Penalties a positive for Verstappen in the Qatar GP
Grid adjustments played their part in Qatar – to Verstappen’s advantage, says Mark Hughes
There was a weird positive tactical implication for Red Bull of the five-place grid penalty taken by Max Verstappen in Qatar. He received the penalty for having not slowed at the end of his final qualifying lap for double waved yellow flags. They were being waved because Pierre Gasly had just trashed his AlphaTauri’s front wing and got a puncture at the end of his lap over the kerb of the penultimate corner. Valtteri Bottas was completing his lap just a couple of seconds behind Verstappen and he too was penalised for not slowing, though in his case it was a three-place drop because it was only a single yellow flag he drove past.
These penalties dropped Verstappen from second to seventh and Bottas from third to sixth (with Lewis Hamilton starting from pole). Ironically, fourth-fastest Gasly had effectively promoted himself onto the front row by crashing.
But of more significance was the impact all these grid adjustments would come to have on the shape of the race. Hamilton scooted off into an uncontested lead and ultimately victory. Verstappen was up to second within a couple of laps while Bottas made a poor start and fell back to 11th. Sergio Pérez, in the only other fast car, had qualified only 11th after being caught up in traffic in Q2. So with both Bottas and Pérez unable to support the races of their respective team-mates, Hamilton and Verstappen quickly pulled out a very big gap on the pack behind, led by Fernando Alonso’s Alpine.
The pitstop loss at Qatar was around 25sec and this is where the championship point for fastest lap was obviously going to go Verstappen’s way. He soon had much more than 25sec on third place, but Hamilton was never more than 9sec clear of Verstappen. So the Red Bull driver was always going to be able to make the extra pitstop for new tyres near the end without losing position. With low fuel and a fresh set of softs, Verstappen duly set the race’s fastest lap on the final time around.
Had Gasly not had his qualifying incident and Verstappen and Bottas had started second and third, Bottas would likely have been close enough to prevent Verstappen making the extra stop. It would likely have been Bottas who would have had the big gap to the field and could have been used to make the late stop if Hamilton hadn’t, by that time, set the provisional fastest lap.
As it was, Verstappen lost six points to Hamilton in Qatar. Without the grid penalties, it would likely have been seven (if Bottas had taken it) or eight (if Hamilton had). In the context of the closeness of the title contest, those grid penalties potentially had title-changing consequences – ironically in Verstappen’s favour.
But could Mercedes not have used Bottas to attempt the fastest lap point? After his poor start he was making good progress through the field and, running very long on a one-stop strategy, would likely have been vying with Alonso for that distant third by the end – except he suffered a left-front puncture in his first stint. It was late enough in the lap that he couldn’t make the pit entry and in completing a full lap with the puncture damaged the floor of the car. Running out of the points after his pitstop, he was later retired.
“We just made a decision that we’d bring the car in,” explained Mercedes’ trackside engineering chief Andrew Shovlin. “We couldn’t really see that we’d get into the points with him. There was a lot of aero damage. We were starting to get another vibration on that set of tyres… Scoring anything was becoming such a long shot that it made sense to bring the car in.”
Those finishing outside of the top 10 are not eligible for the fastest lap point, but had Bottas set it that would at least have prevented Verstappen from taking the point. But as Shovlin made clear, “There was no prospect of that with the damage we had on Valtteri’s car. We just weren’t fast enough.”