When Formula 1 announced it was going to Saudi Arabia to race on a street circuit, I felt let down. It’s just something that doesn’t deliver on racing and depends on incidents to be interesting and that’s kind of what happened in the end. There was even more drama for the debut Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in Jeddah with the venue being complete less than a week away from the race. The tarmac for cars to race may have been finished, but there’s a lot more that needs to be ticked off to host a successful F1 weekend. It seemed everything did get done in the final hour but I will not be surprised if we later discover that certain aspects off the grid were overlooked to make the event happen. Anyway, let’s talk about the driving action.
The Jeddah circuit boasts the title of being the world’s fastest street circuit. Its layout mostly comprises flat out long curves and three DRS zones, offset by only one sector of tricky fast-paced corners. At 6.17km, it’s a fairly long circuit and even with all those high-speed sections, it takes around 90-100 seconds for an F1 car to finish a lap. However, it also has those tall walls and guard rails typical of a street circuit which creates a lot of blind spots that are especially dangerous at those speeds. Combined with the fact that no one has experience around the track, crashes, spins and incidents were guaranteed to happen over the Saudi Arabian GP weekend.
Mercedes seemed to have the faster car through practice while Verstappen struggled to find the right line over the punishing kerbs, especially at Turn 11. In FP2, the drivers started pushing to find the limits of their braking points and cornering speeds. We also got to see a glimpse of a possible qualifying problem of cooldown traffic that could find itself in the way of those on their fast laps. Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari got tail-happy near Turn 22 and sent itself into the barriers towards the end of FP2, ending the Friday under red flags. Lewis was fastest but not by much and Max seemed to have found whatever he was missing on Saturday.
There wasn’t much going on for most of qualifying. A big moment from Q2 came from Carlos Sainz who also found his Ferrari getting tail-happy when he lost the rear on the exit of Turn 10. The Spaniard luckily avoided a big crash sliding across the run-off area, with the rear wing clipping the wall. Ferrari sent him out with a quick repair job, but the same thing happened again and having dodged the wall twice, Sainz’s session came to a safe end after being eliminated in Q2.
The track times kept getting faster through the session and both Hamilton and Bottas looked to be on course to qualify ahead of Verstappen. Towards the end of Q3, Lewis had put in the best lap of the session as Max was about to start his final attempt. As Max exited Turn 3, his rear left millimetres from the wall, we knew this was going to be one of those laps that goes down in the history of the sport. He was a tenth quicker through the first sector and more than two-tenths up by the end of the second sector. The Dutchman was pushing the RB16B and those Soft tyres to the limit, on course for the most brilliant qualifying lap of his career. On the final corner, it all came to a screeching halt. Max had gone in a fraction too wide and tried to power through the exit but ended up sliding the rear axle into the wall. The lap of the year was left incomplete with the car parked at the start of the main straight. But the rest of the lap will stay with fans for a long time, another glimpse of Max’s brilliance and further proof of why he’s the first driver in this turbo-hybrid era, since Vettel’s campaign in 2017, to truly challenge Hamilton for the top crown.
It was a Mercedes front-row lockout once again with Lewis Hamilton on Pole alongside Valtteri Bottas. Max would be starting third on the grid alongside Leclerc with Perez and Gasly just behind them. Norris qualified 7th fastest, followed by Tsunoda, Ocon and Giovinazzi. Red Bull had the uphill battle on Sunday against Mercedes but none could have predicted the drama that was to follow.
When the lights went out to start the first-ever Saudi Arabian GP that Sunday night, Hamilton got off the line very well. Max had the pace to get alongside Valtteri but had to stay behind both Mercedes through Turn 1. Behind him, Perez locked up and got alarmingly close to wiping out the team’s title contender. Checo’s lunge was his attempt to clear Leclerc and move up into P4 as quickly as possible but the move didn’t stick through the exit of Turn 2 with the Ferrari finding better traction. Within a few laps, Lewis was well clear of any imminent attack from Max with Valtteri in between. Driving in the dirty air with a straight-line speed deficit, the title contender was doing his best to stay within visual range of the two Mercedes cars in front.
The first incident of the race came about on Lap 10 when Mick Schumacher crashed on the exit of Turn 22, just like Leclerc had done on Friday. The Haas had slammed into the foamy barriers with some force but luckily Mick seemed okay. The stewards were quick to dispatch the Safety Car and it meant an easy pit stop for the front three. But Mercedes decided to use Bottas to back up Verstappen considerably as they made their way around the track under SC conditions, allowing them to have an easy double stop with Hamilton coming in well ahead of his teammate who wasn’t far behind when the SC was deployed. This tactic pissed off an already angsty Verstappen. Red Bull then decided to leave Max out on track to gain track position on both the Mercedes drivers but knowing that their rivals would be right behind him on brand new tyres. It seemed like their use of Bottas had paid off. But two laps later, the race was red-flagged which allowed Max to keep track position and also change onto fresh tyres. This decision was later explained by Race Control, citing the need to repair the accident-prone barrier around Turn 22 after taking the Haas out of it.
The race resumed with another grid start and 36 laps left. This time, Max was starting ahead of Lewis with Valtteri and Ocon behind them. On their way to the grid, Lewis was using his usual tactic of the tactic of hanging back and making his competition wait longer once parked which can affect the temperature management of the tyres and brakes. This could have only annoyed Max even more. Once again, the No.44 Mercedes had a much better start and was ahead of the No.33 Red Bull as they entered Turn 1. Lewis took the inside line and Max took the outside line which would position the latter better for the cutback of Turn 2. But the Brit didn’t leave enough room for his rival who had to go off track while staying wheel-to-wheel. Max went over the kerbs and rejoined the track through Turn 2, pushing Hamilton wide in return. Their scuffle allowed Ocon through to P2 between them as they sped off towards Turn 4. Bottas had locked up into Turn 1, opening the way for the Alpine to come through with Daniel Ricciardo as well.
With the traffic all bunched up through Turn 2, Perez tried to get past Leclerc again down the inside line and even got most of his car ahead of the Ferrari. But in an attempt to shut the door for the Monegasque through Turn 3, Checo made contact and found himself spun around and facing the wall. This led to more chaos and eventually a pile-up involving the Haas of Nikita Mazepin that went into the back of the Williams of George Russell. The race was red-flagged once again to clear the three broken cars and the rest parked up in the pit lane. With Perez out of the race, Red Bull was out of the constructor’s battle as well but that may leave them free to focus solely on the fight for the driver’s championship.
Mercedes protested that Max’s pass on Lewis through Turn 2 was outside track limits and the position should be returned. The FIA Race Control stewards seemed to agree and instead of handing a penalty of some sort, made this offer to Red Bull: Max starts behind Lewis for the second restart, with Esteban starting from Pole. I say “offer” but there didn’t seem to be much choice and that’s how they lined up for the next restart: Ocon, Hamilton, Verstappen and Ricciardo.
For the third time that night, the reigning F1 world champion had a good start off the line. But in an attempt to keep Ocon on the outside line for Turn 1, Lewis left the inside line wide open and Max dove straight through. The Merc found itself a bit squeezed for space between the two cars, its front wing getting clipped by the Alpine even. Ocon took the escape route and cut Turn 2 before rejoining the track, temporarily ahead of Verstappen and relinquishing the position at Turn 4. Two laps later, Hamilton also got past the Frenchman to chase after his championship rival.
Here’s a quick recap of both the restarts:
As seen in the opening laps, driving in the dirty air of another car makes it harder to close the gap. The Mercedes had more grunt but kept losing out in the tricky first sector that allowed the Red Bull to defend its lead. But eventually, the bigger guns prevailed and Hamilton was right on Verstappen’s gearbox with the DRS wing wide open down the fast-paced street circuit. At the end of Lap 36, Lewis was well within striking distance down the start-finish straight and went to pass Max around the outside of Turn 1. The Dutchman braked late as per usual to try and keep the position for the corner but couldn’t hold it and both cars went wide. Hamilton had to brake and cut back to stay on track while Verstappen drifted across and cut Turn 2, and was still in the lead.
This was a lot like the Turn 4 incident at Brazil just a few weeks ago but since Max wasn’t in control, it seemed less defensible to the stewards. Red Bull seemed to have sensed this too and told Max to let Lewis by before the end of the lap (37), but strategically of course. So, the No.33 RB16B slowed down in the final straight, ahead of the DRS detection zone. But it seems Lewis hadn’t got the message and he also slowed down behind Max in confusion. It was only a matter of 3 or 4 seconds, but it felt like the Red Bull was slowing down for an eternity, and that’s probably how Max was feeling too. Unfortunately, a pissed off Max then decided to brake even harder while also straying towards the middle of the track which led to Hamilton driving into the back of him. The situation got worse as Verstappen responded by zooming off after leaving Hamilton with a banged-up front wing.
What I think the drivers may have thought/felt at that moment:
Max thought Lewis was being a dick again by not passing him in that spot to retain the DRS advantage down the main straight and driving into him instead. Lewis thought Max brake-checked him in the guise of letting him through.
This incident was almost immediately under investigation but the judgement did not come for another few laps. On Lap 42, Max let Lewis by in the same place as he tried to last time. It allowed him to overtake him down the inside of the last corner and also have DRS down the start-finish straight to help defend the lead. Around the same time, Verstappen was given a 5-second time penalty for his aggressive defence at the start of Lap 37. Meanwhile, out on the track, Hamilton was gaining rapidly on his rival in the third DRS zone at the end of Lap 43. This time, he forced Verstappen to the outside line and onto the run-off which allowed the Mercedes driver to stay ahead till the end.
Lewis Hamilton took the chequered flag at the Jeddah street circuit in Saudi Arabia, his 31st win on a different circuit. He also managed to clock the fastest lap despite the wounded front wing, completing a hattrick of dominant performances. The points haul also meant he would be level on points and wins with his championship rival going into the final race of the season at Abu Dhabi.
Verstappen crossed the line in P2, around 7 seconds behind but 20 seconds clear of the next driver. That gap turned out to be more crucial than earlier thought. As the chequered flag fell, Red Bull was only aware of the 5-second time penalty for Max but was later handed a 10-second time penalty on top for causing the collision.
The final podium spot turned out to be an exciting drag race to the finish line between Bottas and Ocon. The Finn had been closing the gap to the Frenchman in the final few laps of the Grand Prix and it was almost a photo finish. It was reminiscent of Bottas’ last-second sprint in Baku 2017, but this time for the all-important podium that would realistically seal Mercedes’ grip on the 2021 Constructor’s Title.
It’s a shame that Ocon’s brilliant performance was overshadowed by the drama of the leaders. The Alpine driver was among those who benefitted by not pitting on Lap 10 ahead of the first red flag of the session and then hung onto P3 from the second restart till the last possible second. The P4 result may not have been the result Ocon was hoping for but it cemented his team’s fifth spot in the Constructor’s championship and ahead of AlphaTauri.
Daniel Ricciardo ended his point-less streak with P5 in the Saudi Arabian GP, another driver who benefitted on the same strategy as Ocon. The McLaren driver didn’t seem to have much pace over the weekend but the team was able to make the strategy work in its favour. Following the Aussie quite closely was Pierre Gasly securing another top 6 finish in a very impressive 2021 season. Meanwhile, the other McLaren also picked up one point with Norris finishing P10.
Ferrari had also settled its place in the Constructor’s standings with Leclerc and Sainz finishing P7 and P8 respectively. The Italian outfit had managed to meet their goal of finishing the season ahead of McLaren and third in the team championship, a brilliant recovery from the debacle of 2020.
Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi was able to pick up some more points in his penultimate race for the team by finishing P9. It might be too late for the Sauber garage to improve its standing in the Constructor’s championship but every point helps. Meanwhile, teammate Kimi Raikkonen had a tussle with Sebastian Vettel in the final 10 laps of the race. Their collision caused the German driver’s Aston Martin to spew debris over the track before finally having to retire just 6 laps from the finish.
The events of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix are like kindling for a massive conclusion to one of the most exciting seasons in Formula 1 history. Max and Lewis will head into the final race equal on points and on the back of some bitter moments involving the drivers, the teams and the FIA as well. The divide between the fan camps of the two title contenders has never been wider and the stakes have never been higher for the 24-year old Dutchman. There is also the element of change with the updated layout of the Abu Dhabi GP which on paper, suits the Mercedes with fewer tight corners and wider angles. It’s especially frustrating for the MV33 fans considering that Red Bull had gotten better around the older layout with Max winning there in 2020.
What do you make of the Lap 37 incidents? Who do you think was more to blame – the drivers, their teams or the FIA for unclear communication? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and don’t forget to leave a like on this article if you enjoyed it. You can also stay tuned for all the action from F1 and the world of cool cars in general by subscribing to the blog and our social handles (Twitter and Instagram).
- L. Hamilton Mercedes — 2:06:15.118
- M. Verstappen Red Bull Racing Honda +21.825
- V. Bottas Mercedes +27.531
- E. Ocon Alpine Renault +27.633
- D. Ricciardo McLaren Mercedes +40.121
- P. Gasly AlphaTauri Honda +41.613
- C. Leclerc Ferrari +44.475
- C. Sainz Ferrari +46.606
- A. Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo Sauber Ferrari +58.505
- L. Norris McLaren Mercedes +61.358
- L. Stroll Aston Martin Mercedes +77.212
- N. Latifi Williams Mercedes +83.249
- F. Alonso Alpine Renault +1 Lap
- Y. Tsunoda AlphaTauri Honda +1 Lap
- K. Räikkönen Alfa Romeo Racing Ferrari +1 Lap
- S. Vettel Aston Martin Mercedes DNF
- S. Perez Red Bull Racing Honda DNF
- N. Mazepin Haas Ferrari DNF
- G. Russell Williams Mercedes DNF
- M. Schumacher Haas Ferrari DNF