Saudi Arabian Grand Prix Review

F1 | Image by Jay Hirano Photography

After an intriguing qualifying session on Saturday that saw defending drivers’ champion Max Verstappen retire early with a mechanical failure, Sunday’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix delivered a worthy race that saw Red Bull repeat at the top of the podium.

With Verstappen beginning the race in fifteenth, his teammate Sergio Perez was at the front of the pack after securing pole position the day before. Perez was joined on the front row by Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso, who inherited the second spot after Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc tumbled down the order due to a parts-related grid penalty.

Alonso’s front row start marked the first such position for Aston Martin in 63 years, continuing to build on the automaker’s hot start to the 2023 season.

When the lights went out, Alonso quickly nabbed first place from Perez with a move to the inside of the first turn. However, the Spaniard was never able to pull away from Perez and he was quickly hunted down and passed by the superior Red Bull.

Alonso was also slapped with a 5-second penalty for starting the race outside of his box, having positioned his car too far to the left, which certainly aided in his fast start.

In the opening lap, the typically treacherous track did not claim many victims. Unfortunately for Mclaren rookie Oscar Piastri, after a fantastic qualifying session the day before, he took damage to his front wing early, causing an early pit stop and essentially ending his fight for points.

Piastri, however, still impressed, completing the final 49 laps of the 50 lap race on one set of tires, finishing 15th and two places ahead of teammate Lando Norris, who put in one of his absolute worst weekends as a Formula 1 driver in Saudi Arabia.

Aston Martin continued to assert their place as the second-fastest car on the grid. Alonso held onto second comfortably, never under threat from the Mercedes or Ferraris behind while teammate Lance Stroll was putting on a show early until an unknown issue caused him to retire his car on track.

Stroll was on pace for a top-five finish before the issue ended his night even after Ferrari tricked Aston Martin into sending Stroll into the pits early and costing him track position.

Ferrari made the call for Carlos Sainz to pit who was under threat by Stroll, which caused Aston Martin to react in kind. Ferrari, however, was bluffing and left Sainz out for a longer stint, which proved to be wise in the short-term. Stroll’s pace was too much on the day, and had it not been for the retirement, he would’ve surely reclaimed the ground and passed Sainz.

The on-track retirement of Stroll caused a safety car to be set out, which bunched up the field and created opportunities for cheap pit stops at the top of the order. Perez, Alonso, George Russell and Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes, and Verstappen all snagged cheap stops under the safety car.

The biggest beneficiaries of the safety car were undoubtedly Alonso, who served his 5-second penalty for his starting error while the rest of the field cruised at safety speeds, and Verstappen, who took his only pit stop of the day under safety conditions and had the field in front of him bunched up, making his assault through the ranks easier.

When the safety car exited, the race resumed and Verstappen cut through the remaining field with ease. After the race, Hamilton commented on Verstappen’s overtake of him during this phase of the race, “I didn’t even bother to block because there was a massive speed difference.”

“When we were fast we weren’t that fast,” he continued. “That’s the fastest car I’ve seen compared to the rest.”

Verstappen slid into second with ease, but Perez never relented the lead, maintaining a roughly 4.5-5 second advantage over his Dutch teammate.

In the final laps, controversy would strike, as word came down that Alonso’s pit crew may have touched his car before he finishing serving his 5-second penalty, which itself is another time-based penalty.

Alonso then set about with only two laps left to extend his lead over fourth-place Russell as much as possible to defend against any post-race time penalties.

Heading into the final lap, Verstappen asked his race engineer who held the fastest lap, as one championship point is awarded to that driver at the end of the race so long as they are in the top ten.

His teammate Perez currently held it, as well as the race lead.

“We’re not concerned with that,” his engineer replied.

“But I am,” the champion responded.

On the final lap, Verstappen went on a flyer, notching purple sectors in the first and final legs of the track, and nabbing the fastest lap from his teammate.

Perez was not pleased to learn about this after the race, demonstrating the tough dynamics within a racing team when every point matters.

In the end, the podium was Perez, Verstappen, Alonso, but after the trophies were handed out and the champagne sprayed, the governing body of the sport, the FIA, slapped Alonso with a ten-second penalty, costing him the penalty.

“I was on the podium. I did the pictures. I took the trophy. I celebrated with champagne. I think it’s a poor showing by the FIA….they had 35-laps to apply the penalty,” Alonso said afterwards.

The decision cost Aston Martin its first-ever back-to-back podium finish and Alonso his 100th podium finish as well.

However, hours later, Aston Martin successfully appealed the decision by showing seven instances in which another team had done the exact same thing and received no penalty.

Formula 1 heads down under for the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday, April 2. The FIA has promised clarity on its own rules before then.

This Formula 1 column is brought to you by Elliott Griffin, principal of Griffin Communications. To read his previous coverage on all things F1, click here.

Support our non-profit journalism

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *