Lewis Hamilton took a comfortable victory in the Qatar Grand Prix to close the gap with Max Verstappen in their fight for the world championship.
Verstappen struggled to second after a five-place grid penalty and took the point for the fastest lap.
The victory reduces Verstappen’s deficit to eight points with two races remaining in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi next month.
Alpine’s Fernando Alonso took a magnificent third place, his first podium since the 2014 Hungarian Grand Prix.
Alonso had been trying to contain a late charge from Red Bull’s Sergio Perez, but a late virtual safety car put the place out of question.
Previously, Perez had been prepared for a close fight for third place with Valtteri Bottas’ second Mercedes until the Finn suffered a puncture just after half the distance.
And three more punctures created additional tension in the final laps.
How did Hamilton win?
After another weekend of controversy and moody between the two teams contending for the title, it was one of the easiest victories of the season for Hamilton, and the seven-time champion seemed to have the pace to have triumphed regardless of whether Verstappen had. been penalized or not.
The Dutchman was found not to have seen a double yellow flag flown at the end of qualifying, and while Red Bull claimed mitigating factors – that the cockpit and runway warning system had been turned off – officials said they had no no choice but to punish. he.
The penalty left Verstappen in sixth place on the grid, but he was fourth at the end of the first lap and second after five.
At the time, Red Bull was just 3.7 seconds behind Hamilton, but the Mercedes driver continued to extend forward until his lead was 8.2 seconds when Verstappen made his first pitstop on lap 17.
Hamilton followed him on the next lap to secure his position and the pattern for the race was established.
They stopped one lap away on laps 41 and 42 and the only issue still in dispute was the point of the fastest lap.
Verstappen already had it before making a late pit stop to make sure the soft tires did.
A carnival of punctures and tension
Bottas also took a grid penalty, his only three spots because there was only one yellow flag that he ignored, but as Verstappen progressed on the first lap, Bottas fell back to 11th at the end.
He made little progress in the opening laps before he was rushed by team boss Toto Wolff, who told him he “must” pass the cars in front.
The race between him and Pérez was about to climax in the closing laps, the Mexican made his first stop early and Bottas tried to run long to get a tire advantage in the closing laps.
But the puncture on lap 31 ended his hopes and in the end the Finn did not even finish the race, Mercedes had to withdraw the car 10 laps from the end.
Pérez still faced a fight for third place, although Alonso, superb at the Alpine after starting third on the grid after penalties to Verstappen and Bottas.
Red Bull faced Perez for a second stop at the same time as Verstappen, with 16 laps to go, and left him to regain positions beyond Lance Stroll’s Aston Martin and Esteban Ocon’s Alpine: McLaren’s Lando Norris had been ahead. of both, but felt pricked and boned.
Pérez was 11.1 seconds behind Alonso with six laps to go and approaching, and there was great tension as Alonso was running on old tires and the two Williams drivers, George Russell and Nicholas Latifi, had also suffered punctures and Alonso needed do the same number of laps as they did when their tires failed to make it to the end of the race.
A virtual safety car with two laps to go gave Alonso’s tires extra breathing space and also neutralized the gap and the 40-year-old Spaniard, who returned to the sport after two years out, took his first podium since the Gran 2014 Hungarian Award.
Pérez ranked fourth ahead of Esteban Ocon’s second Alpine, Lance Stroll’s Aston Martin and Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc’s Ferraris.
Aston Martin’s Norris and Sebastian Vettel rounded out the top 10 scorers.
Driver of the day
What happens next?
A welcome break after three racing weekends in a row, before a double headed climax: a new circuit in Saudi Arabia and then a much-changed Yas Marina in Abu Dhabi.
Hamilton and Mercedes look strong, but Verstappen has the point difference. A decisive one in the final race would be the popular result and it seems to be going in that direction.