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Tuesday December 7th, 2021 6:12AM

Hamilton wins in Qatar, slices into Verstappen points lead

By The Associated Press
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LOSAIL, Qatar (AP) — Lewis Hamilton inched closer to the Formula One championship lead with a dominating victory Sunday in the inaugural Qatar Grand Prix to earn back-to-back wins and chip away at Max Verstappen's points advantage.

Hamilton, who also won last week in Brazil, has trimmed 11 points from Verstappen's lead in the title race in seven days. Verstappen still holds an eight-point lead with two races remaining in one of the most dramatic F1 title fights in at least a decade.

“The last two weeks have been fantastic, just amazing," Hamilton said. “There's no time for celebration. I don't really have too much emotion. But it's been amazing to be able to get so many points in these past two races.”

The seven-time champion started from pole for Mercedes and was never challenged on the Losail International Circuit as Hamilton won his 102nd career race. It was his seventh victory of the season.

Verstappen finished second for Red Bull, around 25 seconds behind Hamilton.

“It was pretty lonely at the front,” said Hamilton, who is enjoying the challenge from Verstappen. “I love it. I love the close battle and the pressure and the demands it puts on you and the whole team. I've thoroughly enjoyed it.”

Verstappen was hit with a penalty before the race even began when he was dropped five spots on the starting grid for violating a yellow flag in Saturday's qualifying. The Dutchman had qualified second but the stewards ordered him to drop back on the grid following Sunday hearings for Verstappen, Valtteri Bottas and Carlos Sainz.

All three were accused of not following yellow flag rules near the end of qualifying. Bottas, who had qualified third, was penalized three starting sports. Sainz was not penalized.

Red Bull was mystified by the grid penalty for Verstappen, who lost any chance to challenge Hamilton for the win when he was penalized. Red Bull principal Christian Horner criticized the penalty when it was handed down, blaming it on a “rogue marshal.”

Horner was summoned to a post-race meeting with the stewards for comments that could “have caused moral injury or loss” to the FIA. He was issued a warning after the meeting and the FIA said Horner “explained that his reaction was one that was made under the pressure of competition following the penalty imposed on the driver.

“Mr. Horner offered to apologize to the marshal concerned and to explain to the media that he meant no offense,” the FIA said in a statement. “He also offered to participate in the 2022 FIA International Stewards Program in early February. The Stewards unreservedly accept Mr. Horner’s offer.”

Horner indeed praised the marshals in a later press briefing and denied the characterization he's cracking under the pressure of the title race with Mercedes. In fact, it was Horner on Friday who openly wondered if Mercedes and its team leader, Toto Wolff, were struggling with the seriousness of the Red Bull challenge.

“I believe in my team, I'm a straight talker, I've always conducted myself in that manner and I'm not an overly emotional person,” Horner said. “I think the way I've conducted myself, I've got no issues with, I'd do exactly the same thing. I think everybody has a right to an opinion, I gave an opinion.”

Despite the penalty, Verstappen needed only five laps to recover and drive back to where he was originally slated to start.

“Our starting position was a bit compromised,” Verstappen said. “I know it's going to be difficult to the end but I think that's nice. It keeps it exciting.”

Verstappen said he was ready for the challenges ahead in Saudi Arabia and the finale in Abu Dhabi, two tracks that Horner believes will favor Mercedes.

“I feel good,” he said. “It's going to be tight.”

Hamilton, winner of four straight titles, has all the momentum now. The British driver is seeking a record eighth F1 title, which would move him past Michael Schumacher.

“I'm feeling really good, I'm really, really happy with the car,” Hamilton said. “I feel fitter than ever, so that's a positive.”

Fernando Alonso of Alpine finished third for his first podium since 2014. He was aided by the pre-race penalties to Verstappen and Bottas, which moved the Spaniard up to third on the starting grid. It was only the second podium of the season for Alpine, which was a surprise win for Esteban Ocon in Hungary.

“Finally, finally,” said Alonso, a two-time F1 champion.

Sergio Perez finished fourth to help Red Bull in its push to beat Mercedes for the constructors championship.

___

More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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