Formula One championship leader Max Verstappen’s title hopes have been dealt a blow after the Dutchman was hit with a five-place grid penalty before the Qatar Grand Prix.
The Red Bull driver was set to start second on the grid alongside rival Lewis Hamilton, who secured pole position as Mercedes took charge in Doha.
Now Hamilton has been gifted a chance to close the 14-point gap on Verstappen in the title race with the Dutchman now starting seventh at the Losail International Circuit.
Verstappen drops back as a result of an incident at the end of qualifying, where a puncture for the AlphaTauri of Pierre Gasly caused confusion on track and he did not slow down sufficiently under double-waved yellow flags.
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner admits the decision is “massive” in the fight for the championship this season.
“We are struggling to understand it. There was a yellow flag, he [Verstappen] just didn’t see it,” he told Sky Sports F1. “It’s a rogue marshall that stuck out a flag out. He wasn’t told to do so. This is a crucial blow in the world championship. It is massive.”
Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas — who qualified third — was hit with a similar punishment, only taking a three-place penalty as he failed to slow under single-waved yellows. Gasly now starts second with Fernando Alonso in the Alpine third on the grid.
The British driver admitted that he was delighted with his final lap on Saturday that secured pole in the inaugural race in Qatar. “I was off [the pace] yesterday so really had to dig deep. I was here ’til midnight working late,” he said.
“We found a lot of areas I could improve, made some changes for final practice and it seemed to work.
“You have to try to carry that through into qualifying. We didn’t have any traffic and that last lap was beautiful. This track is amazing to drive — all medium and fast corners.”