Lewis Hamilton is poised to zero his championship deficit from pole at the head of a Mercedes front-row lockout and ahead of title leader Max Verstappen.
Mercedes was expected to lock out the front row of the grid before the weekend, so it was unexpected how unexpected the result was by the time qualifying started. A so-so Friday practice for Red Bull Racing led into a strong turnaround in performance on Saturday that left Hamilton scrambling to keep up with Max Verstappen in what seemed sure to be a losing battle for the Briton.
But Verstappen, supremely confident even in the slower Friday edition of the car, was perhaps guilty of overconfidence at the death. Looking good to take pole by around 0.3 seconds, he locked up into the final corner, but in his haste to claim to spot attempted to power out of the error, which instead put him into the wall and out of qualifying.
Assuming no forthcoming penalty for a gearbox change, he’ll start third courtesy of his first flying lap — which would be no disaster, and given the team’s strong Saturday performance, leaves him with a decent shot at what would be a crucial victory.
|PROVISIONAL STARTING GRID|
Distance: 6.174 kilometres
Lap record: NA
Track record: 1:27.511 (Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 2021)
Lateral load: medium
Tyre stress: medium
Asphalt grip: medium
Asphalt abrasion: low
Safety car probability: NA
Pit lane speed: 80 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 510 metres
Pit lane time loss: 23 seconds
Fuel consumption: high
Tyres: C2 (hard), C3 (medium), C4 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta
Hard–medium: 0.3 seconds
Medium–soft: 0.6 seconds
SETTING THE SCENE
Red Bull Racing is more competitive in Saudi Arabia than pre-race expectations, and it’s partly due to those expectations meeting the reality of the freshly finished Jeddah track. It’s narrower and tighter than anticipated, which means it’s less power sensitive than first through, negating some of Mercedes’s forecast advantage.
What’s more, the RB16B package is working the tyres better around the low-energy layout, which is enabling the rubber to be switched on immediately, delivering the driver grip. Even a cursory glance at Verstappen’s on-track attitude shows how much confidence he’s had in his machine.
Mercedes, on the other hand, isn’t getting its tyres up to temperature as easily, as we saw from Hamilton’s snaps off track throughout qualifying as the team tried to calibrate its preparation laps. And the reduced power sensitivity means its straight-line speed couldn’t save it.
The good news for the German marque is that it’s unlikely to be a problem in the race — after the first few laps and perhaps at pit stop out-laps — and indeed its Friday practice data suggested it has a strong race package.
Though the long-run data is incomplete, with teams focussing on the qualifying pace and also thanks to the Charles Leclerc red flag at the end, Mercedes seemed to have a handle on Red Bull Racing, enough to even sound confident on Friday night when Hamilton and Bottas might otherwise strike a more conservative tone.
That said, Red Bull Racing clearly made steps forward on Saturday, and the degree to which it lacked pace over the long runs on Friday couldn’t be realistically representative.
This will be a one-stop race for three key reasons: the pit lane is long, overtaking is difficult and tyre degradation is low.
There’s barely a handful of serious braking zones at this track, which means even the three DRS zones are unlikely to combine with strong enough effect to promote racing, which means battling around the likely sole pit stop window will be key to gaining places.
The medium tyre will be the most popular starting compound — only one among the top 10 won’t use it — thanks to its flexibility. It can run deep into the race, and saving the hard compound for second broadens the safety car pit stop window by keeping open the choice of an early stop at reduced pace and running to the end of the race.
A 50-50 split between the two compounds will be roughly correct, but the need to undercut to move forward could pull this window forward. A car that struggles to warm up its tyres could be vulnerable to an undercut from behind if it can’t open a gap early, and in this regard Hamilton will hope Bottas can hold second behind him, which would give him a handy buffer to Verstappen enough to keep the Dutchman’s strategic advances at bay.
A soft–hard strategy is also possible with some management, but I wouldn’t expect anyone other than Lando Norris to try it, the Briton having locked himself into a soft start after using the tyre in Q2. It got him into the top 10, but he’ll now have to deal with a delicate first stint. f it delivers a launch advantage, the positions gained may be worth it for him after all, but the track is overall relatively grippy.
The two-stop strategy is too slow around here for the reasons mentioned above, but multiple safety car interventions may bring it into play. An early caution that forces most of the field into an early first stop followed by a late safety car could prompt teams to make a speculative second stop for the grip advantage of fresh rubber for the restart.
Old, worn rubber warms up less effectively than the fresh stuff, which would only enhance the potential advantage, though this would depend on what the team learn about the difficulty overtaking through the race.
If the race turns out to be as prone to safety cars and red flags as some are predicting, then nailing these moments could prove more important than early strategic maneuvering, and you get the sense there could be a degree of luck in the final finishing order if we get a particularly action-packed race.