Long before the starting lights had extinguished under the pitch-black Jeddah skyline, there had been little over the first two days of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix weekend to alleviate the genuine anxieties many felt about the dangers facing Formula 1 in its very first visit to the Kingdom.
Hyper-fast and hyper-tight in equal measure, the near-misses and traffic jams witnessed over Friday and Saturday had left few expecting a clean, conventional grand prix on Sunday
“It’s a really, really nice circuit,” admitted Sergio Perez after qualifying. “Very, very dangerous, though.
“I really just hope that it goes through that we don’t see a big shunt out there.”
While Perez’s prescience would eventually be realised, his Red Bull team mate’s full potential performance sadly never would. A critical misjudgement on the only ‘turn 27’ on the entire calendar meant Max Verstappen was doomed never to complete what looked like being his greatest ever lap. Instead, he would line up square behind his nemesis, Lewis Hamilton, for the start of the race.
But with medium compound tyres that were at least four laps fresher than his championship rival’s, Verstappen knew opportunities awaited him on Sunday.
The first of which was during the 250 metre sprint down to turn one. But when the five red lights went out, it did not take long to Verstappen to find any potential room to the inside of Hamilton well covered by Valtteri Bottas, who played the role of bodyguard for his team mate to great effect.
Thus, Verstappen and Red Bull had to settle to be the chasers during the early phase of the race. It began thankfully free of major incident as the field filtered through the serpentine sweepers of the opening sector and into order. Two Mercedes ahead of Verstappen, with Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari in fourth, pressured by Perez, with Lando Norris trying desperately to make the best of his soft tyres in sixth.
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The wisdom heading into Sunday was that, with the soft tyre having proven highly undesirable for longer runs, a one-stop switch from mediums to hard tyres would be a easy option for those fortunate enough to start in the top 10. The main wildcard being a high risk of a Safety Car intervention or two that could force a compromise in the strategy at a moment’s notice.
And when cameras suddenly cut to the sight of Mick Schumacher’s Haas buried into the reinforced barriers on the outside of turn 22, that decision was immediately made for Mercedes. “Box, box, box,” Bottas was told.
But with the team planning to double-stack their cars, they needed more space between them. Bottas’s gap to Hamilton ahead began to tellingly inflate. “So, Lewis is two-and-a-half ahead. Three seconds ahead. Four seconds ahead,” relayed race engineer Riccardo Musconi. “So five seconds, that’s a good gap… Six seconds…”
Stuck behind Bottas, neither Verstappen nor Red Bull were impressed by the Mercedes’ tactics. “Valtteri’s lapping massively off the pace,” Verstappen complained. “It’s a piss-take. Absolute piss-take,“ his engineer Giampaolo Lambiase agreed, before crucially instructing his driver to ”stay out, Max, stay out.”
As the majority of the field dived into the pits to switch to hard tyres, Verstappen followed the order to remain out and inherited the lead. But any security Mercedes may have felt in pulling off their plan evaporated when the marshal boards around the circuit began to pulse bright red. The race was being suspended so the barrier repairs could be completed. With that, the game had changed significantly.
“So, that means we are in the lead now?” asked Verstappen, realising his team would now be permitted to change his own tyres with no cost in time or position.
“That’s correct,” Liambese affirmed, matter-of-factly.
Hamilton knew that his team had unwittingly snookered themselves. “Okay, so what does this now mean?,” realisation creeping over him as he shook his head in the cockpit. “Does this now mean he can change tyres?”
“Yes it does,” engineer Peter Bonnington affirmed, just as matter-of-factly.
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After a 20 minute delay, the field left the pits to resume a race where the dynamic had now shifted significantly. Having also stayed out, Esteban Ocon had jumped from seventh to fourth, ahead of Daniel Ricciardo who had gained three places for free by not pitting. His fortunes contrasted heavily with those of McLaren team mate Norris, who plummeted from sixth down to 14th after seizing what looked like a convenient opportunity to rid himself of his soft tyres.
For the second time that evening, the drivers lined up on the grid to resume from the start of the 15th lap. This time, with Hamilton behind Verstappen on the front row.
But so superior was Hamilton’s getaway that the Mercedes had not only drawn alongside the Red Bull but cleared it completely by the time the pair arrived at the braking zone for turn one with the pack scrambling behind them. Verstappen – perhaps knowing he’d struggle to acquire the lead of the race again if he capitulated now – dived deep to the outside and tried to swing his way back past the Mercedes into turn two.
Any room that did exist promptly vanished, and Verstappen darted beyond the confines of the white lines and bouncing over the inside kerb for the second corner, Hamilton having to straighten up at the apex to avoid contact. “He just cut across the whole kerb!,“ Hamilton exclaimed as he then lost a second position to Ocon’s rapid restarting Alpine exiting turn two.
Behind, Perez’s pre-race premonition of a sizeable accident self-fulfilled when, caught between Leclerc and Pierre Gasly through turn three, Perez was clipped by the Ferrari, sending him spinning off to the inside wall after the fast kink and leaving the following pack little room to navigate through. While many were lucky enough to find a sliver of space to squeeze to safety, George Russell could only slam on the brakes in an effort to avoid what was unfolding in front of him. Nikita Mazepin could do little to prevent himself from slamming into the Williams in an nasty collision, putting both cars out on the spot.
All three retirees climbed safely from their cars, but Russell’s irritation was clear. “Absolutely inevitable,” he spat over radio as he pulled his wounded Williams off the track. “Stupid.”
For a second time in as many laps, the race was red-flagged. Verstappen still retaining his lead ahead of Ocon. With little to do while awaiting the debris to be swept from the course, the downtime provided both Mercedes and Red Bull an opportunity to study the restart on replay.
Having decided that Verstappen’s actions at the restart had been outside of the regulations as well as the confines of the circuit, race director Michael Masi considered a practical solution that would allow the race to resume free from any ongoing stewards investigations.
“I’m going to give you the opportunity to start from grid position two for this,” Masi told Red Bull sporting director Jonathan Wheatley, “based on what occurred at turn one and two.” After clarifying that he actually meant dropping Verstappen behind Hamilton to third on the grid, with Ocon assuming the lead, Red Bull accepted the offer. Verstappen duly pulled over once the field returned to the track once again and allowing Ocon and Hamilton through.
For the third time that evening, the drivers took to the grid. Hamilton and Mercedes had successfully repelled Verstappen at the first attempt and had only lost the lead on the second thanks to a move by Verstappen that was deemed illegal. Could the Red Bull make good on a third attempt?
He could, thanks in part to a strategic gamble by his team. While Ocon and Hamilton stuck with their hard tyres for a race which still had 34 laps to run, Verstappen switched to mediums. It was a big ask to make these last the remaining distance, but they would offer better immediate grip and improve his chances of getting off the line quicker than his rivals.
At the second restart, Hamilton was preoccupied with trying to assume command of the inside line to turn one over Ocon. That left room for Verstappen to take all of the space his rival inadvertently left him to plunge inside of the Mercedes at the apex and sweep cleanly into the lead.
Hamilton narrowly escaped being caught between two adversaries, only suffering minor front wing endplate damage from a light touch with Ocon. Meanwhile Verstappen had rendered those unusual negotiations under the second red flag irrelevant as he resumed the lead of the race within just four corners.
Hamilton quickly dispatched Ocon to move back up to second by the end of the lap, before setting out to reel in Verstappen for the lead as he has so often had to throughout the 2021 season. But while Verstappen’s pace was more than a match for anything Hamilton could produce, the big question was whether Verstappen’s medium tyres could go the remaining distance.
From laps 18 to 35, the gap sat around one-and-a-half seconds, Hamilton hanging in touch with the championship leader with only an occasional Virtual Safety Car for debris to offer Verstappen respite from having to check how far back the Mercedes was in his mirrors. Then, at the end of lap 36, Hamilton breached Verstappen’s DRS range.
With a tight exit out of the final corner and a decent tow from the Red Bull ahead, the stage was set for what should have been a truly spectacular wheel-to-wheel battle, showcasing the exquisite racecraft and skills of arguably the two most naturally gifted racing driver on the planet.
Instead, the battle for the win of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix got ugly.
With huge momentum, Hamilton tucked up behind his rival down the pit straight, pulling to the outside for the advantage of seizing the inside for turn two. Verstappen, in a move reminiscent of his notorious Sao Paulo stunt, refused to give Hamilton any space and charged to the apex with so much speed he was clearly never going to make the second corner, scrambling over the inside of turn two as Hamilton swerved to avoid contact.
“This guy’s fricking crazy, man,” Hamilton vented, unimpressed.
Red Bull knew that their man was in trouble. Not only vulnerable to losing the lead, but likely to earn an investigation and almost certainly a penalty if he did not surrender the place. As Verstappen swept through turn 22, the team let him know.
“Let’s give the position back to Hamilton,” Lambiase instructed him. “Obviously do that strategically.”
With Verstappen navigating the long, bending straight approaching the final corner, he began lifting off the throttle to slow down enough for Hamilton to naturally breeze past before reaching the braking zone of turn 27. Hamilton – at this point unaware that his rival was giving up this position voluntarily – began to slow down.
Whether it was genuine confusion, or a suspicion about what his rival was up to and reluctance to pass Verstappen a corner before a DRS zone, Hamilton continued to slow, getting closer and closer to the back of the Red Bull that was almost crawling now in front of him. Then, with the Mercedes now right behind him in the middle of the road, Verstappen shortly but sharply hit the brakes.
In scenes more befitting an open lobby multiplayer race on Codemaster’s F1 2021 than a battle between two real-world championship contenders, Hamilton clipped the back of Verstappen’s car. The two championship rivals had collided. On a straight. At barely over 100kph. While leading the grand prix. With millions of people watching them.
“He just brake-tested me!” Hamilton exclaimed. “He’d been told to give you the position,” Bonnington explained, exasperated.
“I don’t know what’s going on here, Max,” admitted an audibly bemused Lambiase. “I have no idea what’s going on.”
Hours after the chequered flag, Verstappen was handed a 10-second time penalty by the stewards for the collision – crucially for “braking suddenly and significantly” after the pair had already slowed down. They also felt that Hamilton was clearly reluctant to pass Verstappen in the moment, should he gift DRS to Verstappen and thus an easy move back into the lead along the pit straight.
After one of the most ludicrous incidents seen on any Formula 1 circuit, and having wasted around four seconds with their dawdling, the pair resumed to racing speeds with Verstappen still leading and Hamilton second with even more parts of his front wing now littering the circuit.
With Hamilton still not having received restitution for the turn one incident, Verstappen allowed Hamilton to catch up once again and blended out of the throttle once more on the approach to turn 27. This time, Hamilton accepted the offer and drove by into the lead, only for Verstappen to immediately dive to the inside into turn 27 and reclaim the lead yet again.
However, by the time Verstappen had finally fulfilled his obligation, the stewards had already run out of patience and had handed him a five-second time penalty for keeping his lead illegally at turn one back on lap 37.
The sheer ridiculousness of the entire battle was compounded further, when Verstappen pulled aside for Hamilton on the back straight for a third time, with Hamilton keeping his car to the inside and forcing Verstappen out wide around the outside of turn 27. Masi would later inform Mercedes that he believed the move was close to being worthy of an unsportsmanlike driving warning flag.
Now Hamilton was finally ahead and Verstappen would be losing five seconds at the finish, the Red Bull began to fade away with his tyres starting to lose any significant life left. What could have been an enthralling wheel-to-wheel battle for the win had instead been decided by a series of unnecessary incidents that left the end of the race feeling somewhat hollow as it eventually reached its climax.
Having somehow managed to come through the chaos of the race without being any more the worse for wear than he had been, Hamilton put Verstappen out of his mind and checked off the remaining laps. When he took the chequered flag to take the win and the fastest lap, he was greeted with a strength of reaction from his Mercedes team that he had never experienced before.
“I think today I’ve seen a passion and excitement within my team that, I think, in 10 years I don’t think I’ve seen,” he said. “Which is amazing.”
In a welcome reminder of how thrilling real racing could be, Bottas had hunted down Esteban Ocon over the latter part of the race and was able to steal the final podium spot from the Alpine driver with a last gasp run to the line with the help of DRS. A demonstration of how possible it is to race hard and clean around this peculiar circuit – should both drivers be willing to do so.
Ricciardo took fifth in the McLaren, ahead of Gasly in the AlphaTauri and the two Ferraris of Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz who, again, were the closest matched pair of team mates in the field. Antonio Giovinazzi tripled his points tally with ninth after a strong weekend, and Norris took the final point, bitterly rueing his red flag misfortune.
Despite surrendering his points advantage, missing out on pole by his own mistake and having lost a win in such tumultuous circumstances, Verstappen was understandably aggrieved at having had multiple run-ins with the stewards, yet surprisingly at ease with the incredibly close championship picture heading into the most important race of his life next weekend.
“I find it interesting that I am the one who gets the penalty when both of us ran outside of the white lines,” he said. “In Brazil it was fine and now suddenly I get a penalty for it. Well, you could clearly see both didn’t make the corner, but it’s fine.
“We’re equal on points on now and I think that’s really exciting, of course, for the whole championship and Formula 1 in general. But I said it earlier on my in-lap, I think lately we’re talking more about white lines and penalties than actually proper Formula 1 racing and that’s, I think, a little bit of a shame.”
While referees in football, rugby and the NFL are routinely praised for ‘letting them play’, the stewards applying the same mentality to Verstappen and Hamilton’s earlier squabbles such as in Interlagos had perhaps only served to blur the lines when they needed to be made clear. Christian Horner’s comments that the day’s events showed that the sport missed former race director Charlie Whiting was a pointed choice of words, particularly coming two weeks after Masi censured him for complaining about a “rogue marshal” in Qatar.
The first ever Saudi Arabian Grand Prix may had delivered on providing what could become one of the most hotly debated debut races the sport has ever seen. But several drivers raised concerns over its suitability as a racing venue and the ill-tempered scrap between the title contenders descended into farce at times.
Now, level on points heading into the final round of this longest season, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen know that all that matters next weekend is that they must finish in front of the other one to be forever hailed as the winner of this increasingly tempestuous duel.
The Verstappen-Hamilton mythos has one final chance to be defined by brilliance, not bickering. Let’s hope the final chapter offers an ending worthy of a season that deserves better than it got in Jeddah.