Six talking points from the 2023 Saudi Arabia Grand Prix

20th March 2023
Damien Smith

The moment Max Verstappen was eliminated from qualifying by a broken driveshaft, the big question hung in the air: could he win the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix from 15th on the grid? The consensus was he could, and he very nearly did – only for Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez to hold his nerve when it counted the most as the Mexican scored a hard-earned fifth Formula 1 win from pole position.


Red Bull in a class of its own

But while Verstappen just fell short of a victory that looked almost nailed on before qualifying, the nature of his calm rise to second place still displayed just how dominant his team is in 2023. Once Verstappen was out of the picture during Q2, Perez had little trouble securing his second pole and second consecutive at the fast Jeddah Corniche circuit.

Pre-race predictions suggested the brilliant Fernando Alonso would likely beat ‘Checo’ to Turn One, the Aston Martin starting on the inside line beside him on the front row – and so it proved. But Alonso knew he wasn’t really in a fight with the Red Bull and had no answer when when Perez made his move on lap four. The Spaniard cleverly used the strong DRS tow at this track to keep Perez in range for a while, but the lead was never really in doubt. Until Lance Stroll pulled off in the second Aston Martin, that is, the retirement triggering what was actually a needless safety car intervention.


Verstappen forced to accept second

The concertina effect of the safety car played right into Verstappen’s hands. He’d been sensible at the start and initially took his time to work up from 15th on the grid. But inevitably he was soon in a rhythm and methodically began to slice his way through the pack without breaking a sweat. The double champion was into the top ten by lap eight and was fourth by the time Stroll suffered the technical issue that robbed the Canadian of his own decent points haul on lap 18. How he carefully picked his spot to retire safely meant the safety car wasn’t really needed at all – but it was called anyway.

Losing a 20-second advantage over his team-mate meant Perez knew he’d now be under pressure. Sure enough, Verstappen breezed past George Russell’s Mercedes-AMG as if it wasn’t there once racing resumed and then calmly relieved Alonso of second place. But by now Perez was five seconds up the road, with no intention of ceding. Verstappen’s concerns about new vibrations from his driveshaft were an unhelpful distraction, but the bare fact was Perez proved equal to the challenge he faced and Checo kept the Dutchman well out of arm’s reach to take his win. Well played. Verstappen’s last-gasp fastest lap keeps the champion at the top of the standings.


Alonso scores podium, loses it… then gets it back

Alonso’s yo-yo podium? Another shambles by the FIA.

His drive to third place might have lacked the fireworks of Bahrain, yet this was an equally accomplished effort as the 41-year-old maximised everything his AMR23 offered up – although admittedly it was his own initial error that began the sequence of events that appeared to strip him of his 100th F1 podium, only for the FIA stewards to change their mind and give it back to him in a new show of incompetence.


At the start, the veteran made an uncharacteristic mistake by lining up too far left of his grid box and, like Esteban Ocon in Bahrain, that earned Alonso a five second-penalty. But like the two Red Bulls and Mercedes, Alonso took advantage of the Stroll safety car to make his single pitstop, took his penalty and then his hard-compound Pirellis and was still able to re-join second – much to the chasing Russell’s frustration. The trouble was, in another echo of Ocon’s Alpine crew last time out, Aston appeared to have been a little too keen to service Alonso before the five-second penalty was up. The rear jack was in contact with the green car before the time was served – and that earned Alonso another ten-second penalty that knocked him down to fourth. But why had it taken the stewards so long make that call? The race was over and the podium celebrations were already complete. It left a bitter taste.

Then a reprieve. Aston questioned the ruling and pointed out a blatant grey area in the rules. No, you mustn’t work on the car during a penalty, but nowhere does it say you can’t touch the car. The FIA was forced to U-turn and Alonso had his 100th podium back. That was good – but what an embarrassing way to referee a motor race.


Hamilton out of sorts

The Alonso ruling initially promoted Russell to a podium he’d never get to stand on and then he was back to the fourth place where he’d finished, at the end of a weekend when he once again outqualified Lewis Hamilton. He outraced the seven-time champion too, despite Hamilton running an alternative tyre strategy that should have given him a performance advantage in the second half of the grand prix. Starting from an underwhelming seventh, Hamilton went against the grain and started on the hard Pirelli tyre when all ahead of him were on the medium, then took on the yellow-walled rubber during the safety car.

When racing resumed, he was sixth and quickly passed Carlos Sainz Jr’s Ferrari to set off after his team-mate. The presumption was that Hamilton would soon pass Russell given that his fellow Englishman was now on the hard tyre. But once Russell’s Pirellis were fully up to temperature he was comfortably able to hold his position and finished six seconds up the road from Hamilton. The 38-year-old insists his motivation is as high as ever, but the speculation that has already begun will only increase on the back of this performance. Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of a truly great career – or will Hamilton rally and hit back, as he has so many times before? Mercedes clearly has a mountain to climb to deliver him and Russell a car able to fight Alonso’s Aston Martin, never mind the dominant Red Bulls. But right now Russell appears able to take more from the black car than his team-mate. Hamilton won’t be comfortable with that and it’s going to be fascinating to see how he responds in the races to come.


More woe for Ferrari

A post-Bahrain control electronics power unit component change meant Charles Leclerc headed into the Jeddah weekend with a grid penalty already hanging over his head. He lined up 12th having qualified second to Perez, with Sainz on the second row beside Russell. But pre-race targets for both were missed – by a mile. Sainz was never a factor for the podium his boss Fréd Vasseur had hoped for, the Spaniard finishing a dispiriting sixth, with Leclerc following him home in seventh.

safety car was key to Ferrari’s Jeddah pain. Both red cars stopped before Stroll pulled off, Leclerc because he’d started on the soft tyre in an effort to aid his climb up the field, while Sainz was among the earliest stoppers on the medium. Leclerc had passed Hamilton without much problem on lap nine, but now lost the position and was powerless on the hard tyre to regain it. Meanwhile Sainz struggled for tyre temperature on the hards at the restart, which allowed Hamilton to simply out-accelerate him on the exit of Turn Two. Glum times for the Maranello team, as hopes of much-needed rejuvenation dwindle into frustration.


Magnussen makes his point

Alpine appears to be the fifth quickest team right now, as an eight-nine finish for Ocon and Pierre Gasly highlights. Meanwhile, Kevin Magnussen used all of his experience to pick Yuki Tsunoda’s pocket and snatch a valuable point for Haas after an entertaining battle for tenth. Magnussen made a couple of botched attempts but eventually nailed the AlphaTauri at Turn One, with team-mate Nico Hulkenberg beating Zhou Guanyu’s Alfa Romeo to 12th. The Australian GP is next, on 2nd April.

  • Formula 1

  • F1

  • F1 2023

  • Sergio Perez

  • Max Verstappen

  • Jeddah

  • Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

  • 2024-saudi-arabian-grand-prix-predictions-main.jpg

    Formula 1

    6 predictions for the 2024 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

  • 2024-saudi-arabian-grand-prix-preview-main.jpg

    Formula 1

    2024 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix preview: timings, how to watch, and more

  • f1-2021-jeddah-ocon-hamilton-verstappen-andy-hone-main-mi-06122021.jpg

    Formula 1

    Eight talking points from a surreal Saudi Arabian GP