Our F1 correspondent, Nick van der Meulen, delves into the inaugural, drama-filled Formula One Grand Prix in his race report F1 Review Saudi Arabia 2021.
Saudi Arabia is not a venue one would immediately associate with a Formula 1 Grand Prix, but the Saudis first joined the circus in 1978, when Saudia (a Saudi airline) sponsored the Williams team. There is a legend that the Saudi sheik came to visit the team at the U.S. Grand Prix at Long Beach in 1978 and told Frank Williams he would pay Alan Jones U$50 000 if he won the race. Jones asked whether he would pay that for a podium finish…and the sheik decided he would do so. Jones went on to finish third…
Fastest street circuit ever
The circuit at Jeddah, for the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, is brand new: the temporary street circuit was only finished a week before the Grand Prix and approved by the FIA a few days before the race. The drivers approached the circuit with caution, as one would drive a Formula 1 machine flat out for 78 % of the lap, where there is slim margin for error. Daniel Ricciardo compared the track to that of Macau, where there are walls close by in some areas and very little run-off in others.
In the wall
Grip appeared to be better than expected, but Charles Leclerc wrote off his Ferrari in the dying minutes of Free Practice 2, giving his mechanics a lot of work to do overnight. They did a superb job, for the Monegasque qualified in fourth position for the race.
The Red Bull racers looked considerably quicker than Mercedes on Saturday and Max Verstappen looked to take pole position comfortably on his final flying lap in qualifying, but the Dutchman locked his left front brake into the final corner, oversteered on the way out pitching his mount into the wall and breaking his right rear suspension.
The race, however, was one of controversy. It was an event that saw Red Bull push the rules beyond the limit and saw how the Race Direction was not prepared to take a stance as a result of the team and driver’s poor behaviour. Max Verstappen (Red Bull Racing) made some opportunistic moves to run at the front of the race, cutting the corner at Turn 1 twice in the race. The first saw Race Direction “offer” the opportunity of Verstappen taking the restart (after the first red flag incident) behind Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes).
Verstappen got a great restart and retook the lead, only for Hamilton to dive past him into Turn 1 later in the race. Verstappen, again, cut the corner and gained an advantage. Race Direction instructed the Dutchman to relinquish the position “strategically” and he slowed down dramatically on Lap 37. Hamilton had to take evasive action and clipped the back of the Red Bull, damaging the endplate of his mount in the process.
Obviously, Race Direction felt that the instruction was not adhered to and they slapped Verstappen with a 5-second penalty, a light punishment for a dangerous move at what has already been deemed as a dangerous circuit by many drivers. While Verstappen received the ‘driver of the day’ award for his second-place finish, he was soundly booed by the crowd for his antics in the race.
The struggle for supremacy in the 2021 F1 world championship has turned ugly and this fan does not believe that dirty moves such as a brake test by Max Verstappen on his archrival deserves praise and be tolerated by the authorities. This move should be investigated and the appropriate punishment be delivered. Max Verstappen, with this move (he doesn’t understand what happened, apparently) is lucky not to be penalised with a race ban, which would ultimately end his bid for the world championship. The Dutchman has been summoned to the stewards’ office at the time of writing…
Three on the bounce
Hamilton ended up winning the race comfortably from his archrival, with Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) out-dragging Esteban Ocon (Alpine) to the chequered flag to snatch third position. Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren-Mercedes) had a strong race to finish fifth ahead of Pierre Gasly (Alpha Tauri-Honda). Leclerc and Ferrari teammate Carlos Sainz finished seventh and eighth, respectively, while Antonio Giovinazzi (Alfa Romeo) and Lando Norris (McLaren-Mercedes) took home the final point-scoring positions on offer.
The race was red-flagged twice and had a number of virtual safety car incidents and it will be interesting to see how the drivers will react after the chaos occurring at the event. The Formula 2 feature race was red-flagged twice after two huge accidents.
The F1 race was red-flagged for the second time, after an incident on Lap 1 when Leclerc got crowded out by Sergio Perez (Red Bull Racing-Honda), the two touching and putting the Mexican into a spin. George Russell (Williams-Mercedes) lifted to avoid the incident and he got soundly punted by Nikita Mazepin (Haas-Ferrari). The Haas squad were unfortunate to be involved in both red flag incidents, as Mick Schumacher’s huge shunt on Lap 10 caused the race to be stopped for the first time.
The F1 circus moves to the final round of the season at Abu Dhabi, with Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton tied on points! Whoever finishes in front at the fall of the chequered flag will be world champion. This fan hopes that the championship can be won in as gentlemanly a manner possible, without any dirty tricks being played to bring the title home: no matter who the victor may be.