The 2023 Saudi Arabian GP once again proved that Saudi is the perfect follow-up to the season opener in Bahrain. We saw it last year when, after intense battling and late drama in Bahrain, Verstappen took the fight to Leclerc and beat him to the finish line to win. This year, Leclerc suffered the retirement in Bahrain. And after that, fans were hoping to see a redemption drive from Leclerc. But instead, we got a much more successful comeback drive from Verstappen.
Leclerc had an entire race worth’s points to make up for. Verstappen just had a poor qualifying due to a driveshaft issue in Q2. However, Verstappen cut through the field like a hot knife through butter. Leclerc, on the other hand, couldn’t do the same. Those are some of the things we’ll analyze today. Verstappen’s successful comeback, and how Mercedes and Ferrari struggled…again. Verstappen went on to finish P2 after starting P15, while Leclerc finished P7 after starting P12. Verstappen gained 8 more positions than Leclerc, which shocks me. It’s almost as if they were never really rivals.
However, while Verstappen finished P2, it was his teammate Sergio Perez that won the race. It was Perez that truly achieved redemption in Saudi this year. Last year, after securing pole position and leading the race at the start, an unfortunately timed Safety Car saw Sergio Perez fall from the lead to P4. To add salt to the wound, Verstappen won, with the World Champion once again defeating Perez. This year, however, Perez was unstoppable. He took pole position once again.
He lost the lead at the start, but then re-overtook Alonso for the lead in the early laps of the race. After that, he was unbeatable. Verstappen couldn’t catch him! Now granted, Verstappen did face issues in the car later in the race. But still, Perez earned and deserved this win. He’s now gained the title of the King of The Streets. Perez won in Baku in 2021, Monaco and Singapore in 2022, and now he has finally won in Jeddah this year. Winning at so many street circuits displays a unique skill and strength in street circuits.
In this post, we’re going to look at the top team’s performances, and how the Safety Car played a role in the race results. We’re going to look at Alonso’s penalty fiasco, because it’s another example of the FIA’s inconsistency and issues. And lastly, we’re going to look at Alpine’s performance. Given their half-disastrous race in Bahrain, a double-points finish in Saudi was strong, but not good enough.
Before getting into the analysis, I want to mention that the 2023 Saudi Arabian GP was also a blockbuster as an event. The Saudi GP had artists like Charlie Puth, Swedish House Mafia, Calvin Harris, Afrojack, Ahmed Saad and Travis Scott performing. With the stunning lights of the Jeddah Street Circuit, the beautiful fireworks after the race, and two fan villages to add to the concerts, the off-track spectacles are almost as exciting as the on-track ones. It’s another reason to visit races in the Middle East. The Bahrain GP featured similar things with a fantastic fan village, DJ Snake performing and an extensive fireworks show after the race.
Verstappen Fought Back Fast as Ferrari and Mercedes Struggled
Max Verstappen had an incredible comeback drive at the 2023 Saudi Arabian GP. He started the race in P15, since his car’s driveshaft broke during qualifying. Ahead of the race, Red Bull made an unrelated gearbox change in his car. When the 5 red lights went out for the race on Sunday, Verstappen began his charge through the field. He made many quick overtakes during the early laps of the race, despite also being on the medium tires.
Charles Leclerc in the Ferrari was gaining places at a similar rate, which led Ferrari fans like myself to hope that Leclerc could actually challenge for a podium or at least a Top 5. He started the race in P12 after suffering a 10-place grid penalty for an engine change. The catch was that Leclerc was on the soft tires. Towards the end of his first stint, his tires really started to fall off. That’s why he came into the pits earlier than Verstappen did, or at least earlier than Verstappen was planning to. Leclerc pitted while everyone was under racing conditions. However, on Lap 16, Lance Stroll retired with an engine failure. This was a huge blessing for Max Verstappen.
Verstappen came into the pits on Lap 18, two laps after Leclerc. He was in P4 when the Safety Car came out, since Leclerc, Sainz and more had pitted before the SC. Verstappen got to keep his position thanks to the SC, which left Leclerc and Sainz in the luck. Verstappen got tremendously lucky. He essentially nullified the benefit Leclerc would get from running on softs, and was now ahead of Leclerc without even using a set of soft tires. To rub salt in the wound, Leclerc’s engineer warned him far too late of Lewis Hamilton coming out of the pits, which saw Leclerc lose a position to Hamilton. That could’ve easily been avoided, making it another mistake from Ferrari that messed up Leclerc’s race.
As the Safety Car period ended, racing resumed. I was hoping that the field being closer together would allow Leclerc to make some more progress. The opposite happened. Lewis Hamilton overtook Sainz, and Leclerc struggled massively. Leclerc then couldn’t pass his own teammate. He simply had no pace on the hard tires. His pace was still manageable in the early laps of the stint on the hards. However, later in the race, his pace dropped off significantly. The Ferrari once again struggled on the hard tire, just like it did in Bahrain. The 2023 Saudi Arabian GP once again reiterated that this year is looking to be a dark year for the prancing horses. They’re facing reliability issues, along with lacking raw pace. They need to at least fight Mercedes and Aston, if not Red Bull.
Verstappen did the opposite. He breezed past George Russell down the back straight – it was literally like an F1 car passing an F2 car. Mercedes are far from where they want to be, and need to close the gap to Red Bull and Aston Martin. While they are level on points with Aston, their car performance is clearly inferior.
Verstappen then went on to overtake Alonso. As Alonso had predicted, by the halfway point of the race, Verstappen was already in P2. A win was very much on the cards for him. But then, an issue surfaced. The 2-Time World Champion reported a problem with his car. He said to his engineer, “It makes a weird noise at high speed.” That “weird noise” seems to have affected his car performance, because he finished 5.3 seconds behind his teammate. Verstappen still clinched the fastest lap. Given how he didn’t have any competition in Bahrain, and reliability affected him in Saudi, I am very excited to see when Verstappen truly unleashes the Lion within him.
When someone truly challenges him, I feel Verstappen will actually start to push to the MAX. That’s when we will get to see some great racing. The way he sped through the field in Saudi shows that Verstappen is still the best driver on the grid, and he still has the best car. But there is another car that has the potential to challenge Red Bull. And that is Aston Martin, who had a confusing situation that extended until after the race…
Alonso’s Appalling Situation
Alonso’s penalty fiasco was another embarrassment for the FIA. It all started when the race started. Bizarrely, for the 2nd time this season and the 2nd race in a row, someone was penalized for having a tire go over the grid hatching. The grid hatching refers to the white line marking the grid spot, and one of Alonso’s front tires was slightly ahead of the line. This resulted in the stewards awarding him a 5-second time penalty. In Bahrain it was Ocon, and this time it was Alonso.
While the penalty seems a bit harsh and people are arguing against these penalties of such minor things, Alonso did overtake Perez into Turn 1 and hold the lead for quite a few laps. Was that just a good start, or did that minor advantage play a role? I believe that it was a genuinely good start – being a few inches over the line won’t get you the race lead.
During the race, Alonso served his penalty in the pits as is the procedure. Unlike for Ocon, this seemed to be smooth, with no operational errors and all 5 seconds being served. Or at least that’s what everyone thought. Even more bizarrely, the stewards awarded Alonso a 10-second time penalty for incorrectly serving the 5-second penalty, stating that the rear jack was touching the car within those 5 seconds. The rear jack lifts the car from the rear, and in this case, it was only touching the car. Tools touching the car is considered working on it, that’s pretty clear. But did that apply to the rear jack?
Discussions in committee meetings have mentioned that the FIA should allow the front jack to touch the car. This is because it is used to guide the car into the box. Aston Martin argued that the same should apply to the rear jack. They also gave evidence of 7 other times the rear jack was touching the car in similar situations with no penalty from the stewards. When Aston Martin used their Right to Review and gave the new evidence, the stewards reinstated Alonso’s podium.
Yes, the penalty took away Alonso’s 100th podium. This is another problem. Not only was the penalty wrong, but the stewards awarded it literally a few minutes after the podium ceremony. It was a huge delay. Alonso served in his first stop of the race, on Lap 18. How did it take the stewards over 30 laps and the the entire podium ceremony to come to this decision? The penalty cost Alonso his 100th podium, and George Russell was received the trophy after the podium ceremony. But Aston Martin used their Right to Review and Alonso’s podium was reinstated. So now George Russell has to return the trophy to Alonso! That surely has to be awkward.
Incidents like these take away from the credibility of the Stewards and the FIA as a governing body. It points to inefficiency among the Stewards, and the age-old problem of inconsistency. The rules need to be crystal clear and the FIA need to apply them in the same way continuously. Or in some cases, like perhaps with the grid incidents, the FIA may need to change the rules entirely. Hopefully, ambiguity and inconsistency doesn’t plague the rest of this season. We don’t want to find out someone’s won the World Championship amidst doubt and confusion again!
Alpine Surges To The Top Of The Midfield
I think it’s safe to consider Aston Martin are now a top team, leaving essentially 4 top teams. Fernando Alonso has also proven that Aston Martin is a huge competitor in the championship. While Red Bull are clearly dominant, if Aston can get Lance Stroll and his car working, then they could contest for the championship. They’re looking much stronger than Ferrari right now, and are par with Mercedes even though Alonso was their only scorer in Saudi. Their car is genuinely fast, and they just need to close that gap to Red Bull.
I don’t think Ferrari can be relegated to the midfield just yet, which leaves the 5th-placed team the top of the midfield. And currently, that team is Alpine. While they are hoping to finish higher up the pecking order, Alpine had a strong double-points finish at the 2023 Saudi Arabian GP. Esteban Ocon finished in P8 ahead of Pierre Gasly in P9. Ocon achieved some form of redemption after a disastrous season opener in Bahrain.
They started the race 6th and 9th with Ocon starting ahead. However, Ocon lost positions as Hamilton, Leclerc and Verstappen gained positions. On the other hand, Stroll’s retirement and Piastri’s Lap 1 clash with Gasly gave back some of the positions the Alpine cars lost to frontrunners. The frontrunners easily overtook the Alpines down the main straight into Turn 1. Alpine were hoping and aiming to aim for podiums and competing with the frontrunners. Instead of them it’s Aston Martin who have Fernando Alonso getting podiums, beating all but Red Bull. That’s ironic considering how Alpine Team Principal Otmar Szafnauer left Aston for Alpine.
I think the Saudi Arabian GP was a very important race for Alpine. First of all, they’ve got a more accurate indication of their place in the pecking order. They can see their true car performance. In the season opener they were hampered by a poor qualifying and a frenzy of penalties. It’s shown them that they’re not hitting their targets and need to do a lot of work to catch the frontrunners. Otmar Szafnauer spoke of a tight and vigorous development schedule for the season ahead.
Will that development schedule be enough to catch the top teams? Given how Alpine caught up to and beat McLaren last year, I think they could beat Mercedes 4th in the championship. They could also be fighting Ferrari if Ferrari continue with the horrendous results. But Alpine need to really work hard to achieve this, because they’re already nearly 20 points behind Ferrari in 4th.
Another important thing they learned is that their drivers are more likely to be on the same page. Last year, with some intense and controversial battles in Saudi, Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso’s relationship began to deteriorate. On multiple occasions during the race, they were very close to crashing into each other. This year, with Ocon and Gasly as teammates at Alpine, they also battled. After the Safety Car restart, Ocon was in P8 ahead of Gasly.
They battled for position, but it was much more friendly, safe and calm. Ocon kept his position and won the battle. They waved to each other after the race. This shows more respect and more less aggressiveness between the two, which could prove to be beneficial to Alpine rather than having an unhealthy driver relationship. Overall, being able to see their car performance and having a better driver relationship made this race very important for Alpine.
The 2023 Saudi Arabian GP saw a range of performances and changes from the season opener, leaving many questions about how the teams will perform in the next race. Will Alpine move further forward? Will Red Bull score a 1-2 again? Can Ferrari fix their problems? The answers await in Australia. Thank you for reading, and enjoy F1ntastic!