Max Verstappen claimed his first victory of 2022
Credit: Red Bull Content Pool
Max Verstappen climbed the top step for the first time this season after a thrilling final few laps
Formula 1 walked a strange and troubled gauntlet in Saudi Arabia.
The weekend began with a frightening missile strike on a nearby oil refinery, narrowly avoided ending in a driver boycott; was shaken by Mick Schumacher’s nasty accident in qualifying; then finally began to shine when sport returned to centre stage, courtesy of a thrilling duel between Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc.
The last part was utterly breathtaking, but still F1’s senior stakeholders must surely on Sunday night have exhaled in a collective sigh of relief.
Verstappen vs Leclerc: the best of F1
Signs are the much-vaunted car regulation reset is working a treat following a grand prix that kept up an increasingly enthralling F1 narrative arc. This year, switch Verstappen vs Sir Lewis Hamilton for Verstappen versus Leclerc, thanks to Ferrari’s welcome rebirth and Mercedes-AMG’s alarming fall. Now a reviving elixir is sweetening the bitter aftertaste of last season’s botched Abu Dhabi climax, as a pair of 24-year-olds renew a rivalry that dates back to the days when they raced karts as kids.
As Red Bull chief technical officer Adrian Newey put it, there’s so little to separate F1’s top two teams right now. But pleasingly, Red Bull and Ferrari are finding their speed in entirely different ways: the former has a clear straight-line speed advantage, the latter what appears to be the better-rounded package in these early rounds.
On the fast Jeddah Corniche circuit, that resulted in an enthralling duel as Leclerc boxed clever to use a counter-attack DRS defence to retain his lead, until Verstappen unlocked his killer punch four laps from the flag. How Bahrain GP winner Leclerc then closed for retaliation, only to be thwarted by his straight-line shortfall, bodes well for a battle that looks set to swing from circuit to circuit, race to race.
Hamilton out of sorts
The sight of Hamilton failing to progress beyond the first qualifying session on Saturday drew gasps of shock. His boss Toto Wolff put it down to “a set-up experiment” that backfired, but despite Hamilton’s predictably methodical and patient recovery drive on Sunday, climbing as high as sixth behind his quietly impressive new team-mate George Russell, it’s clear the Silver Arrows have been seriously blunted this term.
Then even where luck usually runs in his favour, that seems to have deserted Hamilton now. As both Fernando Alonso and Daniel Ricciardo lost power, the safety car interlude that Hamilton needed to negotiate his single pit stop and still score good points looked set to fall his way. Instead, the virtual safety car (VSC) was used – even though it left marshals worryingly vulnerable as they recovered cars beside others still travelling at a decent lick – and Hamilton was forced to pit under full racing conditions. In the circumstances, a solitary point for 10th was all he could muster.
Schumacher benched by Haas
F1’s capacity for surprise knows no bounds. A messy race pockmarked by safety cars and red flags was predicted, but instead the second Saudi Arabian GP mostly ran clean. Nevertheless, concerns about this fast street track remain – and were enhanced by Schumacher’s high-impact crash in qualifying. The young German lost his Haas on a kerb, then smacked into a naked concrete wall. He was lucky modern F1 cars cocoon their drivers so well.
Schumacher was declared fit to race, but his team benched him to save the car for Australia. That goes against the natural instinct of racing teams – but this early in the season, spares are in short supply and the cars are being shipped straight from Jeddah to Melbourne. If Mick scores in Albert Park, as well he might, the cautious approach will pay off.
The threat of boycott
So were the drivers serious about pulling out of the grand prix in the wake of the missile attack on Friday? Understandably, it shook up everyone in the paddock as Yemen’s Houthi rebels brought their war with the Saudi Kingdom all too close to the detached bubble of F1.
Assurances of safety from F1 and government officials didn’t entirely wash, for good reason, and the drivers were locked in talks through Friday night and into the wee small hours of Saturday before they finally agreed to race. Few would have blamed them had they pulled the plug, although the consequences might have been troubling, in a variety of ways. Instead, sport’s happy distraction from the depressing ugliness of the real world held firm.
But it was nearly so different. Where it leaves F1, Saudi Arabia and their cosy, lucrative future together is another question entirely.