Why Verstappen’s crash hasn’t ended his victory hopes – even if he gets a penalty

2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix pre-race analysis

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Mercedes were quick on Friday, Red Bull looked fastest on Saturday, but a costly error by Max Verstappen leaves the championship leader third on the grid – at best.

His crash at the end of championship handed Lewis Hamilton an opportunity to win his third race in a row and further reduce Verstappen’s points lead. Indeed, if they were to finish where they start, the Mercedes driver would go into the final race ahead.

But the teams are still learning the secrets of the extreme and unusual Jeddah Corniche Circuit. Further surprises may be in store, and even if there isn’t, the race looks likely to serve up another tense contest between the title rivals.

The first question is whether Verstappen will require a replacement gearbox following his crash, which would mean an automatic five-place grid penalty. The driveshaft appeared to take a strong hit, which is often a tell-tale sign the shock of the impact has been transmitted to places the team don’t want it to go.

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Jeddah Corniche Circuit, 2021
Leclerc kept his gearbox despite smashing up his Ferrari
Charles Leclerc smashed up his Ferrari in a much more forceful rear-on collision during second practice, yet did not need a replacement. Verstappen may not be so lucky.

Perhaps more significantly, Red Bull also cannot risk him retiring from the race. Starting lower down the order, but with reliability assured, would be better for the championship. It would also be a cheaper trade than it may seem: Although Verstappen would move back to eighth, consider some of the drivers he’d fall behind: team mate Sergio Perez and the AlphaTauri duo. They’re not likely to put up much of a fight.

Red Bull may be emboldened to take the grid hit because, against expectations, they appear to have much stronger pace than their rivals. “We are so fast that we don’t take any risks,” motorsport director Helmut Marko told Servus TV. “If the gearbox has damage or glimpses of that, then we will change it.”

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff says there are clear areas where the RB16B is superior. “It changes throughout the sessions,” Wolff explained. “I think we are pretty equal on the straights, but we’ve been losing in the high speed but then also in qualifying in some of the low speed.”

“The drivers are not at all happy with the car,” he added. “It’s between understeer, snapping, checking, rolling, you name it.”

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Jeddah Corniche Circuit, 2021
Mercedes haven’t been as quick as expected in Jeddah
If Verstappen avoids a penalty and starts third he will be in the same position as in Mexico City, when he easily claimed the lead on the first lap and went on to a dominant win. Although Wolff’s points about Red Bull’s competitiveness should sometimes be taken with a pinch of salt, AlphaTauri’s performance so far shows that Honda have delivered a power unit which is not struggling to compete with Hamilton’s “spicy” fresher internal combustion unit.

In terms of dry wear, Pirelli believe the quickest strategy will be to start on medium tyres and move to the hard compound. That’s what every driver through to Q3, bar McLaren’s Lando Norris, has the opportunity to do, the papaya car forced to start on softs. Here too Hamilton is at a slightly disadvantage: he put four more laps on his starting set of medium tyres than Verstappen.

Formula 2 held a pair of sprint races around Jeddah on Saturday, both of which indicated the track brings a high potential for incidents, as was predicted, and is not easy to overtake on, against expectations. The local marshals appeared to be on top of things, however: car retrieval was very rapid.

Of course, just because F2 (or GP2) had a lively race on a brand new, high-speed street circuit does not mean F1 will follow the pattern. That was memorably the case at Baku in 2016, where a truly staggering amount of attrition in the GP2 feature race warned F1 drivers off any risky moves.

Both GP2 races were won in impressive style by a driver who had an exceptionally good qualifying session this weekend, reaching Q3 on medium tyres in his Alfa Romeo and claiming 10th place: Antonio Giovinazzi.

Giovinazzi has a shot at a points finish
It’s not often that there’s an opportunity to talk about some real underdog success in F1 but after Giovinazzi’s struggle for points all season, hearing him return from Formula E testing to say that qualifying at Jeddah was “a lot of fun” in a car that felt “brilliant” is at least a little heartwarming for what will be, as things stand, his penultimate grand prix.

“We knew the medium tyres would be better and we showed just how good they were in Q2,” explained Giovinazzi, of his excellent qualifying run. “The soft in Q3 weren’t as good and we struggled a bit more, it took us longer to get them in the right window, but tomorrow we will start on medium which is a positive.” That’s bad news for Norris, who may have a short-lived advantage from starting on the soft rubber but likely faces a stint management nightmare afterwards.

How quickly the midfield and those behind drop back from the leaders will also have an important bearing on the race. On a six-kilometre track it will take a while for the front runners to lap the tail-enders, as even the slowest team were within two seconds of the front row. But finding a place to pass them around Jeddah will be tough. The 50 laps could could pass by very quickly if it stays green throughout, but that doesn’t seem likely.

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Quotes: Dieter Rencken

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Qualifying times in full

Driver Car Q1

Q2 (vs Q1)

Q3 (vs Q2)
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1’28.466 1’27.712 (-0.754) 1’27.511 (-0.201)
2 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 1’28.057 1’28.054 (-0.003) 1’27.622 (-0.432)
3 Max Verstappen Red Bull 1’28.285 1’27.953 (-0.332) 1’27.653 (-0.300)
4 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 1’28.310 1’28.459 (+0.149) 1’28.054 (-0.405)
5 Sergio Perez Red Bull 1’28.021 1’27.946 (-0.075) 1’28.123 (+0.177)
6 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri 1’28.401 1’28.314 (-0.087) 1’28.125 (-0.189)
7 Lando Norris McLaren 1’28.338 1’28.344 (+0.006) 1’28.180 (-0.164)
8 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri 1’28.503 1’28.222 (-0.281) 1’28.442 (+0.220)
9 Esteban Ocon Alpine 1’28.752 1’28.574 (-0.178) 1’28.647 (+0.073)
10 Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo 1’28.899 1’28.616 (-0.283) 1’28.754 (+0.138)
11 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren 1’28.216 1’28.668 (+0.452)
12 Kimi Raikkonen Alfa Romeo 1’28.856 1’28.885 (+0.029)
13 Fernando Alonso Alpine 1’28.944 1’28.920 (-0.024)
14 George Russell Williams 1’28.926 1’29.054 (+0.128)
15 Carlos Sainz Jnr Ferrari 1’28.237 1’53.652 (+25.415)
16 Nicholas Latifi Williams 1’29.177
17 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin 1’29.198
18 Lance Stroll Aston Martin 1’29.368
19 Mick Schumacher Haas 1’29.464
20 Nikita Mazepin Haas 1’30.473

Sector times

Driver Sector 1 Sector 2 Sector 3
Lewis Hamilton 32.007 (4) 27.953 (2) 27.519 (1)
Valtteri Bottas 31.998 (3) 28.001 (3) 27.623 (2)
Max Verstappen 31.900 (1) 27.848 (1) 27.623 (2)
Charles Leclerc 32.048 (5) 28.243 (7) 27.697 (4)
Sergio Perez 31.921 (2) 28.098 (4) 27.781 (5)
Pierre Gasly 32.112 (8) 28.202 (5) 27.803 (7)
Lando Norris 32.072 (7) 28.263 (8) 27.795 (6)
Yuki Tsunoda 32.058 (6) 28.299 (9) 27.865 (10)
Esteban Ocon 32.246 (12) 28.340 (11) 27.960 (13)
Antonio Giovinazzi 32.215 (11) 28.385 (13) 27.910 (11)
Daniel Ricciardo 32.186 (10) 28.219 (6) 27.811 (9)
Kimi Raikkonen 32.416 (14) 28.433 (15) 27.928 (12)
Fernando Alonso 32.424 (15) 28.384 (12) 28.016 (14)
George Russell 32.297 (13) 28.457 (16) 28.045 (16)
Carlos Sainz Jnr 32.114 (9) 28.317 (10) 27.806 (8)
Nicholas Latifi 32.573 (18) 28.478 (17) 28.126 (17)
Sebastian Vettel 32.635 (19) 28.432 (14) 28.023 (15)
Lance Stroll 32.467 (16) 28.734 (19) 28.167 (18)
Mick Schumacher 32.531 (17) 28.693 (18) 28.240 (19)
Nikita Mazepin 33.334 (20) 28.799 (20) 28.340 (20)

Speed trap

Pos Driver Car Engine Speed (kph/mph) Gap
1 Kimi Raikkonen Alfa Romeo Ferrari 326.4 (202.8)
2 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes Mercedes 326.3 (202.8) -0.1
3 Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo Ferrari 326.3 (202.8) -0.1
4 Charles Leclerc Ferrari Ferrari 326.1 (202.6) -0.3
5 Max Verstappen Red Bull Honda 325.5 (202.3) -0.9
6 Nikita Mazepin Haas Ferrari 325.0 (201.9) -1.4
7 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes Mercedes 324.0 (201.3) -2.4
8 Esteban Ocon Alpine Renault 323.7 (201.1) -2.7
9 Lando Norris McLaren Mercedes 323.3 (200.9) -3.1
10 Mick Schumacher Haas Ferrari 323.1 (200.8) -3.3
11 Carlos Sainz Jnr Ferrari Ferrari 322.4 (200.3) -4.0
12 Fernando Alonso Alpine Renault 322.4 (200.3) -4.0
13 Sergio Perez Red Bull Honda 322.3 (200.3) -4.1
14 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri Honda 321.1 (199.5) -5.3
15 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren Mercedes 320.8 (199.3) -5.6
16 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin Mercedes 320.5 (199.1) -5.9
17 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri Honda 318.7 (198.0) -7.7
18 George Russell Williams Mercedes 316.6 (196.7) -9.8
19 Lance Stroll Aston Martin Mercedes 315.6 (196.1) -10.8
20 Nicholas Latifi Williams Mercedes 315.0 (195.7) -11.4

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2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

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Author information

Hazel Southwell
Hazel is a motorsport and automotive journalist with a particular interest in hybrid systems, electrification, batteries and new fuel technologies....

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44 comments on “Why Verstappen’s crash hasn’t ended his victory hopes – even if he gets a penalty”

  1. And risk DNF by starting with a damaged gearbox?

    1. That’s what I said in another article. Red Bull will be absolutely insane to not change his gearbox even with the slightest amount of damage, and minimal, even if there is a scratch there.

      1. Worst case with penalty is getting stuck behind Leclerc and finishing P4 vs risk of DNF or DNS, strange decision indeed.

  2. Ummm. Hazel @hazelsouthwell We may live to read it one day but Lecrec crashed gis Ferrari ain’t it? Not a Reb Bull.

    1. Well spotted. I haven’t read any reports of Red Bull changing their livery – or Ferrari for that matter, or Leclerc taking Checo’s seat 🤣

  3. My gut is something crazy will happen tomorrow. Like ferraris crashing each other out at the start in Singapore crazy.

    1. @dmw Or, to go the full tin foil, maybe we’ll see Hamilton pit early (his medium tyres are 4 laps older), come back out and then a weird fault appear in one of the Alpha Tauri’s, causing a VSC or SC, just as it’s Verstappen’s turn to pit.

      1. @david-br
        well, this is the kind of tactics that suits Horner and Marko perfectly,.

        1. GAVIN CHAPMAN
          5th December 2021, 10:55


  4. Surely Red Bull can’t take the risk with Verstappen’s gearbox. The Red Bull-Alpha Tauri peloton is there to ease him through to third quickly, leaving just Bottas to pass for second, no big deal as we’ve seen on every occasion this year.

    1. You are forgetting Norris and Leclerc as spanner in works with Leclerc having openly stated he will get dirty in defense.

      1. I think Leclerc and Norris have better things to do for themselves and their teams than risk a collision with Verstappen. True, it could be difficult to pass on this track still, we’ll have to see.

        1. Red Bull have run great race strategies, especially in the second half of this season. If they have to replace the gearbox and take the grid penalty there is much that can happen with Leclerc and Norris by the time Max reaches them (if they are still in front of him at that point of the race whether by pit stops or racing incident.) I can certainly see Red Bull changing Sergio’s strategy to run long and hold up Lewis then pit him late if a flap point needs to be taken away from Lewis.

          1. Are you forgetting Bottas in P2?

      2. They said if Max robust defense is legal, they would adopt it. They really should, why wouldn’t they use the same tools as their opposition?

  5. AJ (@asleepatthewheel)
    5th December 2021, 3:34

    Apparently Super Max was a whopping 4.1 seconds faster than anyone else in S1. Next NASA shuttle to be powered by Honda.

    1. I’m not a fan of Max but I feel tremendous respect for his driving. Firstly, yesterday’s error cannot bi only attributed to him. RB16b is a snappy car on low fuel. Hence, as a matter of being truly objective, we can blame the whole team for designing a car difficult to predict when pushed to the limit on low fuel. Secondly, there is a strong indication that RBR aimed at one lap pace setup taking into consideration the nature of the circuit regarding overtaking. If they can transfer their one lap pace into race pace Lewis is in trouble. If it’s all about data then we’ll see Mercedes easily pulling off from RBR. However, I’m afraid of accidents at this track and all chaos that can come with it. Let’s hope for a boring race. I can’t believe I wrote that…

      1. “Rb16b is a snappy car on low fuel” – where are you getting that info? Only thing both Rbr drivers complained about was grip?

        Max, I think, carried just a bit too much speed approaching final corner locked up and we all know what happened.

        But I agree I hope there aren’t any accidents in the race.

      2. I must’ve seen a different qualifying. Max overshoot his braking point in the last corner, missed the apex yet tried to make up for it by being too greedy with the gas while on the dirty side of the track. The car oversteered and hit the wall. Blaming anyone but Max for that crash is pure science fiction.

        1. You obviously never sat in a race car.
          He was not “to greedy on the gas” but used the throttle to turn the car.
          Still an error but without that extra throttle the damage would have been extensive.

          1. Did you ever sit in anything else than your sofa, erikje?

          2. @erikje you sir, don’t know what you’re on about. “Used the throttle to turn the car”. The only way to steer a car by application of throttle input is torque steer which has no practical application in F1.

          3. Contrary to popular opinion ‘controlling the car on the throttle’ isn’t about breaking traction. Rather, it’s about the difference in front/rear axle load when you’re accelerating, at steady throttle or lifting off the throttle. The lateral force remains the same for a given speed, but accelerating causes understeer by unloading the front axle, steady throttle balances the car [if set up correctly] and lifting off the throttle causes oversteer through reduced rear axle load and enhances turn-in. This in the extreme is light trail braking into the corner but easily becomes a spin or front lock-up and direct to the barrier if taken to the extreme.

            Without seeing the throttle trace it’s hard to be sure what Verstappen did, but given his understanding of car control I’d go for steady throttle and fingers crossed. Obv it didn’t work..

      3. AJ (@asleepatthewheel)
        6th December 2021, 5:16

        Actually there was a typo which listed his S1 time as 27.8, which is what I joked about. It has now been corrected. Apart from that, we did not get a boring race at all yesterday!

  6. Passing is going to be far more difficult than Baku or Mexico. Degradation is low, so the extra 4 laps on Hamilton’s car can be balanced out by Hamilton usually being pretty good on his tires (although with the handling issues, that may be moot).

    I believe I recall hearing that Hamilton was doing pretty well on the hard tires, and he’s got a fresh set for the race.

    I think this is either going to be Hamilton’s race– or one of those whiskey, tango, foxtrot races.

    1. @grat Monaco, LOL. Monaco will always remain the worst one for overtaking.

  7. It will be a mess, F2 races had at least a SC and a VSC and they are just 20 laps long. Teams must have all options ready at any time.

  8. I had just said to my son “Max is flying, there’s no way he’s not getting pole… unless he hits wall”, and WHAM!

  9. he should make up the places easy going by his qualifying speed. Verstappen has had the fastest car (overall, not every race) this year so it is his title to lose. With that mistake, and if he is 8th into turn 1, pressure will be building up in his mind i am sure, and more mistakes could follow. but i think he will be 5th after a couple turns, then 2 laps later in 3rd chasing down the mercs.

  10. I realise functionally there’s little they can do about the ATs letting the RBs through easily (“Fernando is faster than you” vibes), but it is pretty irritating to have customer teams able to influence the results to a significant extent.

    1. I agree. I can live with team orders between team mates, but different teams is something else. Very difficult to prevent though

    2. Indeed.
      But as long as a team is permitted to own four cars, there’s nothing we can do against it.

  11. New track which is fast and walled in – could be a red flag race! This race has the potential to give a crazy result. If there is a red flag towards the end and some drivers who are up front because they haven’t yet pitted get to have a free pitstop and continue on at the front – we could have an unexpected winner!

  12. Mr Jacob Fardell
    5th December 2021, 9:49

    Watching the F2 race – it was interesting that because the run to turns 1 & 2 are so short, drivers in the midfield and the back of the grid were hardly getting out of their launch phase before they had to jump on the brakes for the pack concertinaing. It caught a few out of concentration causing them to run into the back of the car in front. That risk is bigger for Max starting in P8 as it is P3. Of course any hint of damage to the gearbox warrants a change. Don’t want to risk not even being able to take to the grid. I’m expecting a change. With side ways whip and momentum it look to the naked eye just about hard enough a hit to cause gearbox damage.

  13. RocketTankski
    5th December 2021, 10:59

    “His crash at the end of championship”..
    Did you just spoil the ending for us? :-)

  14. Max has been doing a superb job all season. To keep up with Mercedes, Max has to take a lot more risks compared to Lewis. It is absolutely clear that Mercedes have the best car on the grid all season, easy explanation being Bottas again qualifying without problem on the front row. It also throws a kind of a dark shadow on Lewis´ performance, the fact that a mediocre driver (as Bottas is), can qualify within one tenth of a second (and sometimes even outqualifies Lewis).
    Shame for Max that he hit the wall, but that can be the consequence of having to take so much more risk. Should Max have been in a Mercedes, he would have outqualified Bottas easily with at least 0.5 sec, probably more.
    Hopefully, luck will be a little bit more on Max´ side this race, he deserves it.

    1. it sounds like you’re a bit biased against Hamilton. Hamilton has 340 points and Bottas has 200. who cases if Bottas qualified within a tenth?
      obviously Bottas has been quite unlucky this season. but Hamilton would have still been ahead on points…

      it’s like saying that Giovinazzi has been better than RAI because he’s been outqualifying him…

      1. i meant who cares*…

  15. Very thin margins indeed. Strategists of all teams must be on their A game to make the most of this race: it seems like this is a Singapore like track – a track where the safety car appeared at least once in every GP held there.

  16. geoffgroom44 (@)
    5th December 2021, 11:51

    A risk that needn’t have been taken results in a potential gearbox change. This is the wonder of F1, when drivers push the limits (even if they don’t need to).Knowing when to back off is a major part of the consistency a champion requires.As it was he already had the pole but impatience or ego or sheer excitement got the better of cool judgement.
    I sometimes wonder if LH,the master, knows how to push other drivers into the ‘error zone’, as it seems to happen so much.

  17. I just wonder if Max’s innate temperment will get the better of him on this track. He drove that qualifying lap showing the track no respect. True, he had no slow cars ahead of him and so he could afford to take those blind corners without fear of a slower car ahead. Come the race he wont be so lucky. There will come a point where the faster cars encounter the slower cars ahead of them on this track, and then they will be reliant on pit radio warnings of the slower cars ahead.

    Who knows what the telemetry will do on this new track under race conditions. I hope the information is there so the pits can warn their drivers of slow cars ahead, or indeed of faster cars behind.

    I hope the radios stand up to the extra traffic as all the other pit crews use their radios to do the same things, for the same reasons, at the same times.

    [If Max tries to send one, on that first corner he’ll likely take himself and Bottas out of the race… we shall see.]

  18. F1oSaurus (@)
    5th December 2021, 12:03

    easy explanation being Bottas again qualifying without problem on the front row

    easy explanation being that Bottas is actually a very good qualifier. He destroyed Massa in quali when they were team mates and Massa really only was any good at qualifying. While Perez has always been destroyed in quali by any team mate he went up against.

    Reality is that Verstappen has bottled it in Q3 for the 9th time now this season. He almost always had the car to go for pole and then either messes up the run that matters, gets exceeds rack limits ending up with a time deleted or a wheel off.

    With only very few exceptions like Brazil and Qatar, but then even those were down to Verstappen inexplicably unable to properly set his car up for those tracks (which should actually have fit the Red Bull car best).

    Verstappen usually had the race pace in his car to overcome his poor Q3 performances though or he could go for an all or nothing overtake on the first lap. So that’s why he so easily shrugs it off and puts his hope on the race.

  19. Red Bull looked fastest on Saturday

    Well, no

    Two chauffeurs lazily cruising around in their Mercs were a tiny bit slower than a heroic pilot overdriving so much his shockingly slower RBR that he paid the consequences at the final turn.

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