Will Verstappen seal the title as F1 faces its “biggest unknown”? Five Jeddah talking points

2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

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Max Verstappen can clinch the world championship this weekend, but the new Jeddah street circuit looks like the kind of venue which could produce a surprise.

Here are the talking points for this weekend’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

Verstappen on the brink of destiny

At the apex of a season-long duel against Lewis Hamilton, Verstappen heads to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia knowing he could well leave having been crowned as the new world champion.

An 18-point swing in the Red Bull driver’s favour around the Jeddah Corniche Circuit this weekend – however statistically unlikely – would secure Verstappen’s first world title and Red Bull’s first championship of the V6 turbo era.

However, the reality that his season-long mission could finally be accomplished on Sunday is unlikely to faze the Red Bull driver. Verstappen has approached the titanic challenge of overcoming Hamilton – the sport’s most successful ever driver – throughout the 2021 season with all the stoic determination of a Tom Clancy protagonist. It’s difficult to envision that being on the brink of capturing the ultimate prize would influence his approach to this particular weekend in any meaningful way.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Losail International Circuit, 2021
Analysis: How Verstappen can clinch the F1 world championship at the next race
Red Bull will also be very aware that they do not control their destiny this weekend. To out-score Hamilton by 18 points this weekend will require a stroke of major misfortune for Mercedes, so instead the aim will be to ensure Verstappen heads into the final race in Abu Dhabi with as great an advantage over his rival as possible to maximise pressure. After all, Hamilton has never won a championship showdown where he has been behind heading into the final race.

Midfield melees to be settled?

The proverbial spotlight may be on the sharp end of the grid this weekend as it so often is, but there are two more season-long battles that could be decided under the lights in Jeddah come Sunday.

After a back and forth battle between old nemeses Ferrari and McLaren, the Scuderia have one hand on securing third place in the constructors’ championship with a 39.5 point advantage in hand. There may be a wealth of points still available over these final two race weekends, but McLaren need a major swing in their favour on Sunday to keep their hopes of repeating the third place they took last year.

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Losail International Circuit, 2021
Ferrari have surged in recent races
Ferrari have outscored McLaren by a total of 57 points over the last drive races, so the prospects are not good for the Woking-based team. However, with the low-downforce, high-speed nature of the Jeddah circuit likely to suit the MCL35M better than other rounds on this year’s calendar, Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo may have more of an opportunity to bring the fight to Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jnr.

Behind them, there’s also the battle between Alpine and AlphaTauri over fifth place. Having entered the Qatar Grand Prix weekend level on points, Fernando Alonso’s podium and a fifth place finish for Esteban Ocon resulted in a brutal 25-point blow for AlphaTauri’s hopes of beating them to fifth in the constructors’ championship.

Both teams have been wildly inconsistent in their performances in races across the season, so this particular battle may not be over yet. And in another weekend where the circuit is unknown to all competitors, Yuki Tsunoda could go a long way towards building his team’s confidence in him heading into 2022 with a strong performance in Saudi Arabia.

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A night of unknowns in Jeddah

Track data: Jeddah Corniche Circuit

Jeddah Corniche Circuit track map, 2021

Lap length 6.174km (3.836 miles)
Grand prix distance 308.7km (191.817 miles)
Tyre compounds C2, C3, C4

Jeddah Corniche Circuit track data in full

F1’s first foray into Saudi Arabia is perhaps a preview of the future that lies ahead of the sport over the decade to come. Like Miami to follow next year, Jeddah is an exceedingly fast, but exceedingly narrow, street circuit where the emphasis is on speed and spectacle for viewers – although perhaps not in terms of wheel-to-wheel action.

But all that is known about yet another new venue for 2021 is the layout – not how much grip the 27 identified corners will provide. With even Pirelli’s Mario Isola admitting that the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix will be “probably the biggest unknown we face all year,” we could well be in store for a chaotic and unpredictable race this weekend.

From the expected lack of grip and the proximity of barriers lining the high-speed sweeping corners – many of which will be blind on entry – there is almost certainly a high risk of safety car or VSC interventions if there’s any contact or car forced to pull off with a mechanical problem. And if it happens in the midst of a pit stop window, it could blow the race wide open.

As we’ve seen over the last two seasons, F1 can throw up some exciting and chaotic races when the teams and drivers are let loose around a new and unfamiliar venue when they don’t have a wealth of real world data to rely on. But as Baku’s debut in 2016 demonstrated – where two days of frequent red flag stoppages led to a tame race on Sunday – we’re not always assured of a wild ride during the first race.

Traffic troubles and synchronised slipstreams

Jeddah Formula 1 circuit construction, 2021
The Jeddah course looks fast, narrow and punishing
At more than six kilometres, Jeddah will be one of the longest circuits on the calendar. But despite all that space, the busy nature of the circuit’s layout and the relatively few heavy braking incidents around the lap means traffic could be even more of a headache across the weekend.

The lack of convenient places to pull over and let an approaching car by – especially in the opening and middle sector – will undoubtedly lead to some raised tempers both in qualifying as well as during the race on Sunday.

But traffic could also prove to be a double-edged sword. With an average lap speed forecast to be higher than anywhere bar Silverstone and Monza, seeking out a tow from a car ahead will be of concern for all 20 drivers.

Red Bull has previously arranged for their cars to provide slipstreams for each other during qualifying already during the season, it would not be surprising to see Sergio Perez do so for Verstappen on Saturday evening. Especially when every advantage possible is so precious during this critical stage of the season.

A question of sportwashing

Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin, Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, 2021
Vettel isn’t looking forward to this weekend’s race
The second successive debut race for a new nation to play host to a grand prix is also the second where the matters of human rights, F1’s ‘We Race As One’ diversity programme and the role international sport should play in advocating for equality will all collide together once again.

The government of Saudi Arabia has been condemned by human rights watchdogs such as Amnesty International over the rights of women, LGBTQ people and workers in the kingdom. Formula 1’s deal to race in the nation has therefore been subject to heavy criticism.

Pop singer Justin Bieber, who is due to perform at the circuit as part of the race weekend’s entertainment, has been called upon to cancel his appearance by Hatice Cengiz, whose late fiancee, journalist Jamal Khashoggi, was murdered at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey in 2018. A report by US intelligence services concluded that Khashoggi’s murder had been ordered by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, which he denies.

Having raced and won in Qatar in an helmet emblazoned with a ‘progress pride’ flag in support of the LGBTQ community, Hamilton has said he will do so again both in Saudi Arabia and in next weekend’s season finale in Abu Dhabi. Hamilton has not shied away from expressing his belief that the sport should use its platform to speak up in matters of human rights to promote equality in host nations that are heavily criticised for discrimination and oppressing their citizens and will likely do so again this weekend.

Perhaps tellingly, Sebastian Vettel – who has also regularly demonstrated outspoken support for the rights of LGBTQ people throughout the season – gave a frank answer in Qatar when asked if he was looking forward to racing in Saudi Arabia this weekend. “No,” was the Aston Martin driver’s blunt reply.

The issue of how far F1 should go to raise human rights concerns is one that will continue to be debated over the years to come. But while it is a question that is unlikely to affect what happens on the track this weekend, it will also prove hard for the sport and its stakeholders to simply dismiss and ignore.

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Author information

Will Wood
Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...

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33 comments on “Will Verstappen seal the title as F1 faces its “biggest unknown”? Five Jeddah talking points”

  1. Is the track actually finished, and has it had FIA approval yet? The last we heard (helpfully linked at the bottom of this article) was that it was to be complete “in the coming days,” but we haven’t actually heard that it’s been finished yet, unless I’ve missed something.

    1. @red-andy The track got finished last Thursday from my understanding.

      1. Wait, you mean the tarmac and runoff got done up only last Thursday @jerejj??

        I guess there is hardly anything that will prevent the track from being deemed “raceable/OK” by the FIA. No doubt there has been thrown so much money at it both to finish it (more or less, enough to be accepted as such?) and to make sure no one has any interest in saying it is not.

        Probably going to be in a state not unlike that first Korean GP (and indian GP as well, I think) where the track surface, runoff etc were finished but the garages were only barely done to a useable level.

        1. @bascb IDK, but before the Qatar GP weekend, the info was about Thursday 25.11.
          I’m not sure if that meant tarmac, runoff, or everything generally.

  2. I predict Ferrari outscores Mclaren again & Alpine gains even more ground on AT, although anything’s possible on this circuit.

    SC & VSC likelihoods are indeed high, so this particular race could end up being a lottery or generally feature extraordinary circumstances & consequently have an unusual outcome.

    From my understanding, also higher than Silverstone, i.e., only behind Monza.
    Anyway, I’ve pointed out before that no other track is like Monza.
    Therefore, I doubt slipstream attempt would be any bigger issue than anywhere else bar, of course, Monza, be that Spa-Francorchamps, Sochi Autodrom, AHR, Interlagos, Baku, etc.

    Despite the possibility for unusual stuff, I still reckon Mercedes & especially car #44 to be ahead, given engine freshness advantage & recent form.

    1. I should’ve double-checked before, but a slightly higher average lap speed than Silverstone as 252 kph has got mentioned & Silverstone’s outright track record (2020 pole time 1:24.303) avg was 251.564 kph.
      Spa-Francorchamps is the next fastest at 249.026 for its equivalent outright record, also 2020 pole time (1:41.252).

  3. Mercedes have the championship in the bag.

  4. I hope the title goes down to the last race but after that i don’t care which driver wins it, as both Hamilton and Verstappen would be deserving of the title.

  5. Merc having the fastest car for most of the season now.
    And they have the momentum.

    Max needs Lewis to get his share of bad luck this season. Otherwise it’s game over.

    I think Max made the least mistakes.
    You can easily point to 70pts that Lewis lost due to clear mistakes. He should have won the championship already.

    1. Baku: Lewis magic button . 25pts
      Monza: Merc the fastest car by biggest margin (even bigger than Brasil). Look their 1-2 in qualifying and how Bottas cut through the field on Sunday. Bottas who is notoriously bad for driving through traffic. Lewis goofed up the start of the sprint race . 3 pts. And a win in the sprintrace would have allowed him to drive into the distance on Sunday. So 28pts lost total that weekend.
      Monaco: Bottas qualified 0.1s from pole. Monaco is all about qualifying and Lewis couldn’t get it right. Surely a qualifying goat should have been 0.1s+ quicker on a tricky street circuit than an avg team mate? Lewis could have scored (at least) 10 points more .
      Hungary: With all competition ( 2 Red Bulls and his Merc teammate) out of contention after turn1 how did Lewis and Merc not win this one… 7 points lost


      And these are the clear ones.

      1. Yeah, TBH had HAM performed like 2017-18, we would we talking about him easily taking the title this weekend at least. Those seasons HAM was very consistent with no driving errors (just the odd 1-2 off the pace weekends).

      2. @trib4udi Don’t forget how many possible points Max has lost through different times.
        Baku: 26 pts through a sudden puncture when leading
        Silverstone: either 25/26 or 18/19
        Hungary: Same as Silverstone
        Monza: Possibly 18/19, or at least 12/13 (P4), although if the above three went differently, the no-score for both would’ve been entirely unimpactful anyway.
        Sochi Autodrom: W/o Silverstone, he mightn’t have started at the back for exceeding PU allocations & won, although he could’ve equally still finished P2, meaning no difference outcome-wise.
        W/o the biggest points losses, he might’ve already won the WDC.
        The ‘what-if’ game works both & many ways.

        1. The difference is that I mentioned points lost by Lewis through mistakes.

          Max lost many points due to bad luck or wrongful (&penalised) actions by others. Can you give me examples of very clear mistakes or underperformance by Max that costed him dearly?

          I missed a few more from Lewis: eg the fact that Russell outqualified Lewis in the rain in Spa was not quite very strong of Lewis was it?

      3. This is an odd analysis of a driving season. The car does not drive itself and fail to win only by errors. It wins and loses in part due to who is behind the wheel. If you debit errors you have to credit good performances as well for a complete ledger.

        And if Hamilton wins this title, no matter what happens from here, it will be on a massive deficit in laps led and a significant one in poles. The idea that he has had the best car and should have just won in a walk but for errors is, well, one way to look at things.

        1. Not just errors indeed. Also bad luck for his opponent;-)

        2. @dmw

          The idea that he has had the best car and should have just won in a walk but for errors is, well, one way to look at things.

          Another possibility that is way more likely: fastest car by a slim margin overall

      4. It’s hard to take you seriously when you blame Lewis for the Monza points loss. Get serious for once.

        1. Emma, I am not excusing Max who was penalized for the collision.
          But, would you agree that Lewis would have been nowhere near Max if he didn’t goof up his Monza sprintrace?

          Or should we just forget about this costly mistake just because there was this collision.

          1. You cannot blame Lewis for missing out on points when he was knocked out regardless of the circumstances of the prior sprint race. That is as ridiculous as blaming Max for being taken out by Bottas simply because Max didn’t qualify on pole which would have seen him ahead of the crash. Don’t you see how utterly ridiculous that kind of victim-blaming is?

  6. Max gonna stun everyone and win this weekend. Everyone will say title is over. Then RB have a nightmare of a weekend in Abu Dhabi. HAM blows everyone away (like massa brazil 08’). Title decided in last laps of the race. 2008 style!

  7. About that “no” from Vettel.
    What he could do is not race there. Aston Martin will probably be 7th in the WCC. For Vettel, I don’t think he really cares if he is 12th, 13th or 11th in the standings. But it might be too much for Sebastian and Aston Martin to say that they won’t race there because what has happened in the past. Still for F1 it might be the right thing to rethink their values but it also would be a miracle if someone in 2021 would just say “no I’m not racing in there because what ??? country has done to human rights.

    1. @qeki That ‘no’ answer alone is slightly misleading as he subsequently said:
      “I don’t know. It’s a new circuit for us so we’ll see.”

  8. An 18-point swing in the Red Null driver’s favour

    lol – see highlight @willwood – surely not intentional, right ;-)

    1. Yeah saw that, too. “Null” is very close to “nul” meaning “nil” or “zero” in Dutch.

      “Red Null” now meaning “Red Nil” for the Dutch fans.

  9. Why do human rights issues never come up in China or Russia? Or Texas or Canada? Why is it only when we go to “colored” countries that we bring up human rights.

    1. They have come up in China and Russia and not just for f1. And Im not sure whether China is is less “colored” than KSA. I would be happy if drivers were to talk about the US death penalty at the US gp.

      In any event KSA, China, et. al cannot escape criticism by whataboutism or a sadly ironic resort to claiming discrimination.

      1. Theyre not nearly as vociferous in Russia or China as they were in Qatar, or are so far being in Saudi. There are entire segments of Sky that touched on those topics. China has freaking concentration camps and monitors and limits free speech in ways that the Saudis probably dream of.

        “I would be happy if drivers were to talk about the US death penalty at the US gp.” Agreed, or the restrictive abortion laws, or trans rights, or indigenous rights. The point I was trying to make was that every country has progress to make, on a lot of fronts. Im applaud F1 and drivers talking about it and raising awareness, but it should be done everywhere. Even when there’s money at stake (China), or political pressure (Russia), or its going to ruffle feathers (US and others).

        1. I suppose I’ve helped make your point in reference to the US—western countries are not perfect yet they see zero criticism of their policies via international sports events. So ii guess I see more merit to your comparison.

    2. They do come up when they race in China and Russia, and you could argue that women have equal rights in Texas and Canada, and I dont remember either of those 2 places beheading journalists recently….. in public

    3. The way most governments are running rampant desperately trying to bring in control over a flu bug with 99.97% mortality (and the latest shocking!! ‘varient’ with mild hayfever symptoms), it won’t be long before every country F1 visits will have human rights issues!

    4. JackL

      Why do human rights issues never come up in China or Russia?

      The answer is: pure and sheer hypocrisy facing a possible loss of sponsorship. Taking that into perspective, Lew and Seb are not brave blokes at all!

  10. Given that there has not been any good view of the circuit itself in a completed form until today; and we are going to see it only on Friday, it does concern me in terms of safety. It’s quite a high-speed circuit with no wiggle room in a lot of places, which forces you to go single file. The winner of this circuit is more in terms of who can run the engine at that level and keep the concentration for a long time; rather than actual wheel to wheel action.

    I wonder how they will deal with blue flags in such a circuit at these speeds! For all the safety that F1 talks about, the way they have included this circuit in the calendar gives me a pause.

    1. Its probably the worst track I’ve ever seen in F1. Even the disliked Las Vegas 80s track around a car park had infinite more charm than this utter abomination.

      There’s going to be cars flying this weekend and not it a good way.

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