FP1: Max Verstappen bounces back from a stomach bug to finish P1

Michelle Foster
Red Bull driver Max Verstappen is filmed climbing into his RB19. Bahrain March 2023

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen is filmed climbing into his RB19. Bahrain March 2023

Red Bull and Aston Martin battled for top honours in the opening practice session for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, Max Verstappen winning that fight ahead of Sergio Perez and Fernando Alonso.

On a sweltering hot Friday afternoon in Saudi Arabia, track temperature 42’C and rising, Nyck de Vries was the first man out, the AlphaTauri driver needing the laps as he’s the only one of the 20 without any Jeddah experience.

Sergio Perez despite his experience of the circuit, this is the third time Formula 1 has raced in Saudi Arabia, needed a two-point left-hand turn to get out of the Red Bull garage as he found the pit lane a bit tight.

While he began his day’s programme, his team-mate Max Verstappen, having arrived late for the race weekend after a stomach bug meant he delayed his flight, relaxed in the back of the garage chatting to his mechanics.

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Perez went P1 with a 1:32.969 on the soft tyres, three-tenths up on the Ferrari of Carlos Sainz who was running the hard Pirellis and complaining about an AlphaTauri driver. “He didn’t get out of the way,” he told Ferrari. “That was dangerous.”

Lewis Hamilton pipped them both, but it was short-lived with Perez back up to P1 with a 1:31.486. With the full array of soft, medium and hard tyres in play, Charles Leclerc jumped up to second place with Sainz third. Interestingly Ferrari had three, not just two, front wings laid out for FP1 with the team-mates running comparison tests.

Despite changes to the circuit to make visibility a bit easier for the drivers, traffic and suddenly finding slower cars ahead continued. Ferrari told Leclerc: “Behind Russell, watch for traffic.” Leclerc, hitting the brakes: “Too late.”

As Fernando Alonso on the soft tyres hit the front, Verstappen left the pits for his first run of the afternoon. With a shiny set of soft tyres on his RB19 he went P3 while Alonso upped his pace only for Verstappen to edge ahead with a 1:30.494, 0.015s faster than the Aston Martin.

The Dutchman, though, wasn’t entirely happy with his car’s handling: “Turn 22 there’s a lot of understeer, like it doesn’t want to turn at all.” He still upped his pace and then did so again, the benchmark down to a 1:29.815 on his eighth lap on the soft tyres such was the minimal degradation.

Mercedes swapped from the hard to the soft tyres, George Russell up to fourth ahead of Hamilton. But after just six laps on his soft tyres, Hamilton was complaining: “Struggling for grip, how much time are people finding?”

Another driver struggling was Pierre Gasly, the Frenchman calling his Alpine’s brakes “rubbish” as he went flying over the kerbs, only 11th fastest. He improved to P9 on his next lap. Lance Stroll was also sliding off the circuit while Lando Norris was shown a black-and-white flag for failing to follow race directors event notes as he returned to the track.

With 10 minutes to go Verstappen headed back out and upped his pace to a 1:29.662. There was, however, a bit of kerb mounting and a great deal of sparks involved. His team-mate Perez also improved, leapfrogging Alonso for second.

Verstappen finished FP1 0.438s up on Perez with Alonso a further two-tenths back. Stroll was fourth ahead of Russell, Hamilton, Sainz, Gasly with Albon and Tsunoda completing the top ten.

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1 Max VERSTAPPEN Red Bull Racing 1:29.617
2 Sergio PEREZ Red Bull Racing +0.483
3 Fernando ALONSO Aston Martin +0.698
4 Lance STROLL Aston Martin +0.960
5 George RUSSELL Mercedes +1.154
6 Lewis HAMILTON Mercedes +1.170
7 Carlos SAINZ Ferrari +1.307
8 Pierre GASLY Alpine +1.332
9 Alexander ALBON Williams +1.413
10 Yuki TSUNODA AlphaTauri +1.493
11 Charles LECLERC Ferrari +1.501
12 Esteban OCON Alpine +1.564
13 Nyck DE VRIES AlphaTauri +1.833
14 Oscar PIASTRI McLaren +1.874
15 Nico HULKENBERG Haas F1 Team +1.935
16 Kevin MAGNUSSEN Haas F1 Team +1.949
17 Logan SARGEANT Williams +2.305
18 Valtteri BOTTAS Alfa Romeo +2.353
19 Guanyu ZHOU Alfa Romeo +2.369
20 Lando NORRIS McLaren +2.532