The Saudi Arabian Grand Prix was always going to be memorable for setting the scene for the last race of the season, but a chaotic inaugural event in Jeddah delivered plenty of its own highlights.
Lewis Hamilton won from Max Verstappen — eventually. On the way he had to endure two red flags, three standing starts, four virtual safety cars and some questionable driving from his title leader as this championship hits boiling point.
The result of yet another Hamilton-Verstappen one-two finish is that the pair enter the final round of the season level on points, a feat not seen since Enzo Fittipaldi and Clay Regazzoni duelled for the 1974 crown.
It’s the final everyone wanted, but Mercedes will be wondering why it wasn’t able to stamp a more meaningful advantage on the Jeddah Corniche Circuit given pre-race expectations F1’s fastest street circuit would suits its power-sensitive machine. The newness of the track meant it presented a challenge unpredictable to a certain extent, and with the last race in Abu Dhabi to be run on a revised Yas Marina layout, we could be set for another randomised weekend to close the season.
The just-finished Jeddah Corniche Circuit offered cars plenty of grip to acclimatise to the high-speed layout, a welcome change from the oily new surfaces that have dogged the sport for the last few seasons, and at first this seemed to only play into Mercedes’s hands, with the German marque leading both Friday practice sessions.
But the seed of the team’s weaknesses here were there all along: the W12 struggled to fire up the soft tyres in particular and needed several laps of preparation to get the best from them. Red Bull Racing, on the other hand, could get on it immediately, and Verstappen’s aggressively quick opening laps on Friday were a statement of his confidence, even if that time they weren’t converted into lap time.
The track was also less power sensitive than envisaged thanks to its narrowness. Though several corners were flat, they were only just so — Verstappen could take much of the first sector flat in qualifying, whereas Hamilton couldn’t do the same with the Mercedes — swinging the pendulum back towards aerodynamic performance, and we could see teams brought medium-downforce rear wings in a hedge bet about the demands.
Combined it made the RB16B the better qualifying package, and Verstappen would’ve taken pole had he not overcommitted into the final corner and hit the wall.
But in the race, when peak performance is less crucial, Mercedes’s was the car you wanted. Even on the hard tyre Hamilton was able to harass Verstappen on the mediums for much of the race, and Bottas was able to take a set of mediums far further than Verstappen without encountering a drop-off in performance.
THE RACE-WINNING MOVE
A race with so many twists and turns delivered several decisive moments, but putting to one side the way the drivers handled their on-track skirmishes, the outcome was swung in Hamilton’s favour at the second red flag period.
Verstappen had jumped Hamilton at the first red flag by virtue of not having stopped during the preceding safety car and thus getting a free tyre change during the suspension, but Hamilton had got the better launch at the restart. Verstappen, though, pushed him off the track to maintain the lead moments before the second red flag was called, and the FIA demoted the Dutchman to third on the restart grid behind Hamilton as restitution.
Mercedes having made clear it had the faster car through the controlled first stint, Red Bull Racing running the same hard tyre Hamilton was using would do little for Verstappen prospects, so the Dutchman was switched to a new set of mediums for a long 35-lap stint. Hamilton would be using the new hards he switched to on lap 10.
It was a gamble worth taking, but it wouldn’t pay off. Verstappen as a bonus got past Hamilton at the restart, but even on the mediums he didn’t have Hamilton’s hard-shod pace, and he had to spend most to the race defending, all the while taking life out of his tyres.
Hamilton eventually got through, but regardless of the fact he was waved past by Verstappen — though that was because Verstappen had illegally rebuffed him at the first chicane earlier in the race — his mediums dropped off soon after and he fell off the back of the Mercedes. He would have been relatively easy pickings for Hamilton in the last five laps anyway.
BOTTAS CAPTURES PODIUM AFTER MERCEDES GOES ALL IN
Mercedes captured a double podium only at the very final moment, with Valtteri Bottas dragging Esteban Ocon to the line to take third place by just a tenth of a second.
But it needn’t have been so difficult. The team had a comfortable one-two lead in the opening laps, but it threw it away at the first safety car with an early change to the hard tyre for both cars.
To switch tyres absolutely made sense. The hard compound could easily make it to the end of the race, and had Hamilton not stopped from the lead, you can be certain Verstappen would have. Hamilton then would’ve been undercut and forced to find a way past Verstappen and potentially Max Verstappen later in the race.
But an each-way bet with Bottas would’ve covered the eventually that ultimately came to pass. It would have been Bottas rather than Verstappen leading from pole, and assuming they got off the line in order, he could have pincered the Dutchman with Hamilton in third to facilitate the Briton getting through into second place.
Instead Bottas started third, and on the dirty side of the grid with hard tyres he dropped behind Esteban Ocon and Daniel Ricciardo. He took until lap 40 to find a way past Ricciardo as the Australian’s mediums began to fade — his own older mediums were still holding up, a testament to the Mercedes’ race-pace set-up — and he just snatched third from the Frenchman over the line.
It was a podium rescued, and with Hamilton zeroing the championship and Mercedes stretching its championship lead, the difference between second and third counted for little in the grand scheme of things, but it was a potential one-two lost.
NON-STOPPERS WIN BIG
The ability for drivers to change tyres for free was one of the major post-race topics of debate, with Lando Norris in particular voicing his disappointment that the FIA hasn’t regulated it out of the sport.
Norris was one of several drivers to lose places for having stopped during the safety car period before the first red flag to those who got a free tyre change during the suspension along with the Mercedes drivers, Sergio Perez and Charles Leclerc. The Briton was worst affected, losing eight places, while Perez lost three and Leclerc two.
The big winners, on the other hand, were Esteban Ocon (up four places), Daniel Ricciardo (up three places after a three-place rise in the opening laps), Pierre Gasly (up two, making up for the two he lost at the start) and Sebastian Vettel (up two and then up another five at the two restarts).
Ocon and Ricciardo were able to hold their lofty positions after the leading cars charged through to the podium, with Gasly finishing close behind thanks to running the hard compound in the second half of the race compared to Ricciardo’s ailing mediums.
Vettel was on for four points for eighth in the middle of the race, a powerful turnaround from his Q1 elimination, until a tangle with Yuki Tsunoda dropped him to 11th and a crash with Kimi Raikkonen lost him another pair of places, neither instance his fault, and he was eventually forced to retire the car with bodywork damage.
DRIVING STANDARDS IN THE SPOTLIGHT
That Verstappen fundamentally served three penalties — five second for passing off the track, 10 seconds for dangerous driving and an effective two-place demotion for crowding Hamilton off the track at the first restart — underlined how aggressive a race he ran, but he was matched at times by Hamilton, who was clearly infuriated by what he saw as a brake test on lap 37 as they approached the last turn.
Verstappen had been instructed to cede the lead to Hamilton as restitution for passing him off track, and he was told to do so “strategically” by his engineer, which he converted into a dramatic washing off of speed as he approached the DRS detection point before the final corner. He also loitered around the middle of the track rather than pulling fully to the side, as is the usual way drivers exchange places.
His plan was to cross the detection line after Hamilton, keep in the Mercedes car’s slipstream and then use DRS to sweep past into the first turn.
Hamilton hadn’t been told in time that Verstappen would be waving him past, and upon seeing the slowed Bull he likewise dropped anchors, assuming the Dutchman was playing some kind of game. Verstappen responded by slowing further, hitting the brakes with 2.6G of force, which caught Hamilton unawares, and the Mercedes rear-ended the RB16B, picking up minor front wing damage.
The stewards would eventually rule Verstappen was predominantly to blame though noted Hamilton had an opportunity to pass him.
Verstappen tried a second time to let Hamilton through, successfully executing his slipstream ply even before the last turn, but he was told that wasn’t enough. On the third occasion Hamilton wasn’t going to miss: he ran deep into the last corner to run Verstappen out of road and break his momentum before sprinting off down the straight to secure his lead.
Race director Michael Masi described Hamilton’s pass as a borderline unsportsmanlike conduct warranting a black and white flag, which in itself is interesting. No doubt it was on the edge, but the precedent set in Brazil was to allow drivers to race beyond the white line, and Verstappen even said that was the foundation of his frustration for being penalised for his various skirmishes with Hamilton.
Clearly the rules as currently interpreted aren’t clear enough to eliminate dangerous driving from the sport.