Red Bull Charges to Victory in Jeddah


Red Bull and Max Verstappen have themselves a big weekend. (Courtesy of Twitter)

Over the weekend, the 2022 Formula 1 season continued to Jeddah for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. Unlike last year, where it was the second-to-last race in the calendar, it was moved to the front of the schedule. After the events in the season opener in Bahrain, Red Bull was able to identify the issue that led to their double retirement and was hopeful that it wouldn’t happen again. Important to note is that, just like Bahrain, Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel was again sidelined due to a positive COVID-19 test, forcing Nico Hulkenberg to once again deputize for the team.

Throughout the practice sessions, it was Ferrari with Charles Leclerc topping the timesheets closely followed by his teammate Carlos Sainz and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez. Right before the second practice session, there was an attack on an oil depot nearby the circuit, with the flames going into the night. This incident led to a four-hour meeting with all of the drivers, team principals and even included some of F1’s senior bosses to discuss what should be done. The meeting went to 2:30 a.m. local time and resulted in the decision to continue the race after receiving assurances over the safety of the event.

When it came to qualifying, the huge shock was the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton being eliminated in Q1. This is the first time that he has been eliminated in Q1 since the Brazilian Grand Prix in 2017 after crashing out. However, he was eliminated on pure pace, something which hasn’t happened since 2009. During Q2, the Haas of Mick Schumacher had a massive incident in the first sector of the car, which immediately brought out the red flag. Schumacher was taken to the hospital for precautionary checks, which revealed no major injuries. However, due to the extensive damage to the car, team principal Guenther Steiner announced that Schumacher would not race, nor would they replace him. This was done to ensure that they could repair the car for the next race. If that car was fixed and then got into another incident, they might not have enough parts to fix it for the following race.

Once the track was clear and Schumacher was taken to the hospital, qualifying resumed. In Q3, Sainz was on provisional pole. However as the drivers did their final flying laps, Leclerc jumped him. But before they could celebrate, Perez grabbed pole position with a mighty lap, followed by Leclerc in second, Sainz in third and Verstappen in fourth. This was Perez’s first ever pole, breaking the record for the most starts before getting pole, which was at 215 races. Meanwhile, Schumacher’s teammate Kevin Magnussen was able to get into Q3 and qualify 10th.

Right before the race, the remaining 19 drivers went out to do an installation lap to get themselves onto the grid. However, the number went down to 18 with the Alpha Tauri of Yuki Tsunoda bowing out due to a mechanical problem. When the lights went out, the remaining 18 drivers got away cleanly with Verstappen passing Sainz for third. Meanwhile in the midfield, the Alpine teammates of Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon had a brilliant battle between them, with Ocon starting ahead. Alonso was piling on the pressure with Ocon able to defend for a few laps before losing the spot to his teammate. Ocon then fought back and both teammates were dangerously close to crashing and ruining both of their chances to score points. Ocon was then told to hold position and to stay behind Alonso.

Meanwhile, at the front of the pack, Perez was holding around a two-second gap to Leclerc. On lap 15, Leclerc was told to pit opposite Perez which meant that if Perez stayed out, he should pit and vice versa. Perez pitted so Leclerc stayed out and inherited the race lead with both Verstappen and Sainz. 

However, the race was turned on its head with a virtual safety car being called out which was quickly changed to a full safety car. This was horrible timing for Perez, because this meant that everyone else could pit and not lose as much time, compared to a pit stop under normal racing conditions. Nearly everyone pitted including Leclerc, Verstappen and Sainz. Both Leclerc and Verstappen were able to effectively jump Perez and remain in first and second. When Sainz left the pit lane, he was alongside Perez, with the pole sitter squeezing Sainz out to stay ahead of the Spaniard. Sainz was immediately on the radio saying that he emerged ahead of Perez and therefore he should get the position back. When the safety car was brought in, he was still behind Perez. 

Meanwhile, Verstappen was trying to get Leclerc to speed up and get back under racing conditions. Leclerc finally bolted to restart the race with Verstappen slightly caught off guard. Perez then let Sainz past immediately after the restart. Leclerc was quickly able to establish a gap ahead of Verstappen and out of DRS range. 

However on lap 38, we saw three cars retire with engine issues: Alonso, the McLaren of Daniel Ricciardo and the Alfa Romeo of Valtteri Bottas. Bottas was able to make it to the pits, but the other two cars were only able to make it to the pit entrance before grinding to a halt. This brought out a virtual safety car and made the pit lane closed, giving the marshals a chance to remove the cars while also ensuring that no car could enter the pits to change tires. There was around a 30 second gap between the virtual safety car and the pit lane being closed, which gave the chance for two drivers to pit: Hulkenberg and Magnussen, who both hadn’t stopped before. The only driver not to pit was Hamilton, who couldn’t because the pit lane was now closed. This meant that when he would pit, he would lose more time than under the VSC. 

When the VSC finally ended, Verstappen was able to warm up his tires better than Leclerc and get to within one second of the race leader. On lap 42, Verstappen took the lead heading into the final corner. However, in an exact repetition of Bahrain, Leclerc then used DRS to retake the lead of the race into the first corner of lap 43. One thing to note about the track is that the final DRS detection point is at the final corner. With a somewhat long straight, it is possible to retake the position that was lost. On lap 43, Verstappen learned his lesson and didn’t overtake Leclerc, slowing down to ensure that he would get DRS on the pit straight. Leclerc saw this and slowed down as well to try and be behind Verstappen at the detection point. This ended up with both drivers locking up in a puff of smoke in a game of chicken to see who would blink first. Once both drivers locked up, Leclerc bolted and kept the lead. However on lap 47, Verstappen was able to get close enough behind Leclerc and used the DRS to power his way into the lead. Leclerc tried his hardest to get close enough to make a move, but the Red Bull was too quick on the straights to make any move possible.

After 50 laps, Verstappen crossed the line to win the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix with Leclerc close behind and Sainz a distant third to round off the podium. After a horrid season opener, Red Bull was able to get a decent haul of points with the race win and a fourth place. Hamilton was able to get all the way into 10th and claim a single point, with his teammate George Russell in fifth, over 20 seconds behind fourth-placed Perez. You can take a look at the full standings here.

With two races out of the way, there is now a well-deserved week break before the next race in Melbourne in two weeks. This is the first time since the pandemic that F1 will race in Australia. The race was going to go ahead in 2020, which was canceled minutes before the start of the first practice. With time to rest and analyze the data, expect some teams to bring upgrades to improve performance as each team fights for every single point.