Saudi GP conclusions: Red Bull fast but fragile? Russell’s Mercedes blueprint

Oliver Harden
Saudi Arabia Grand Prix conclusions by PlanetF1. March 2023

Saudi Arabia Grand Prix conclusions by PlanetF1. March 2023

Sergio Perez won the 2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix as team-mate Max Verstappen recovered from an ill-timed reliability issue in qualifying to register Red Bull’s second one-two finish of the new Formula 1 season.

Fernando Alonso joined the Red Bulls on the podium and, after incurring a post-race penalty, was eventually reinstated to third place to continue Aston Martin’s fine start to the campaign.

Here are our conclusions from Jeddah…

Perez victory vindicates Red Bull’s work on bringing the bottom up – and should secure his buy-in

As noted in the conclusions from Bahrain, with Verstappen and Perez both struggling to access the full potential of the RB18 at various points last year Red Bull entered 2023 with the aim of pleasing the pair at all times.

During pre-season testing Red Bull advisor Dr Helmut Marko revealed the team had made a conscious effort to build a car suited to the different driving styles of both drivers, Checo excelling with the slower rotation at the start of last season before fading as development moved in Max’s direction.

And with Verstappen trusted to deliver every time he sits in the car, the most representative running in testing was given to Perez with the aim of providing him with the best possible preparation for the new season.

The result in Bahrain spoke for itself, Perez closer on pace to Verstappen in qualifying than ever before at a season opener as Red Bull began a campaign with a one-two finish for the first time in the team’s history.

With Verstappen suffering a driveshaft problem in qualifying in Jeddah, this weekend revealed an additional benefit to Red Bull’s focus on bringing the bottom up.

The demise of Verstappen in Q2 brought its own pressure on Perez, suddenly carrying the hopes and expectations of Red Bull on his shoulders having seemed slightly vulnerable – despite the RB19’s clear straight-line speed advantage – to Alonso’s Aston Martin in practice and the early stages of qualifying.

Taking pole position by a margin of half a second to Alonso – and two tenths to Charles Leclerc’s penalised Ferrari in P2 – was proof that Perez is not only capable of meeting the challenge of filling a Max-shaped hole when required but, largely thanks to Red Bull’s work, is now better equipped to do so too.

Having not been in this position since his last win in Singapore, there was a clear agitation in his voice in the latter stages as he questioned Red Bull’s pace management over the radio, the spectre of the team orders controversy in Interlagos still hanging awkwardly over the team.

Yet letting Perez have this one so early into the new season, and so soon after Brazil, should help ease any lingering suspicions – and ensure Checo’s compliance when Red Bull next call upon him to assist Verstappen.

Even if Perez was bemused to lose the point for fastest lap, this should be a key step in Red Bull moving on from the bitter end to last season.

Red Bull fast but fragile? The last hope for an exciting 2023 title battle

The end result may have been the same and the pace of the car was once again almost too good for the greater good, but with another driveshaft fright late in the race there was a vulnerability about Red Bull this weekend not seen since the start of last season.

Verstappen’s recovery from DNFs at two of the opening three rounds of 2022 to lead the standings after six is evidence that early reliability problems need not be season defining, and the World Champion’s post-race comments in Jeddah felt reminiscent of his demanding – some may have argued disproportionate – reaction to Red Bull’s brief drop in standards a year ago.

“Personally, I am not happy,” Verstappen said. “I am not here to be second, especially when you are working very hard back at the factory to come here in a good state and making sure everything is spot on.

“When you are fighting for a Championship and it looks like it is just between two cars you have to make sure the two cars are reliable. We have to do better, absolutely – a cleaner weekend would be nice.”

Verstappen let slip there that already this Championship is almost certain to come down to a fight between the Red Bull drivers, the first person in blue to readily admit a reality staring F1 in the face.

But those still clinging to the hope of a thrilling title battle in 2023 will be of the view that this weekend was a sign that Red Bull, while clearly fastest, are also fragile.

With every other team combating a limitation or issue of some description, however, exactly who will be ready and waiting to exploit any further Red Bull reliability worries is anyone’s guess.

The Russell blueprint? Keep smiling, stay positive and wait for Lewis and Merc to grow sick of each other

Much has been made of Mercedes’ prolonged period of underperformance and its effect on the team’s long-standing and highly successful relationship with Lewis Hamilton, the seven-time World Champion’s future still uncertain with his contract expiring at the end of this season.

Little, meanwhile, has been said about where it leaves the Mercedes driver with time on his side.

Could Mercedes’ current situation actually be a blessing in disguise for George Russell and even accelerate his rise to the role of team leader?

At 38 and anxious to get back to chasing that elusive eighth World Championship before the sun sets, Hamilton has not taken Mercedes’ poor start to the season well and having criticised the technical team for ignoring his views on development direction in Bahrain – a comment surely at odds with Toto Wolff’s famous no-blame culture – he admitted to feeling “miserable” and “not connected” to the W14 in Jeddah. recommends

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This was a weekend straight from early 2022, Hamilton anchorless-adrift in a car he just cannot master and Russell simply making the best of what he has, a fixture in the top five and ultimately being rewarded for his perseverance with a (albeit short-lived) podium.

Committing to a significant overhaul of their car concept, Mercedes are optimistic that the heavily revised W14 will soon return them to race-winning contention.

But these comments come from a team who were also convinced they would have been strong last year if it wasn’t for that pesky porpoising. These comments come from a team who were also convinced that their current car concept was the right one until suddenly, right after the first qualifying session of the season, they weren’t.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that the future of the most successful driver in F1 history could hinge on the success of Mercedes’ next move. Run for cover if it proves the latest to not meet expectations.

Caught in the middle of all this, all Russell can do is remain dignified and embrace the Jenson Button role – winning the team over with that natural charm and winning smile.

The Russell blueprint? Keep smiling, stay positive and wait patiently for Lewis and Mercedes to grow sick and tired of each other.

Piastri is going to put Lando’s success over Ricciardo into context

Daniel Ricciardo may have been the life and soul of the Formula 1 grid, but his lack of contribution alongside Lando Norris left McLaren with no option but to discard him at the end of 2022.

Twice in as many years the consistently poor performance of the second car cost the team a place in the Constructors’ Championship, first to Ferrari in 2021 before being pipped to P4 by Alpine last year.

Clearly it was unsustainable, holding back McLaren in a number of ways, yet in moving to make a change it is remarkable how little thought F1 teams give to the dynamic between their drivers.

Just as the removal of Ricciardo at the end of 2018 allowed Verstappen to finally make Red Bull his team, without question a key element of Norris’s emergence as a potential future World Champion over the last two seasons came from the confidence of knowing that he had a driver of Daniel’s stature under control.

Lando had become the main man at McLaren, his stature growing a little more every time he joined the Mercedes and Red Bull drivers on the podium after each effortless performance.

When, last summer, Zak Brown approached Oscar Piastri – the driver who excited him most, as he refers to the 2021 F2 Champion in the latest series of Drive to Survive – did the McLaren chief executive not stop to consider how his signing might alter the outlook of the team’s star driver?

Put another way, in order to keep performing at his peak, did Norris need a team-mate to support him – a more consistent Ricciardo – rather than one he would perceive as a direct threat?

That Piastri reached Q3 for the first time in Jeddah as Norris fell unusually early in qualifying underlined the fact that McLaren are no longer reliant on one driver – but at what cost to Lando?

The mistake Norris made in Q1, nudging the apex barrier at the final corner with his front left, was extremely uncharacteristic from a driver who has rarely put a wheel wrong in recent years.

Alongside Piastri – a focused (cunning?) and career-driven competitor whom we know is unafraid of upsetting people along the path to greatness, having humiliated Alpine on his way out the door last year – Norris is about to face the greatest challenge of his career so far.

For the second weekend running McLaren’s race turned to mud in their hands with both drivers finishing at the back after again being forced to make early stops, but the different outcomes for Piastri and Norris in qualifying was the first real hint that things are going to be different round here.

Put simply, Piastri is going to put Norris’s success over Ricciardo into some sort of context in 2023.

From frustration to joy for Alonso as Aston Martin pace bodes well for the season

How far can this go?

With both Alonso and Lawrence Stroll vowing that Bahrain was just the beginning, just what could the AMR23 – this hugely quick half-Mercedes but Red Bull-inspired green machine – be capable of in 2023?

What is the limit?

Fernando Alonso may have had a day of mixed emotions in Saudi Arabia – penalised twice, missing only a pit-lane speeding penalty to complete the full Esteban Ocon tribute act before the second penalty was annulled – but he will most of all be hugely encouraged that Aston Martin’s pace from the first race was no fluke.

No car could match the Red Bull for straight-line speed here, but on a circuit with very different demands to Bahrain the Aston Martin was still the second-fastest car in Jeddah, Alonso starting from the front row and having the Mercedes and Ferraris well covered after the Safety Car restart.

“[It’s] amazing because we had some concerns about Jeddah after being very strong in Bahrain,” Alonso said after the race.

“Probably, arguably here, we were faster than in Bahrain in race pace. We could control the Ferraris quite easily, we could control the Mercedes, so it looks good for the future.”

The reprofiled Albert Park and the Baku layout scream Red Bull territory but the thought of Alonso taking the fight to Verstappen in Monaco – and, potentially, at his home race in Barcelona – is mouthwatering.

After a decade away, a return to the top step of the podium now looks a matter of time…