GRR

Six talking points from a sizzling Saudi Arabian GP

27th March 2022
Damien Smith

Round two and another thriller as the new era of Formula 1 kept up its promise of thrilling racing, on the fast Jeddah Corniche circuit that is home to the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. Once again Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc duelled at the front, with Red Bull and Ferrari proving almost equally matched. Almost, but not quite. This time the Red Bull had the edge as the reigning world champion drafted into the lead in the closing stages to win, as Leclerc chased him hard on the run to the chequered flag. Their battle capped what was ultimately a successful, yet indubitably strange F1 weekend that began with deeply furrowed brows following a nearby missile attack and serious talks of a driver boycott.

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Verstappen vs. Leclerc keeps us gripped

In the wake of the troubling events that clouded Friday, F1 needed its stars to provide a sporting distraction of epic proportions – and Verstappen and Leclerc duly obliged. In a surprisingly clean race that featured only one full safety car period and a later Virtual Safety Car interlude, Leclerc and Verstappen joined battle with nine laps to run. The Bahrain GP winner had started from the front row, Max a grumpy fourth – but now the Red Bull’s straight-line speed advantage ensured a power swing in an increasingly engaging rivalry between the old karting rivals. Verstappen closed in and used DRS to pass on lap 42 into the final corner, but his rival was boxing clever: Leclerc ensured the Red Bull was ahead by the time they passed the DRS detection line on the way into the turn, which meant he could open his rear wing as they started the next lap and re-take the lead.

Verstappen was going to have to be equally smart to win this one. This time as they approached the final turn the red car seemed to invite the blue one down the inside into Turn 27, but we had the intriguing scenario of Verstappen not wanting to take the lead – because he knew he’d be vulnerable again to the counter-attack into Turn 1. Max locked up in his haste not to lead, Leclerc floored the throttle and exited out of range. Tasty stuff.

But it was clear Verstappen had the speed to try again. As in Bahrain, there had been a stream of angry radio calls to his (slightly exasperated) pit wall, questioning Leclerc breaking a pit entry white-line rule and the Ferrari apparently going too quickly through yellow flag zones, but he certainly kept his cool when it mattered. On lap 47 of 50 the champion positioned his car perfectly on the run to Turn 27 and had a relatively simple job drafting past well ahead of Turn 1, where Leclerc out-braked himself. But the Bahrain GP winner is clearly not rattled going wheel-to-wheel with Verstappen and kept chasing all the way to the line. He just lacked the puff to hit back. “That was good,” said a pumped Verstappen with understatement, while magnanimous Leclerc dealt with his disappointment with grace by radioing in: “Well done to Max. That was nice. We lacked a bit of straight-line speed.”

So plenty of respect between this pair, but these are the early parries of what looks set to be a season-long duel. As we saw with Verstappen versus Lewis Hamilton last year, it might not always be this harmonious as the battle progresses.

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Poor Pérez out of luck

You couldn’t help but pity Sergio Pérez after this one, given how well he performed and yet still finished fourth through no fault of his own. The Mexican astonished Ferrari and just about everyone in F1 by stealing his first pole position for his 214th start, and on Sunday led comfortably until his pitstop. Then Nicolas Latifi dropped his Williams in ham-fisted fashion and, much like a certain notorious race in Abu Dhabi at the end of last season, ended up turning the race’s destiny on its head. The timing was terrible for Pérez as first a VSC then a full safety car was called. His team-mate and the Ferraris took their stops and suddenly ‘Checo’ was fourth, his victory hopes up in smoke.

To compound his misfortune, Carlos Sainz Jr. just made it to the pit exit line before Pérez as the Spaniard rejoined from his stop. The Red Bull edged the Ferrari out to run third, but was then informed by his engineer that he had to give up the place to avoid a penalty. As Sainz himself admitted, it was a close and unlucky call for Sergio who appeared to have this race well under control before everything unravelled for him. He should have won, but didn’t even make it to the podium.

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Hamilton’s nearly-race

Small margins also defined Lewis Hamilton’s race after a “set-up experiment” (according to Toto Wolff) backfired for the seven-time champion on Saturday and shockingly he failed to escape from Q1. How times have changed. But from 15th on the grid and as one of three drivers starting on the hard Pirelli tyre, Hamilton bided his time, ran very long and rose up the order. Running as high as sixth behind his quietly impressive team-mate George Russell, he was clearly banking on another safety car interlude before making his one and only stop, and the chance seemed to be materialising as both Fernando Alonso’s Alpine and Daniel Ricciardo’s McLaren lost power and trickled to a halt in the pit entry. But for once Hamilton’s timing was just off. He’d just passed the pit entry when the team called on him to ‘box’, then the pits were closed as the two cars were recovered under a VSC – which surely should have been a full safety car with brave marshals vulnerable as they pushed the Alpine and McLaren away. So instead of stopping under a caution period, Hamilton was forced to pit for mediums as the race turned green. In the circumstances a solitary point for 10th was the best he could do. Tough times for the 37-year-old right now.

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Ocon and Alonso’s intra-team entertainment

Alonso’s demise was a sad ending to his race in which he’d contributed to the second-best battle of the day – with his own team-mate Esteban Ocon. The pair went at it for lap after lap as Valtteri Bottas and Kevin Magnussen closed in, the Alpine pit wall pointedly refusing to intervene. Great – but it did slow them down, and then when the team did eventually call a halt Ocon found himself being passed by Bottas in the Alfa Romeo. Still with Alonso’s retirement and Bottas also being forced to pit into retirement just as the moment Ricciardo slowed, Ocon finished sixth, only just seeing off a lunge on the line from Lando Norris in his McLaren. Pierre Gasly was eighth for AlphaTauri, and the remarkable Kevin Magnussen scored points again as his comeback for Haas continues to fly.

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Haas elects to bench Schumacher

The American-owned team had faced a tough decision in the lead-up to the race. Mick Schumacher had suffered a nasty collision with a bare concrete wall after losing his VF-22 on a kerb during qualifying. There were initial fears for the German, but Mick turned out to be fine and, following a precautionary scan, was cleared to race – only for the team to decide not to repair his car in time to make the grid. The fear was the knock-on effect it would have on the following Australian GP if Schumacher dropped it again. This early in the season, teams lack spare parts and with the cars being shipped direct from Saudi to Melbourne Haas took the decision to save its powder. Such a move goes against every natural instinct of a racing team, who usually pull out every stop to make the grid. But taking a step back, this was a practical and logical decision – and if Schumacher can score a point or two in Australia in a couple of weeks’ time, he might well thank them for it.

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The boycott that never was

The Schumacher crash on Saturday cast further doubt on already questionable safety levels at this fast street track, and added tension to a fractured mood in the paddock. A missile attack on a nearby Aramco oil refinery by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on Friday gave F1 a serious fright – as was presumably intended. The drivers, quite understandably, were spooked and questioned F1 and Saudi assurances that continuing with the event was entirely safe. Meetings went through Friday night and into the early hours of Saturday morning before the drivers finally agreed to race – but still with obvious unease. A boycott that in the circumstances would have been entirely merited had been narrowly averted – and happily, by Sunday evening all the talk was of Verstappen versus Leclerc. Sighs of relief all round, then, for F1’s senior managers as sport once again offered distraction from an ugly real world.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

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