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F1 Review: Sergio Perez Makes Presence Known with Commanding Win in Saudi Arabia

Red Bull powered to their second 1-2 finish of the year, as Sergio Perez overcame a subpar start to win on Jeddah’s 3.8-mile street circuit while a timely safety car helped Max Verstappen to a runner-up finish after starting 15th. Fernando Alonso’s third-place result was relegated to fourth after two penalties knocked him off the podium, only to be reinstated back to third hours later after a review.

George Russell finished fourth and Lewis Hamilton took fifth, while Carlos Sainz‘s and Charles Leclerc‘s high hopes for Ferrari were dashed by a disappointing sixth and seventh, respectively.

A strong Alpine effort saw Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly place eighth and ninth, while Kevin Magnussen used a late pass of Yuki Tsunoda to take the final points-paying position.   

Verstappen started 15th on the grid after his driveshaft broke at the beginning of Q2 on Saturday (March 18), leaving him unable to post a time. Teammate Perez pounced on the pole, 0.155 seconds ahead of Ferrari’s Leclerc, who vacated that spot due to a grid penalty for a power unit change. 

Verstappen leads Perez by a single point in the drivers’ standings (44 to 43) with Alonso right behind the Red Bull duo with 27 points; Red Bull boasts a healthy 46-point lead over Mercedes in the constructors’ standings.

The Race

Perez got off the line sluggishly, allowing Alonso to easily pass for the lead in turn 1. Just behind them, Russell dutifully maintained third place. Lance Stroll bested Sainz in the Ferrari, giving Aston Martin the first and third positions. Hamilton kept seventh despite starting on hard tires. 

Alonso was subsequently issued a five-second penalty for starting too far left on the grid. Shortly thereafter, Perez zipped by Alonso for the lead on lap 4, aided by DRS into turn 1. 

Perez set a fastest lap on lap 8 and built a two-second lead over Alonso by lap 11 while Alonso’s team advised him that the one-stop strategy was still on despite the looming penalty.   

Leclerc eased past Hamilton on lap 9, as the Mercedes veteran lamented his lack of grip. Verstappen passed Hamilton for eighth on lap 12 and began eyeballing Leclerc and Esteban Ocon for seventh. Verstappen overtook Ocon on lap 14 and moved past Leclerc when the Ferrari pitted. 

Stroll was the first to make a scheduled stop on lap 14. Ferrari then advised Sainz to come in, but the Spaniard stayed out, as the Prancing Horse played a little strategy trickery to perfection with Sainz re-entering ahead of Stroll.

Cue the drama: Stroll’s car stopped on the track on lap 18 and brought out the safety car, a development cheered by those cars that had previously not pitted but one that worried Perez, knowing it would bring his teammate closer to him.

“Again, the safety car wanted to take the victory from us but we did the right thing and it was nice to get it done,” Perez told Sky Sports

Wholesale pit stops ensued, with Russell, Perez, Hamilton, Verstappen and Alonso all stopping as Alonso served his five-second penalty. Alonso maintained second place, and Verstappen’s victory chances improved dramatically as he emerged in fourth. 

Racing resumed on lap 20, and Perez immediately put some distance on the field. Hamilton, on mediums, got by Sainz on lap 21 while Russell was no match for Verstappen, who zipped by the Mercedes on lap 23 and into podium position.   

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While Perez registered a series of fastest laps, Verstappen patiently stalked Alonso and moved into second on lap 25; the words “team orders” reluctantly had to enter the mind of Red Bull team principal Christian Horner. 

Verstappen set a series of fastest laps, but Perez held his own, posting a few of his own fastest laps while managing a five-second gap throughout. It was clearly a two-Bull race at this point.  

Meanwhile, the Mercedes of Russell and Hamilton occupied fourth and fifth, comfortably ahead of the Ferraris in sixth and seventh. Both Alpines were in the points further back, with Ocon in eighth and Gasly in ninth. Logan Sargeant of Williams again looked impressive in 13th with 20 laps remaining. 

Verstappen nervously began complaining of a vibration in the driveshaft on lap 38 while Perez set another fastest lap. Perez then mentioned a brake issue on lap 40. The team told both drivers not to worry while the other nine teams had to be listening in disgust as Red Bull drivers complained about their cars with over a 15-second advantage on the field.

At lap 42, it was Perez, Verstappen, Alonso, Russell, Hamilton, Sainz, Leclerc, Ocon, Gasly and Tsunoda the top 10, with Tsunoda’s scrum with Magnussen the only one of note. Magnussen overtook Tsunoda on lap 46 and held on for the final point.

Russell was spurred on by Mercedes to get his deficit to Alonso under five seconds after learning that Alonso was being investigated for another five-second penalty.

The real battle now was a fastest lap contest between Perez and Verstappen, with the winner leaving Saudi Arabia with the championship lead. Verstappen told the team he wanted to go for it, a sentiment that was met with ambivalence from Red Bull brass.

Perez increased his lead over the final laps and cruised to a 5.355-second win while the stubborn Verstappen blitzed the final lap for the fastest of the race and the bonus point that came with it. Verstappen inexplicably drove his car to the pit lane instead of stopping on the track where podium finishers traditionally park. Suffice to say the Mexican national anthem is not music to Verstappen’s ears.

“But personally I am not happy,” Verstappen said after the race. “I am not here to be second, especially when you are working very hard back at the factory to come here in a good state and making sure everything is spot on.”

Russell did, in fact, close the gap to Alonso to under five seconds, and Alonso’s third-place finish was negated by another penalty, this one the result of the pit crew touching the car before the duration of Alonso’s first penalty had expired. The penalty elevated Russell to the podium and prevented Alonso his second 2023 podium and 100th of his career. However, the penalty was later reviewed and rescinded, and Alonso reclaimed his podium finish.

The Good

Finishing 26 and 31 seconds adrift of the leader is nothing to really be proud of, unless your two cars finished 51 and 56 seconds back in the previous races. So, kudos to Mercedes for proving that you can give in without giving up. 

And hats off to Hamilton for reiterating his commitment to Mercedes. It was clearly a gesture of good will despite Hamilton being extremely dissatisfied with his car. Take it from Hamilton, if you drive for Mercedes, having a competitive car should be a basic human right.

And Hamilton was no doubt motivated by the presence of A-list actor Will Smith, whose mere aura surely added punch to Hamilton’s psyche.    

Both Alpine drivers scored points, with Ocon and Gasly taking eighth and ninth, respectively. Alpine leads the second-tier of the constructors with eight points, doubling Alfa Romeo’s four points, seven clear of Haas and Williams, and eight up on the scoreless Alpha Tauri and McLaren. 

While Red Bull’s continued dominance leaves little doubt as to which team will win the drivers’ championship, Perez’s commanding performance may make us reconsider which driver will. And this is great news for F1 fans looking for a competitive championship fight as opposed to a one-sided runaway.

Verstappen is still clearly the heavy favorite, but his obvious frustration at losing to his teammate, even in a race in which he started 15th, is potentially a sign that Perez is occupying a little more space in Verstappen’s head. 

The Bad

Why on earth did Alonso line up outside of the grid box at the start? No one can deny the Spaniard’s immense talent at driving, but must we now question his ability to park?

Obviously, lining up there worked for Alonso, as he passed Perez in turn 1, but was that even worth the risk? Going in, a third place for Alonso was likely the best-case scenario barring any retirement of either Red Bull. But we all know Alonso’s modus operandi is the total opposite of “playing it safe.” When all was said and done, Alonso finished where he should have.

A disastrous start saw the McLarens of Piastri and Norris both suffer damage on the first lap. Piastri, starting eighth, was forced to pit after his front wing was clipped by Gasly on the opening lap. Piastri and Norris both labored at the back of the field and were non-competitive. Piastri finished 15th with Norris 17th, this on the heels of a 17th for Norris and a retirement for Piastri at Bahrain. McLaren is in crisis mode, and it will be back to the drawing board back at Woking, which may conveniently be located in the panic room at headquarters.  

The Disappointing

Before even starting the second race on the schedule, Ferrari has already replaced power units in both cars. If you want to talk about “reliability” in F1, you can always rely on Ferrari to be at the forefront of the conversation.

And the Prancing Horse was nowhere near competitive on Sunday, lacking the pace to even challenge Mercedes for position. And this coming in a race in which the Ferraris were expected to offer more of a challenge to Red Bull due to a less-pronounced tire degradation advantage for Red Bull. 

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The Driver

Perez made the most of his opportunities, easily seizing the pole after Verstappen’s qualifying disaster and dominating the race after a subpar start saw Alonso take the lead.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that Perez is front and center Verstappen’s only rival for the championship, and his win screams “I’m still here.” And what’s the opposite of “genius?” Simple Minds, and the song “[Don’t You] Forget About Me.”

And speaking of “forgetting,” did Red Bull conveniently “forget” to tell Perez that Verstappen would be gunning for Perez’s fastest lap on the final lap, even after Perez was told he already had the fastest time and didn’t need to try and improve? A frustrated Perez later asked for a review of team communications, concerned that the team was telling him one thing while giving Verstappen the opposite story.

The Results: Saudi Arabian Grand Prix; Jeddah Corniche Circuit, Jeddah (March 19)

POSNODRIVERCARLAPSTIME/RETIREDPTS
111Sergio PerezRed Bull Racing Honda RBPT1:21:14.89425
21Max VerstappenRed Bull Racing Honda RBPT+5.355s19
314Fernando AlonsoAston Martin Aramco Mercedes+20.728s15
463George RussellMerces+25.866s12
544Lewis HamiltonMercedes+31.065s10
655Carlos SainzFerrari+35.876s8
716Charles LeclercFerrari+43.162s6
831Esteban OconAlpine Renault+52.832s4
910Pierre GaslyAlpine Renault+54.747s2
1020Kevin MagnussenHaas Ferrari+64.826s1
1122Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauri Honda RBPT+67.494s0
1227Nico HulkenbergHaas Ferrari+70.588s0
1324Zhou GuanyuAlfa Romeo Ferrari+76.060s0
1421Nick De VriesAlphaTauri Honda RBPT+77.478s0
1581Oscar PiastriMcLaren Mercedes+85.021s0
162Logan Sargeant Williams Mercedes+86.293s0
174Lando NorrisMcLaren Mercedes+86.445s0
1877Valtteri BottasAlfa Romeo Ferrari+1 lap0
1923Alex AlbonWilliams MercedesDNF0
2018Lance StrollAston Martin Aramco MercedesDNF

Note: Verstappen scored an extra point for setting the fastest lap of the race.

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