Mohammed Bin Sulayem, Christian Horner, Bahrain International Circuit, 2024

Controversies overshadow new F1 season: Eight Saudi Arabian GP talking points

Formula 1

Posted on

| Written by

The first Formula 1 race of 2024 saw too little drama on-track – and rather too much off-track.

While Max Verstappen cruised to a routine win which recalled the least exciting rounds of last season, his Red Bull team was grappling with an unfolding crisis surrounding team principal Christian Horner.

On top of that the president of the sport’s governing body, Mohammed Ben Sulayem, is now reportedly under investigation by his own organisation for allegedly interfering in last year’s race at Jeddah Corniche Circuit – scene of this weekend’s grand prix.

While those storylines continue to unfold, the hopes of a competitive 2024 season rest on Red Bull’s rivals getting their act together – or Sergio Perez replicating his race-winning performance at this race last year.

These are the talking points for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

Red Bull ‘civil war’

Max Verstappen, Mohammed Ben Sulayem, Bahrain International Circuit, 2024
Ben Sulayem urged Verstappen to back Horner
Verstappen has been thrust into the centre of the unfolding row at Red Bull over the future of its team principal. Christian Horner was cleared of inappropriate behaviour following an internal investigation last week, but a subsequent leak of messages allegedly involving him and a female member of staff have raised fresh questions. Horner denies the claims made against him and has refused to discuss the leaked material.

The loudest voice calling for him to stand down has been Verstappen’s father Jos, who told reporters last weekend the situation was tearing the team apart. It also emerged Ben Sulayem had asked the three-times champion to make a public show of support for Horner. How Verstappen will walk the line between supporting his father and his team principal is a dilemma he would surely rather not have to face as he focuses on his bid for a fourth world championship.

Meanwhile Red Bull’s rivals have urged FOM and the FIA to take the lead in determining whether the team has handled the situation correctly. Ben Sulayem acknowledged the situation is “damaging for F1”, but he now appears to be involved in a controversy of his own.

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

Ben Sulayem investigation

Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin, Jeddah Corniche Circuit, 2023
Alonso’s pit stop penalty was rescinded last year
The result of last year’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix was decided several hours after the chequered flag fell, when a penalty which had been applied to Fernando Alonso was rescinded. The decision to cancel the penalty was widely welcomed and it restored Alonso to the podium.

But yesterday a report claimed Ben Sulayem had sought to influence the stewards’ decision to cancel Alonso’s penalty. The FIA has been approached for comment.

Alonso’s penalty was overturned after Aston Martin requested the stewards review their decision. The issue at stake was whether the team had infringed the rules by touching Alonso’s car with a jack while they were serving a five-second time penalty in the pits. This was later clarified in an update to the rules.

Can Perez repeat his Jeddah victory?

Sergio Perez, Red Bull, Jeddah Corniche Circuit, 2023
Perez won after technical trouble struck Verstappen last year
The 2024 season began in near-identical fashion to last year, with a Red Bull one-two in Bahrain as Verstappen won comfortably ahead of team mate Perez.

As the world champion is now on an eight-race winning streak stretching back to last year’s Japanese Grand Prix, it would be easy to assume he already has one hand on the trophy for next Saturday’s race.

However, Jeddah has typically been one of Perez’s strongest circuits on the calendar. In 2022, Perez led from pole before a poorly-timed Safety Car took him out of the lead. And last season, car number 11 took the first of its two victories of 2023 from pole position in Saudi Arabia.

But even in that victory, Perez benefitted from the fact Verstappen started well down the field in 15th place after his driveshaft failed in Q2, offering Perez a clear run at the victory from pole position. Although Verstappen had to settle for second after making his way through the field, he did snatch away the fastest lap from his team mate on the final lap of the race.

Will Perez be able to put up more of a challenge this weekend?

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

Disarray at Alpine

A handful of teams underperformed below what they had hoped to achieve last weekend in Bahrain. Mercedes, Aston Martin and RB all would have pictured themselves being stronger when arriving in Bahrain before the pre-season test than they ultimately performed on Saturday.

Esteban Ocon, Alpine, Bahrain International Circuit, 2024
Alpine have been hit by more key staff departures
But none endured anywhere near as deflating an opening round as Alpine did. The team that finished sixth last season and fourth the year prior sit at the very bottom of the championship at the end of the opening round of the 2024 season. After Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly locked out the final row of the grid in qualifying, they finished down in 17th and 18th, respectively. Only ahead of two drivers who suffered problems out of their control during the race.

At the launch of the team’s A524 at their Enstone factory, technical director Matt Harman described Alpine as having taken a “very bold approach” with the new car that he believed has “an awful lot of potential to extract.” Yesterday the team confirmed Hamilton had left along with aerodynamics chief Dirk de Beer.

Although the team has put a new structure in place, this is the latest in a series of high-profile departures from Alpine over the past eight months.

There is hope at least for the team, however. Ocon believes that Jeddah “should suit our car a little bit better” and hopes ” we are going to be closer to the pack than [last] weekend.”

A better circuit for McLaren?

Lando Norris, McLaren, Bahrain International Circuit, 2024
Bahrain has tended not to suit McLaren
After back-to-back awful starts to the season in Bahrain over the last two years, McLaren started 2023 on a much higher note by taking a double points finish with Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri last weekend.

It could have been an even better beginning, with Norris admitting he felt a mistake on his final qualifying lap prevented him from taking a front row start. But despite McLaren getting off to a solid start, they were not close to the podium places like they regularly were towards the end of last season.

However, Norris expects that the high speed sweepers of Jeddah – one of the fastest circuits of the 24 on this year’s calendar – will be one that plays more to the strengths of their new car.

“I’m more positive for this kind of circuit, especially when you look at turns six and seven here [in Bahrain], turn 11 – they were corners we were a bit better at relative to the rest,” Norris explained. “You look at the last corner, turn one, turn 10 – we’re just shocking. There’s less of them next week. I’m hoping there are more corners which suit us next week.”

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

Another race without retirements?

For the first time ever in Formula 1 history, every single driver who started the opening round of the season saw the chequered flag.

There was not a single retirement on Saturday, despite the best efforts of Logan Sargeant’s Williams to force him out of the race early on. But what is perhaps more remarkable is that Bahrain was the second consecutive grand prix with no official retirements.

The last driver to officially retire from a grand prix was Norris, when he crashed out of the Las Vegas Grand Prix in the early laps. Carlos Sainz Jnr pulling into the pits on the final lap in last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix but was still a classified finisher.

If all 20 drivers complete at least 45 laps of this weekend’s race in Jeddah, it will be the first time ever that three consecutive grands prix have run without an official retirement. Two cars dropped out of last year’s race – and at least five in the two before that.

Although the chances of that are slim in Jeddah, as there have been a combined 11 ‘Did Not over the first three races around the circuit, as well as two ‘Did Not Starts’.

Security matters

Fire at Aramco oil plant after attack, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 2022
Missile strike triggered crisis over 2022 race
Returning to Saudi Arabia, the context of recent world events and regional politics cannot be ignored. Back in 2022, the Jeddah race weekend was overshadowed by a missile attack on the North Jeddah Bulk Plant – just 10km away from the circuit – during Friday’s second practice.

The attack brought the security of the 2022 event under question, but after assurances, the race ran as planned with no further incident – as was also the case in 2023. The FIA confirmed that “Yemeni rebel group Houthi” had “claimed responsibility” for the attack.

With Saudi Arabia bordering Yemen, and British and US militaries having out strikes on the Houthis since January in response to their attacks on Red Sea shipping, Formula 1 will want to avoid any more uncomfortable situations in Jeddah. There have been no questions over the security of this year’s event and no reason to suggest there should be, but as an international sport, it is inevitable that F1 will occasionally find itself adjacent to some complex geopolitical realities which make its internal paddock strife seem small beer.

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

Are Jeddah’s days numbered?

Jeddah Corniche Circuit aerial view, 2023
F1 may leave Jeddah after 2027
The Jeddah Corniche Circuit is an unusual creation, often referred to as a ‘street’ track despite being a purpose-built construction separate from the surrounding road network. Drivers revel in its grippy surface, enjoy its medium-to-high speed corners and delight in the challenge of threading their cars between the walls.

But they may only have a few years left to enjoy it. The long-term plan for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix was that it would relocate to a new track in Qiddiya, further details of which emerged today. Last year the race’s CEO indicated that could happen after 2027.

Are Qiddiya’s days therefore numbered? Perhaps, but Saudi Arabia is spending huge sums of money on sport through its Public Investment Fund. If they have the appetite for two rounds, expect it to happen.

Are you going to the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix?

If you’re heading to Saudi Arabia for this weekend’s race, we want to hear from you:

Who do you think will be the team to beat in the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix? Have your say below.

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

2024 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Browse all 2024 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix articles

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...

Got a potential story, tip or enquiry? Find out more about RaceFans and contact us here.

32 comments on “Controversies overshadow new F1 season: Eight Saudi Arabian GP talking points”

  1. José Lopes da Silva
    5th March 2024, 12:51

    Exactly 6% of championship Grand Prix ever raced (68 out of 1102) ended up in a Grand Slam.
    Will Verstappen raise this above 6%?

    1. Sorry but that is incorrect – 68 out of 1102 = 6.17% not exactly 6%.

      At the start of this century the % Grand Slams was 7.12% (46 out of 646), with 22 Grand Slam scored in 456 races (=4.82%) since the % dropped as low as 5.84% after the Italian race in 2013 after which Vettel scored consecutive Grand Slams in both Singapore and South Korea.

      The last time the % was below 6% was after the last year Monaco race (65 of 1,082 = 5.99%) following by Max scoring a Grand Slam at the Spanish Race.

      Only 4 times consecutive Grand Slams were scored:
      * Ascari Germany and Dutch race in 1952
      * Clark Dutch and France race in 1963
      * Vettel Singapore and South Korea race in 2013
      * Leclerc Australia race in 2022 and Verstappen Imola race in 2022

      The first Grand Slam was scored by Fangio in 1950 at the 2nd F1 race in Monaco.
      The longest period between 2 Grand Slams was between Schumacher’s Grand Slam at Hungary 2004 and Alonso’s Grand Slam at Singapore 2010 (108 races and just over 6 years).
      In no Championship year were ever more than 3 Grand Slams scored.

      Below the # and % of Grand Slams per decade:
      1950-1959 9 Grand Slams in 84 races = 10.7%
      1960-1969 11 Grand Slams in 100 races = 11.0%
      1970-1979 9 Grand Slams in 144 races = 6.3%
      1980-1989 6 Grand Slams in 156 races = 3.8%
      1990-1999 11 Grand Slams in 162 races = 6.8%
      2000-2009 3 Grand Slams in 174 races = 1.7%
      2010-2019 13 Grand Slams in 198 races = 6.6%
      2020-2024 6 Grand Slams in 84 races = 7.1%

      1. Karun, is that you? :D

      2. Unsurprising that the lowest (by far) Grand Slam rate coincides with the refuelling era, where lead changes were common as drivers pitted. I would guess that most of the 11 Grand Slams that occurred in the 1990s would have been prior to 1994 when refuelling was introduced, many attributable to the all-conquering Williams cars of 1992 and 1993.

        1. Yes you are correct as 6 (2x 1990 Senna, 1x 1991 & 3x 1992 Mansell) of the 11 Grand Slams in that decade came before 1994 and 5 after (2x 1994 & 1x 1995 Schumacher and 2x 1998 Hakkinen).

          If you look at races lead from start to finish, there were 17 in 1990-1993 period and 17 in period 1994-1999. Translating that to per year gives 4.25 versus 2.83 but that could also be due closer competition.

          Similar if you compare 2000-2009 to 2010-2019 the gap is much larger 18 versus 46 but guess that was also driven by dominating Red Bull and Mercedes years.

      3. José Lopes da Silva
        5th March 2024, 23:15

        You’re right. Thanks for the correction

      4. José Lopes da Silva
        5th March 2024, 23:20

        By the way, what an awesome reply.
        This means 2022 was the first time ever that Grand Slams were posted successively by different drivers. Another tiny piece of evidence that engineering rules supreme, nowadays.

  2. It should rather be: ‘Media desperately tries to cling to controversy stories while F1 has turned the page and moves on to Jeddah’. Let’s face it, it is all wishful thinking of the media.

    1. I just wish it had never happened or, now that it has happened, it could be resolved with at least the tiniest amount of decency, but to say F1 has turned the page is probably the definition of wishful thinking. Horner has made himself to many enemies even within Red Bull and Jos Verstappen made that quite clear.

      1. You are right, ‘turned the page’ is wishful thinking on my behalve and a bit too strong. But it is the media (only) that keeps the stories going.

        1. Yes, because they report on what is happening, which is their job?.. Should they not report that the president for FIA is under investigation? Should they not relay the words of Jos Verstappen?.. and who exactly is it that should decide when or when the media should report on something or not? The problem is not the media, if there is any problem. They problem is a possibly corrupt FIA president, and a possibly a team leader who couldn’t keep it in his pants. We don’t know exactly because a lot of it is still in progress and being investigated, but its not the medias responsibility to not report on the news. Perhaps the problem is also social media, with all the hate and people jumping to conclusions without definite proof. But that’s the world we live in today…

    2. With an amazingly dull season highly likely, this is mana from heaven for them. Things like the Horner situation is only “an unfolding crisis” because the media insists on happily taking the bait and also labeling it a crisis.

      It reminds me of how many times this or that outlet would say “so and so’s Halloween costumer generates outrage” and there had been absolutely zero outrage or noise until that publication brought it up. Basically their own chicken and the egg with the strongly implied “this is something you should feel free to be outraged about – so tweet now about how offended you are!”

    3. Sandwhichands
      5th March 2024, 20:15

      Redbull appear to have made most of their decisions with the major shareholder showing public support. If there is factional fighting, the best opportunity to oust Horner has come and gone. However it’s unlikely they will get another opportunity as good as this one, so wouldn’t be surprised if they pushed a bit harder for a while.

  3. Red Bull ‘civil war’ – I wish this matter just went away.

    Ben Sulayem investigation – Just what F1 didn’t need following all that’s happened with the Horner case.

    Can Perez repeat his Jeddah victory? – Doubtful.

    Disarray at Alpine – Indeed & I doubt they’ll get out of that very soon, although I hope I’m proven wrong.

    A better circuit for McLaren? – Should be.

    Another race without retirements? – Unlikely, but not impossible.

    Security matters – Everything should be perfectly okay like in last year’s edition.

    Are Jeddah’s days numbered? – I reckon it’ll more likely stay alongside Qiddiya than get replaced when the latter eventually joins the championship.

    1. Yes, the red bull civil war could potentially weaken the team, but while I’d like for other teams to be more competitive, this is not exactly the way I’d prefer to achieve that.

      I don’t mind f1’s reputation being tarnished, given some decisions they took lately, for example not letting andretti join.

      Perez in jeddah you never know, he’s usually good at street tracks, but indeed there’s such a gap with verstappen lately it’s unlikely unless verstappen has a problem like last year.

      Also pessimist about alpine, hopefully a better circuit for mclaren, we really need someone to get closer to red bull; races without retirements can happen, reliability is almost bulletproof lately, but probably 3 in a row is too much, even cause crashes still happen.

      Security also doubt those issues are gonna resurface, and as for the races given that there’s a lot of money in the country, I also think they will keep 2 races in saudi arabia.

  4. Matt Harman described Alpine as having taken a “very bold approach” with the new car that he believed has “an awful lot of potential to extract.” Yesterday the team confirmed Hamilton had left along with aerodynamics chief de Beer.

  5. @willwood

    There’s a typo in the final paragraph. Should be ‘Jeddah’ rather than ‘Qiddiya’.

    1. I have an opinion
      5th March 2024, 21:30

      There are many grammatical and typographic errors in this article. It could have done with a proofread before publishing.

      1. Yeah , also appears an Hamilton on the text.

  6. I’m interested to see how the RedBull situation plays out. It seems extremely over dramatic to say the team could implode, but it also doesn’t feel that far away.

    For me, their big question mark comes from Ford. They’ve already stated they want a clean, swift outcome and so far RedBull have provided anything but.

    I can’t see a way in which RedBull come out of this as the best team for 2026.

    If they sack Horner they risk losing Newey and other key members of staff.

    If they keep Horner they risk losing Ford and Verstappen.

    Now the likelihood of Ford pulling out is extremely slim, but given that Jos has already been extremely vocal on this and Mercedes could genuinely be the best team in 2026 it doesn’t take much to think he could persuade Max to leave.

    Let’s wait and see, but I’m there’s going to be some big news soon and I have a feeling itll shock people more than Hamilton to Ferrari.

    1. You mean Max leaving a team if serial winners to go to Merce es who have struggled to get to grips with this generation of F1 car from the word go? Don’t think so. Jos is just been Jos, a mouthy F1 dad who should know better to keep his mouth shut. Talk about pot calling kettle black.

  7. Can Pérez [fill in as appropriate]?
    Nope. I don’t expect any kind of challenge at all from him this year. Second best all the way unless Max has a car issue or some other incident.

  8. The real controversy is that the other eight teams are really bad. Not just slightly off the pace, but record breaking losses bad. And they have the temerity to (attempt to) block new teams because they’re “maybe” not competitive…. for WINS!? Hilarious.

    When Ross Brawn finished his work for Liberty and introduced the 2022 cars, he promised that:

    “It will bring it a lot closer.”
    “We’ll see some of what were the midfield teams challenging.”
    “We’ll have a bigger group of competitive teams.”
    “We could be entering a great period.”

    Three years in it seems fair to draw some conclusions. Liberty failed. It’s time to put the FIA back in charge of the rules.

    1. Andy (@andyfromsandy)
      5th March 2024, 17:24

      The problem it seems with bringing the teams closer is none have enough outright pace to overtake so they just get in a DRS train for most of the race.

  9. If the messages that have been leaked are real (and that’s a big if), Horner should probably be fired. Thing is, it feels to me more like a power grab than a legitimate case of inappropriate behaviour.

  10. Jeddah should not be on the F1 calendar ever. Very unsafe track.

    Horner? Who knows?

    Wondering more about Red Bull’s future.
    Will Newey retire or move on to a different team? (Especially if Horner leaves.)
    Will Ford in 2026 perform as well as the current power? Match power or declining? Could be quite interesting.
    Will Max stay or try to leave RB? Especially if Ford fails for power. Or what if Jos says he should exit RB.

    We should see, in the future…

  11. I am no fan of Horner or Red Bull. But I want to see them defeated on track by a better team, not in the tabloids. They’ve done an amazing job with the car and Max is the class of the field (and before I get the “well it’s easy in the best car.. may I present to you: Sergio Perez?!)
    If Horner was having and inappropriate and non-consensual relationship with a staffer, he should go.
    But only if it’s true
    There is far too much of this “presumed-guilty-period” situations happening.
    I find it truly ironic that the loudest voice is a man who was convicted of violence against a woman, but that’s probably just me being judgmental..

    1. I find it truly ironic that the loudest voice is a man who was convicted of violence against a woman, but that’s probably just me being judgmental..

      If one had to pick a single prominent individual within the Red Bull sphere who wasn’t quite clever enough to stay silent, there aren’t many more obvious picks than Jos Verstappen.

  12. Something needs to be said about the environmental impact of building a racetrack just for a handful of races over half a decade, only to build a completely new facility and move the race there.

    It’s funny towns/cities/countries forces you to have an environmental impact study for the smallest of things while this happens. It’s just wrong.

  13. The BBC is reporting,

    Mohammed Ben Sulayem, president of Formula 1’s governing body, allegedly told officials not to certify the Las Vegas circuit for its race last year.

    1. He was onto something given that Sainz had a terrible experience with the drain cover that broke even his seat. Of course your comment needs more context.

  14. Jos needs to sit down at shut up.
    He’s not a member of the team, & he’s not Max’s manager.
    Max is an adult now, so what is Jos still doing hanging around adding his opinion to everything?
    Also, doesn’t he have his own ‘abuse’ skeletons in his closet … people in glass houses …

Comments are closed.