DOHA, Qatar (AFP) — Lewis Hamilton won yesterday's inaugural Qatar Grand Prix with a commanding performance from pole to cut Max Verstappen's world championship lead to eight points and set up the kind of thrilling end this unforgettable Formula One season deserves.
The Mercedes seven-time champion comfortably held off his Dutch arch-rival's Red Bull under the Losail circuit's lights to leave the battle for the F1 drivers' crown delicately poised with only two races remaining.
One week on from arguably his toughest and greatest win in Brazil, Hamilton enjoyed one of his easiest.
And after an unprecedented eighth world title appeared to be slipping from his grasp after Verstappen's wins in the USA and Mexico, it is the 36-year-old Briton rather than the 12-year-younger pretender who has the momentum.
“I can't wait to watch the race replay to find out what happened behind me,” he said after his 102nd career win.
“It was pretty lonely at the front — of course I enjoy those races where you are battling through but we needed those points today.
“It's been a hell of a year. Back-to-back wins here feel good. I feel fit, fitter than I've ever felt. Bring on the next two!”
Verstappen, who was demoted from second to seventh on the grid for a yellow flag infringement in qualifying on Saturday, took second and picked up a point for the fastest lap.
“Our starting position was compromised but luckily we had a really good start,” he said.
“Of course, I know it's going to be difficult to the end but it keeps it nice, keeps it exciting. This track was fun to drive as well. I feel good but it's going to be a tight battle to the end.”
Hamilton's faster engine, fitted last weekend in Sao Paulo, will likely give Red Bull a tough time again at the ultra-quick new circuit in Saudi Arabia in a fortnight's time ahead of the season-closing race in Abu Dhabi in mid-December.
Fernando Alonso took third for Alpine, the former two-time world champion's first podium finish since 2014 with the grizzled 40-year-old getting a huge cheer from the crowd.
The 20th race of the season was being held one year to the day to the start of the football World Cup in Qatar and the trophy was on display, as were some of the game's finest — David Beckham, Andrea Pirlo and John Terry getting a touchline view of how fast Hamilton takes corners.
Sporting the rainbow helmet he wore in practice and qualifying to raise awareness for human rights and equality, Hamilton got off to a dream start, quickly drawing away from the pack as Verstappen jumped up from seventh to fourth.
The charging Verstappen knocked off Pierre Gasly's Alpha Tauri to move into third by lap four, with Alonso falling shortly after to leave only Hamilton in his cross hairs.
With the new engine fitted before Brazil firing on all cylinders, Hamilton was leaving his Red Bull pursuer for desert dust.
Verstappen, trailing by nine seconds, was the first to pit on lap 18, resuming in second.
Mercedes covered that move, hauling Hamilton in on the very next lap with the Briton resuming with a lead of around eight seconds.
Like a game of shadow boxing, Mercedes carried out the same tactics the next time Verstappen pitted, leaving Hamilton to coast to victory and Red Bull puzzling over what they can do to keep their championship hopes alive.
Whilst there are numerous routes either driver can take to the 2021 crown, Verstappen will claim it if he wins in Saudi Arabia in a fortnight's time and Hamilton is out of the top 10.
Mercedes did not have all their cards fall kindly for them though this weekend as Valtteri Bottas picked up a late puncture to leave the Silver Arrows with only a five-point lead over Red Bull in the constructors championship.