Race Weekend Central

F1 Review: Max Verstappen Again Unstoppable, Coasts to Win in Saudi Arabian GP

Max Verstappen, starting on the pole, cruised to a dominant win in the STC Saudi Arabian Grand Prix under the lights on the Jeddah Corniche Circuit on Saturday (March 9), further widening his advantage over a Formula 1 field that appears to have no idea how to close that gap. It was Verstappen’s ninth consecutive victory and 56th in his career.

Verstappen took the checkered flag over 13 seconds ahead of 2023 Saudi winner Sergio Perez, with Charles Leclerc joining them on the podium. Oscar Piastri finished fourth, followed by Fernando Alonso and George Russell. The surprising story of the day was rookie Oliver Bearman, who finished seventh, subbing for Carlos Sainz, who was stricken with appendicitis on Friday. Lando Norris held off Lewis Hamilton for eighth, while Nico Hulkenberg, with lots of help from Haas teammate Kevin Magnussen, grabbed 10th.

“Overall, of course a fantastic weekend for the whole team but also for myself,” Verstappen said. “I felt really good in the car.

“We had good pace all around and we could manage it quite well with the gap also. Overall I’m very, very pleased.”

In the driver standings, the top two remains unchanged, with Verstappen leading with 51 points, followed by Perez in second with 36. Leclerc is third with 28 points.

In the constructor standings, Red Bull leads with 87, followed by Ferrari with 49. McLaren jumped Mercedes for third, and holds third with 28 points, two ahead of Mercedes.

See also
Max Verstappen Wins Comfortably in Saudi Arabia

The Race

Verstappen was off well at lights out, unchallenged from Leclerc in P2, who was occupied fending off Perez’s Red Bull. Leclerc held on to second and Verstappen began to pull away as Leclerc and Perez dueled for second.

Norris appeared to have jumped the start, as noted by Russell, but stewards investigated and deemed Norris’ start legitimate.

Pierre Gasly had to retire his Alpine before even one lap was completed after experiencing gearbox issues throughout the formation lap. 

Piastri got by Alonso on lap 2 for fourth, one of the few changes in the top 10 thus far in the race. Bearman, in the Ferrari in place of Sainz, continued an ongoing battle with Yuki Tsunoda for 10th. 

Verstappen was quickly over two seconds ahead by lap 4. Perez slipped by Leclerc on the same lap, and Red Bull was running 1-2 and looked again to be invincible, although the race was still very young.

Verstappen set a fastest lap on lap five as he extended the gap to Perez to 2.5 seconds. Perez, meanwhile, was out of Leclerc’s DRS range, while Leclerc’s lead over Pistri was comfortably over two seconds.

On lap 6, Lance Stroll crashed hard into the outside of the turn 22 wall, and after a brief delay, the safety car was deployed. Wholesale pit stops ensued, with the Red Bulls double-stacking for hard tires on each. Verstappen came out second, behind Norris, who stayed out, while Perez assumed fourth, behind Hamilton, who also stayed out. The Haas of Hulkenberg also remained out and resumed in eighth.

Green flag racing resumed on lap 9, with Verstappen, on hard tires, in hot pursuit. Verstappen and Norris pulled away from the pack, with Verstappen closing in for the pass down the pit straight on lap 13. At the same time, Perez overtook Hamilton for fourth. 

Verstappen quickly opened up a significant gap on Norris, over two seconds by lap 14. The possible intrigue of Norris’ strategy actually impacting the race was over just as quickly as Verstappen re-established his dominance. But one can’t fault McLaren for trying any strategy to gain an advantage over Red Bull. 

Back in the field, Bearman moved into the top 10, while his teammate Leclerc overtook Hamilton for fourth. Hamilton’s old medium tires were showing wear, and his Mercedes was soon under attack from Piastri.

On lap 15, Perez was nabbed for an unsafe release violation for leaving the pits in front of Alonso and issued a five-second penalty. Perez’s hopes for second place took a big hit, adding a sense of urgency in his efforts to get by Norris for second. Perez made the pass on lap 18, moving into second, albeit over five seconds behind his teammate. 

Bearman swooped past Hulkenberg down the pit straight on lap 21, moving into ninth, and his race so far was one that might lead to a permanent Ferrari seat in 2025.

Verstappen’s lead on Perez was over six seconds by lap 22, and once again, Verstappen had removed most, if not all, drama from the battle for the win. Perez’s lead over Norris was five seconds, and more importantly, over six seconds on Leclerc, who, like Perez, had pitted during the safety car. Perez’s target now was simply to maintain at least a five-second margin over the third place car.

The Hamilton-Piastri battle was currently the most action-packed on the track, with Hamilton defending masterfully, while testing the bounds of legality. Piastri was in DRS range for nearly 10 laps, but had yet to make a serious move for the position. 

Leclerc overtook third over Norris on lap 26, and trailed Perez by over eight seconds. Another Red Bull 1-2 looked to be the eventual outcome, even with Perez’s five-second penalty, unless Ferrari could produce some strategic magic or find some incredible luck.   

On lap 26, the running order was Verstappen, Perez, Norris, Leclerc, Hamilton, Piastri, Alonso, Russell, Bearman, and Hulkenberg. 

Mid-pack, Kevin Magnussen was playing roadblock and good teammate with reckless abandon in his Haas, sitting on 20 seconds of penalties while holding up the likes of Tsunoda, who was surprisingly remaining calm and G-rated on radio communications with the RB team. Magnussen was protecting the position of Hülkenberg, who was holding on to 10th.

At this point of the race, with less than 20 laps remaining, drivers were playing the waiting game in regards to when to make their pit stops. That decision would be made easy with another safety car, and made imminently more difficult without, especially for the likes of Norris, Hamilton, and Hulkenberg,who had yet to pit at all.

Hülkenberg reacted first and emerged in 11th, behind Zhou Guanyu, who had yet to pit, meaning Magnussen had done his job. 

Piastri nearly made the pass on Hamilton down the pit straight on lap 35, but went in too deep and had to bail. It appeared Piastri would have to simply wait for Hamilton to make his pit stop. Hamilton dove in for soft tires on lap 37 and resumed in ninth, over seven laps behind Bearman, who was on much older hard tires.

Norris finally pitted, applying soft tires on lap 38. Norris came out ahead of Hamilton, but Hamilton was quickly on Norris’ gearbox with a sense of urgency, hoping to overcome the McLaren’s straight-line speed advantage. 

Up front, with 10 laps to go, the Red Bull duo of Verstappen and Perez were cruising, and their hard tires were still in good shape. Their second straight sweep was practically in the books. Leclerc’s third was equally as solid, with the gap to Piastri in fourth over 11 seconds. 

Zhou made his first pit stop on lap 43, handing 10th to Hulkenberg. A horrible pit stop by the Sauber, not quite bordering on 53 seconds as was the case with Valtteri Bottas in Bahrain, but horrible in its own right, cost Zhou any chance of a decent finish.

Bearman was looking to hold on to seventh in his hard tires against the threat of Norris and Hamilton, both on softs. With five laps left, Bearman’s lead was over three seconds over Norris, with the Ferrari team keeping the rookie calm with a stream of encouraging words. Bearman easily held on to the position. 

Verstappen took the checkered flag with a comfortable 13 second margin over Perez, with Perez easily covering his five-second penalty. Leclerc took third easily, although he had to be disappointed by the 18 second margin to Verstappen. 

The Good

Let’s give it up for Stroll. Not for his erratic driving, but because his erratic driving brought out a safety car, and with it, a brief, and I mean really brief, moment of thought that maybe, just maybe, someone other than Verstappen would win a race. Norris did not pit and briefly assumed the lead over Verstappen, who gave up the lead to pit. Verstappen squashed the thought of a competitive race faster than it entered my mind, and reclaimed the lead just a few laps later. Verstappen has two words for anyone who dares challenge him: “No chance.” Or maybe “Ho hum.”  

Magnussen turned two 10-second penalties into a strategic element for Haas, helping Hulkenberg secure a 10th-place finish for the team. Magnussen backed up traffic to an extent that none of the challengers to Hulkenberg even had a chance to chase Hulkenberg after Magnussen pitted late. To the Haas team, Magnussen’s performance was team orders. To drivers like Esteban Ocon and Tsunoda, it was team odors.  

The Bad

Can it get any worse for Alpine? I know, dumb question. One week after finishing 17th and 18th at Bahrain, Gasly retired on the first lap while Ocon finished 13th, one lap down at Jeddah. All this after a number of defections and retirements of key technical personnel after the Bahrain disaster. The gap from Red Bull to its nearest competitor is large, but can you imagine the gap from Red Bull to Alpine? It’s one thing to be “the S;” it’s another to just be “S.” Alpine clearly knows where they stand, and it’s in “S.” If it gets any worse, Lawrence Stroll might have to buy this team. 

The Disappointing

I know this is a common refrain, but Red Bull’s dominance has made the competitive balance in F1 so off-kilter that it’s hard to watch a race and still be entertained. Sure, there is competitive racing within the race, but almost never for the lead. Who’s yawning more during a race? Viewers, or Max Verstappen?

It’s really not fair to anyone. It’s not fair to Verstappen, whom I’m sure is looking for a challenge. It’s not fair to opposing teams, because they know they have no chance of beating such a technically-advanced rival, so where’s the motivation? But most of all, it’s unfair to Red Bull’s sponsors, who plaster the car with advertising, hoping the car that’s clearly the best in the sport will be the best conduit for these ads to be seen and talked about by the most people. But what happens? Red Bull cars are barely seen and barely mentioned in the last half of the race. Red Bull is maximizing points, but definitely not maximizing advertising budgets.

See also
Oliver Bearman Impresses, Scores Points in F1 Debut

The Driver

Like the television broadcast did for the second half of the race, I’m going to ignore the accomplishments of Verstappen and name rookie Oliver Bearman “The Driver.” Bearman was thrust into a difficult position with little to no warning and ability to prepare, and drove a brilliant race to score in his first F1 race. 

If one race is any indication, Bearman could become the next great F1 star… to appear mediocre when compared to Verstappen.

The Results (STC Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, Jeddah Street Circuit)

11Max VerstappenRED BULL RACING HONDA RBPT501:20:43.27325
211Sergio PerezRED BULL RACING HONDA RBPT50+13.643s18
316Charles LeclercFERRARI50+18.639s16
481Oscar PiastriMCLAREN MERCEDES50+32.007s12
514Fernando AlonsoASTON MARTIN ARAMCO MERCEDES50+35.759s10
663George RussellMERCEDES50+39.936s8
738Oliver BearmanFERRARI50+42.679s6
84Lando NorrisMCLAREN MERCEDES50+45.708s4
944Lewis HamiltonMERCEDES50+47.391s2
1027Nico HulkenbergHAAS FERRARI50+76.996s1
1123Alex AlbonWILLIAMS MERCEDES50+88.354s0
1220Kevin MagnussenHAAS FERRARI50+105.737s0
1331Esteban OconALPINE RENAULT49+1 lap0
1422Yuki TsunodaRB HONDA RBPT49+1 lap0
152Logan SargeantWILLIAMS MERCEDES49+1 lap0
163Daniel RicciardoRB HONDA RBPT49+1 lap0
1777Valtteri BottasKICK SAUBER FERRARI49+1 lap0
1824Zhou GuanyuKICK SAUBER FERRARI49+1 lap0

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