It’s only 16 weeks since Saudi Arabia staged its first ever grand prix and now along comes its second – with Ferrari aiming to build on their Bahrain perfection.
Formula 1 chiefs decided Jeddah, in back-to-back seasons, would occupy places at opposite ends of the campaign and so rather than being a potential title decider like last year, it is now taking on a formative role in the 2022 calendar.
The Jeddah Corniche Circuit always looked like it would provide plenty of dramatic action and so it proved in December as Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen clashed several times, with the Dutchman failing to convert his first championship ‘match point’ and instead being penalised for his aggression against his Mercedes rival.
There were two red flags during the race and such stoppages appear inevitable again on this high-speed street track, even though officials have made tweaks to try and improve safety – although they admit to not having been able to do everything desired given the short timeframe since the sport’s previous visit.
This time, rather than having the chance to close out the championship as he did in December, Verstappen arrives in Jeddah with zero points on the board. He saw a probable 18 slip away in the Bahrain curtain-raiser when forced to retire from second place in the closing laps.
Describing that misfortune as “extremely painful”, the World Champion also said Red Bull “didn’t show what we could really do” in the Bahrain race – where pole-sitter and eventual winner Charles Leclerc always looked to have his measure apart from a brief duel on laps 17 and 18 when they swapped the lead on a couple of occasions.
Verstappen’s late exit, followed by that of his team-mate Sergio Perez due to a similar issue with the fuel pump, meant Ferrari achieved their first victory and 1-2 finish since the 2019 Singapore Grand Prix as Carlos Sainz followed home Leclerc.
— Oracle Red Bull Racing (@redbullracing) March 23, 2022
It was a continuation of the promising performances the Scuderia had turned in with the F1-75 over the six days of official and unofficial testing, but nevertheless a 17-point advantage over second-placed Mercedes in the initial Constructors’ standings – and 44 over Red Bull – will be beyond their wildest dreams.
Does that mean Ferrari are now favourites to capture the 2022 titles? Well, that depends on how quickly Red Bull can catch up in the points race and Mercedes in the development race.
Mercedes still walked away with third and fourth positions through Hamilton and George Russell in Bahrain despite having a car that was off the pace and which their head of engineering, Andrew Shovlin, said has “a lot of everything” wrong with it.
However, both he and team principal Toto Wolff have referred to the “low-hanging fruit” available to be picked off in terms of performance gains, in addition to other improvements to the W13 that will be harder to obtain, so it would be dangerous to discount Mercedes.
And what of the other teams at the start of a fresh Formula 1 era which, with the new regulations and cars, has been designed to make racing more exciting, open and competitive?
The early evidence has to be encouraging when you see Haas sitting in third position in the Constructors’ table thanks to Kevin Magnussen’s 10-point haul for finishing a remarkable fifth in Bahrain on his return to the sport after a season away.
That result alone more than tripled the number of points Haas accumulated in 2021 and 2020 combined, and the team’s next step will be for Mick Schumacher to bag his first F1 top-10 finish after just missing out at Sakhir.
Last weekend was also a strong one for Alfa Romeo as they got both of their drivers into the points, including rookie Guanyu Zhou who accomplished that feat on his series debut.
Valtteri Bottas could have finished higher than sixth but for a poor start in which he tumbled to 14th and the C42 displayed impressive qualifying and race pace that should stand the team in good stead.
Alpine had a satisfactory opener in seventh and ninth, while AlphaTauri would have been reasonably happy with their weekend had Pierre Gasly’s car not turned into a “barbecue”, as described by the driver, to bring out the Safety Car in the closing stages.
But for the other three teams, it was a race to forget and they will need to hope either the Saudi conditions play to their current strengths or they have made some significant gains via any new upgrades or as a result of their Bahrain learnings.
Williams, you suspect, are likely destined for the second half of the grid all season, although there were signs Alex Albon could be capable of extracting more from the FW44 than the sum of its parts a la George Russell in previous seasons, whereas Nicholas Latifi may not.
McLaren and Aston Martin, however, will feel they should be making considerable progress having been trailing around towards the back in Bahrain, clearly experiencing fundamental issues with their new cars.
At McLaren, it is the brake ducts that are causing headaches with their technical director James Key referring to “a really strange anomaly in that it passed every criteria we had for cooling, yet didn’t work”.
He added: “I think, in a way, it demonstrates how fresh these cars are and how much there is still to learn about how to get them right.”
That also applies to Aston Martin who, along with Mercedes, have been particularly affected by the ‘porpoising’ problem with the new cars.
“I’d say we are still a way away from solving it the way we’d want to solve it,” said the team’s chief technology officer, Andrew Green.
“We are probably losing in excess of half a second, probably closer to three quarters of a second because of it.”
It may be just coincidence but McLaren and Aston Martin are the two teams that have had a driver sidelined due to Covid-19 so far this year, with Daniel Ricciardo missing the official test while Sebastian Vettel sat out last week’s race.
At the time of writing on Thursday morning Vettel was still awaiting a negative Covid test, with Nico Hulkenberg on standby to deputise again.