Conclusions from the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Oliver Harden
Saudi Arabia Grand Prix conclusions

Max Verstappen made up for his Bahrain DNF by winning the second round of the 2022 Formula 1 season in Saudi Arabia, prevailing in a thrilling battle with Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc.

Here are our conclusions from Jeddah…

Verstappen vs Leclerc could see 2022 surpass 2021

What’s better than fire versus ice? Fire fighting fire.

If Verstappen’s fight with Lewis Hamilton across 2021 was one of sport’s great generational struggles, his battles with Leclerc at the beginning of 2022 – with F1’s medium/long-term future set to revolve around these two – are hopefully a sign of things to come.

Hamilton expressed an unease with Verstappen’s hostile style of racing last season and often preferred to err on the side of caution in wheel-to-wheel combat.

In Leclerc, though, Verstappen has found an adversary of the same age fully prepared to stand up to him – a racing chameleon to whom nothing is unnatural.

That much has been obvious ever since 2019, when after allowing himself to be muscled off track by Verstappen for victory in Austria Leclerc roared back at the next round at Silverstone to race him as hard as anyone ever had before or since, the head boy revealing his streetfighter side.

There has been an element of Leclerc taking advantage of Verstappen’s natural urges – that aching desire to be ahead – in the early weeks of this season, giving up the first corner to gain DRS on the run to Turn 4 in Bahrain and repeating the trick into Turn 1 on Lap 43 in Jeddah.

Verstappen got him in the end, of course, but Charles – if not outsmarting the reigning World Champion – is posing different questions, making Max think and think again and almost forcing him to suppress his innate impatience.

For the second year running F1 has two of the most gifted drivers on the grid in almost-equal machinery and, this time, they are kindred spirits.

“Well done to Max. That was nice,” Leclerc commented over team radio on the cool-down lap as both drivers congratulated each other from the cockpit, the mutual respect between the pair a theme of the opening races. A splendid race, old chap, and well done to you too!

We give it until Baku before they’re at each other’s throats…

Safety Car misfortune prevents Perez’s ‘hard work’ paying off

Who’d have thought Sergio Perez would be the first Red Bull driver to claim a pole position in 2022?

As Verstappen struggled to string it all together in Q3 for the second week in succession, it was left to Perez to unleash his inner Max, taking his maiden pole one day short of the 11th anniversary of his F1 debut.

Outpacing Verstappen and Leclerc in Jeddah of all places – a venue that rewards bravery and inch-perfect precision more than any other – was a remarkable performance, the genesis of which could perhaps be found in his team radio message at the end of the session.

“Hard work always pays off, man!” he said, with his words later echoed by Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, who praised Perez for working “incredibly hard.”

Perez has not exactly been associated with hard work in the past, but an increased work ethic may be a reflection of his awareness of the size of the opportunity available to him at Red Bull.

His inconsistent 2021 campaign could be explained away by the fact only Verstappen had the talent to tame the car’s wayward rear end, the new regulations for 2022 representing a fresh start but also leaving nowhere to hide for Perez.

If he is indeed determined to make the most of this chance, pole in his second race weekend in the RB18 is a fine way to start and Perez looked poised when leading in the early phase of the race.

Yet the Safety Car for Nicholas Latifi’s crash at the final corner moments after Perez had pitted from the lead ruined all that hard work, condemning him to fourth after losing an argument over P3 with Carlos Sainz.

What a shame.

P5 for Russell can’t conceal the challenge facing Mercedes

The defining image of Mercedes’ difficult start to the season came at the end of FP3 on Saturday when Hamilton climbed out of his car and took a moment to survey the scene from the back of the garage.

Where, he must have thought to himself, did it all go wrong?

Hamilton’s body language indicated he knew exactly what was coming, the seven-time World Champion later dumped out of Q1 in his worst qualifying performance on pure pace since the 2009 British GP.

Currently without the machinery to compete at the front Mercedes are in the mood for taking risks at the start of the season, and after George Russell’s tyre warm-up gamble backfired in Bahrain it was Hamilton’s turn this week, with a failed set-up experiment at the root of his rotten Saturday.

The concerns over the state of the Mercedes engine also continued in Jeddah qualifying, with all but one of the seven slowest cars through the speed trap (excluding Yuki Tsunoda’s AlphaTauri, which failed to set a lap time) powered by Mercedes.

Attrition played a part in Hamilton scoring a single point, though the timing of the closure of the pit lane following the stoppages of Daniel Ricciardo and Fernando Alonso prevented his recovery from being slightly better. When your luck’s out…

Russell’s run to fifth was reassuring, yet the fact he finished more than 30 seconds behind Verstappen at a circuit where Hamilton won less than four months ago reinforced just how far Mercedes have fallen.

These are desperate times.

Jeddah layout is fine as it is

When it was revealed that changes would be made to the Jeddah circuit for F1’s second visit to Saudi Arabia, there was some surprise that the tweaks didn’t extend to the layout itself.

There was a palpable tension in the air during the inaugural event last December, cars flashing between the walls at more than 200mph at the world’s fastest street circuit – an oxymoron the organisers seem quite resolute not to relinquish.

Events on Friday afternoon ensured that overhanging sense of unease transcended the racetrack, raising doubts over the event’s future, and when Mick Schumacher slammed his Haas into the wall during qualifying many were ready to dismiss the circuit as a death trap.

But if there are times you would rather watch with your hand over your eyes, the unmatched jeopardy of Jeddah generates enough excitement to leave a big enough gap between your fingers.

Few care to admit it but no other venue in the modern era showcases F1 and its drivers in a more gladiatorial and heroic light.

It takes a special kind of bravery to be quick here, the thrill of the chase between Verstappen and Hamilton and Leclerc in 2021 and 2022 respectively heightened by the scarcely believable setting.

If it is true that the beauty of sport is to be found in watching talented people do things us mere mortals could only dream of, the sight of Max and Charles on the podium, faces drenched in sweat at the conclusion of their duel, said it all about the unique challenge of Jeddah.

This place feels so wrong yet so very right.

 

2022 rules are working a treat

It was inevitable that fans would jump to conclusions but Bahrain was hardly the best place to judge the effectiveness of F1’s new regulations, having provided exciting racing even in the era of extreme downforce.

A better indication of their success was always bound to come at the circuits where following the car ahead has been historically difficult, the quick turnaround between the first two Saudi Arabian GPs providing a glimpse of how the cars at the beginning of 2022 compare to the end of 2021.

In the previous era the flowing series of high-speed corners comprising the first sector were very much anti-racing, the turbulent air creating a forcefield around the car ahead and shielding it from attack.

As the battle between Verstappen and Leclerc reached its crescendo, however, it was noticeable – as pointed out by 2009 World Champion Jenson Button on commentary – how the latter could hang on through that section before using Red Bull’s greater straight-line speed to attack later in the lap.

With Alpine team-mates Alonso and Esteban Ocon also putting on a show over several laps earlier in the race, Button also indicated the biggest difference in 2022 is that drivers can now fight back immediately after being overtaken, with the prospect of prolonged battles.

But with Verstappen and Leclerc both locking up in farcical fashion in their desperation to avoid being the first to pass the DRS detection line on Lap 43 it is clear the overtaking aid remains a stain on the racing spectacle.

With Melbourne, Imola and Barcelona – all notoriously difficult when it comes to overtaking – hosting three of the next four races, the 2022 rules have bigger tests just around the corner.

And if this promising trend continues it is crucial that F1 possesses the courage to begin to reduce the number of DRS zones with the ultimate aim of kicking the crutch entirely.

 

Saudi Arabian Grand Prix highlights

The Saudi Arabian GP once again provided us with a fantastic race, with Max Verstappen having to work hard for his win.