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Qatar GP: Lewis Hamilton takes vital pole as Max Verstappen faces potential grid penalty

  • Lewis Hamilton takes pole by 0.455s ahead of Max Verstappen
  • Verstappen summoned to stewards after allegedly ignoring yellow flags
  • Mercedes boss Toto Wolff warns that things might be about to turn “dirty” 

It never rains but it pours in Formula 1. Even in the desert. A week that has already seen more claims and counter-claims than a tense legal drama ended with Max Verstappen summoned to the stewards for ignoring yellow flags on his final flying lap in Saturday's final qualifying session. 

The hearing, which has been set for 1pm local time (10am GMT) on Sunday, is unlikely to last long. But it could have major ramifications for this year’s title race. 

If found guilty, Red Bull’s championship leader can expect a grid penalty, most likely three or five places, which would drop the Dutchman down to fifth or seventh on the grid for the Qatar Grand Prix. That may be too much for a driver even of Verstappen’s prodigious talent.

In fact, with Lewis Hamilton taking a dominant pole, by nearly half a second from Verstappen, and with the threat of a Red Bull protest over Mercedes’ rear wing seemingly over, the strong likelihood is Hamilton is going to reduce his 14-point deficit in the championship and take this title race right to the wire in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi.

What a season. And that is even before we get to Toto Wolff’s warning that things might be about to turn “dirty”. 

Speaking after Hamilton’s commanding qualifying performance, the Mercedes team principal accused stewards of utterly failing to clarify what was or was not acceptable in terms of wheel-to-wheel racing this season following Hamilton and Verstappen’s ding-dong in Brazil last weekend.

Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton gestures after the qualifying session ahead of the Qatari Formula One Grand Prix at the Losail International Circuit, on the outskirts of the capital city of Doha, on November 20, 2021 - AFP

© AFP Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton gestures after the qualifying session ahead of the Qatari Formula One Grand Prix at the Losail International Circuit, on the outskirts of the capital city of Doha, on November 20, 2021 - AFP

Drivers met with stewards for over an hour on Friday night to thrash things out following the incident on lap 48 of that grand prix, but apparently emerged none the wiser. 

The issue is one of consistency. Drivers have been punished on more than one occasion this year for “pushing” other cars off track; refusing to give up a corner even when it looked as if the other car had taken it. Lando Norris in Austria and Hamilton at Silverstone spring to mind. 

But the stewards’ decision not to punish Verstappen for a similar offence in Brazil - Verstappen braking late into Turn 4 and then running off the track himself rather than turning in, forcing Hamilton to go even wider around him - set a “very dangerous” precedent according to Wolff.

"In my opinion, what it says is you can just launch yourself into a corner and drag the other car out of line,” Wolff argued. “And that obviously can lead to quite some ‘dirtier’ driving going forward.

"We don't want to have a messy situation tomorrow, or in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, because that would be really bad."

He added: “I think it’s very dangerous because what happened yesterday and also in Brazil is kicking the ball into the high grass and then the ball disappears. If we have a similar situation, the controversy this could create, simply because it wasn’t clarified... I wouldn’t have wished that even if the outcome was negative for us.”

Pole position qualifier Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates in parc ferme during qualifying ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Qatar at Losail International Circuit on November 20, 2021 in Doha, Qatar - Hamad I Mohammed - Pool/Getty Images

© Provided by The Telegraph Pole position qualifier Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates in parc ferme during qualifying ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Qatar at Losail International Circuit on November 20, 2021 in Doha, Qatar - Hamad I Mohammed - Pool/Getty Images

Wolff was not alone in feeling confused. Both Hamilton and Verstappen admitted they were unclear about what constituted “hard and fair racing” in the wake of the stewards’ briefing. 

Hamilton admitted he did not know what he could or could not get away with. Asked what conclusions he drew from the stewards’ decision to deny Mercedes’ right of review and look again at Verstappen’s driving, he replied: “That what happened at the last race is okay?”

Verstappen, sitting next to him, looked nonplussed by the entire line of questioning, adding that too many non-drivers were sticking their oars in. “I think it’s important we discuss these things with the experts rather than throw things around on social media,” he said.

Perhaps he just had the knowledge of his impending trip to the steward on his mind. Confirmation of his summons had not yet been announced when he spoke to the media, but Verstappen must have suspected he would be up before the beak. Both Hamilton’s team-mate Valtteri Bottas and Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz have also been summoned for similar charges.

What a season. There are so many moving parts in F1 at the moment Wolff admitted it was “hard to keep up”, although there is perhaps one less than Saturday.

Red Bull appeared to suggest that Mercedes’ rear wing, about which they have been in such a flap, was no longer an issue following the introduction of more stringent flexibility load tests in Qatar. 

“The load test is doing its job because [Mercedes’] straight-line speed is under control [now],” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner claimed. "Suddenly we’re in line and we haven’t seen that for four or five races.”

In line pace-wise, perhaps. But will Verstappen be in line with Hamilton on Sunday's grid? That remains in the hands of the stewards.

Qatar Grand Prix qualifying classification

  1. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes 1min 20.827secs
  2. Max Verstappen, Red Bull 1:21.282
  3. Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes 1:21.478
  4. Pierre Gasly, AlphaTauri 1:21.640
  5. Fernando Alonso, Alpine 1:21.670
  6. Lando Norris, McLaren 1:21.731
  7. Carlos Sainz, Ferrari 1:21.840
  8. Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri 1:21.881
  9. Esteban Ocon, Alpine 1:22.028
  10. Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin 1:22.785
  11. Sergio Perez, Red Bull 1:22.346
  12. Lance Stroll, Aston Martin 1:22.460
  13. Charles Leclerc, Ferrari 1:22.463
  14. Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren  1:22.597
  15. George Russell, Williams 1:22.756
  16. Kimi Raikkonen, Alfa Romeo 1:23.156
  17. Nicholas Latifi, Williams 1:23.213
  18. Antonio Giovinazzi, Aston Martin 1:23.262
  19. Mick Schumacher, Haas 1:23.407
  20. Nikita Mazepin, Haas 1:25.859

Qatar Grand Prix qualifying, as it happened

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03:42 PM 

Looks like the test on the Mercedes rear wing is ongoing

We'll let you know if anything happens about that. But for the time being, thanks for joining me and I'll be back tomorrow from around 12.45 for the build up to the Qatar Grand Prix. 

03:30 PM 

It is obviously not ideal for Red Bull to have Perez down in 11th

But I don't think it's quite as bad as it seems. Quite often the second drivers of the top two teams have rarely been much of a feature after the first few laps. Certainly that was the case for Perez in Brazil and in Mexico. He drove well in those races, yes, but he did not have too much influence on what happened ahead. 

03:22 PM 

Christian Horner also speaks to Sky Sports F1

They were massively quick. I think their straight line speed has come down a bit. It looks very similar to our straight line speed now. Lewis made all his time in turn six and seven, particularly on that last lap. From what we've seen on the straight line speed it looks normal... just a very strong lap from Lewis. 

I think it's going to be about who gets into turn one... to follow closely [with these sequence of corners] it comes down to strategy... tyre degradation...

Qualifying is disappointing. To be second... could have quite easily been third here. Max has got every ounce of performance out of the car today. Hopefully we can have a better race car. 

03:16 PM 

Toto Wolff speaks to Sky Sports F1

I think there is that little bit of too much focus and emphasis on politics and too much off-track trash talk. I think everybody in the performance group... they did a fantastic job. We're understanding the car much better. You can see how quickly it can swing. You just need to be vigilant. 

The car is good and solid. We just need to finish good tomorrow. Score some points, get some back and maybe go to Abu Dhabi and whoever wins, wins the championship. 

I think we'd probably want 1-3.... it's on the cleaner line. We should be okay there but you never know, if Max gets a good start... or comes out in the lead it's much more difficult.  

Reference: The Telegraph: Tom Cary, Luke Slater

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