but time has run out for McLaren, and they need Qatar to be a success if they are to have any chance of catching Ferrari.

The closest battle on the grid is between Alpine and AlphaTauri, do either team have an edge in the fight?

Pierre Gasly of France driving the (10) Scuderia AlphaTauri AT02 Honda leads Esteban Ocon of France driving the (31) Alpine A521 Renault during the F1 Grand Prix of Brazil on November 14, 2021 | Peter Fox/Getty Images

Most of the talk in 2021 has centered around Mercedes and Red Bull, Hamilton and Verstappen. Their title fights have been dramatic, with neither holding a clear advantage over the other. As close as those battles have been, no fight is closer than the Alpine and AlphaTauri bout.

Sitting fifth and sixth in the constructors’ championship, both teams are level on points at 112. Since the Sochi Grand Prix, Alpine has added just nine points to their total while AlphaTauri has captured 28. AlphaTauri’s driver, Pierre Gasly, is driving better than ever, scoring 92 of the 112 points for his team this year. Teammate Yuki Tsunoda has struggled in his first season in Formula 1, and a lack of regular points finishes has hurt the points total for the year.

At Alpine, Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon have a more even split in the points tally, with Alonso bagging 62 points to Ocon’s 50. That balance of performance for the Alpine pair could be the deciding factor in the championship picture. AlphaTauri may have the faster car, but Alpine scores points more evenly across their two drivers.

Interestingly, Alpine’s racing director, Davide Brivio, comes from the world of MotoGP, having been instrumental in Yamaha’s and Suzuki’s championship bids. Having been in MotoGP, he will have been to the Qatar race track before and is likely one, if not the only, man in the paddock with actual race experience at the circuit.

Will that translate into an advantage for Alpine? Possibly, motorcycle racing is a world apart from Formula 1 racing, but experience at the circuit and understanding the track’s characteristics could give the French team a leg-up on their rivals at AlphaTauri.

Protests, reviews, and the continuing fallout from the Lap 48 battle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen

Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner and Mercedes GP Executive Director Toto Wolff talk in the Paddock during practice ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Bahrain on March 26, 2021 | Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Mercedes GP has asked for a review of the lap 48 incident during the Sao Paulo Grand Prix between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton. The stewards and FIA declined to punish or penalize Verstappen at the time for running Hamilton wide and pushing him off the track. Still, newly found footage from Verstappen’s car could change everyone’s view of the incident. 

The FIA could hand the Dutch superstar a penalty if Verstappen purposely shoved Hamilton off the track and didn’t leave enough room for the two to race side-by-side. That would likely take the form of a grid place penalty and require Verstappen to start further down the field come Sunday’s race.

These incidents have become a central talking point all season long, with opinions divided on how best to police these types of situations. There is an intense desire from fans, teams, and drivers to have a championship battle decided on track and not by the penalties handed down from the stewards.

Fans want to see an exciting battle for the championship, with tough but clean racing between competitors. Penalties and perceptions of inconsistent policing of the rules are making many fans, teams, and drivers believe that the stewards are biased this year. 

The tension between Hamilton and Verstappen and Mercedes GP and Red Bull Racing is extraordinarily high and borderline personal. Expect both teams and both drivers to have a lot to say over the weekend. Neither Toto Wolff nor Christian Horner are ones to keep their opinions to themselves, and the war of words between the two will undoubtedly rage on through the weekend.

It would be a shame for a season that has seen some of the best racing in years to have the shadow of penalties and protests cast over the championship. But, the stakes are high in Formula 1, and neither of these titans of the sport will easily back down from the fight.

There are three races to go, and everything is on the line with no room for error. The 2021 Qatar Grand Prix is set to be a pivotal race in the championship and could foreshadow the year’s final races. No one has a clear advantage, but all teams and drivers will be full-throttle to the finish at the Losail International Circuit.

Related: Toto Wolff Declares, “Diplomacy Has Ended,” in Fight With FIA Over Sao Paulo Grand Prix Events