The maiden Saudi Arabian GP is in the books - but Formula 1's latest foray into a new Middle Eastern market will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.
Prior to the Saudi Arabian GP, there was an expectation among Formula 1 fans that the race would be both high-speed and also exciting. After all, the Jeddah Corniche Circuit is the second-fastest track on the calendar right now.
What’s more, it is also the second-longest after Spa-Francorchamps. And there’s also the small matter of the world championship race being on a knife’s edge.
Before the race, the gap between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen was 8 points. This meant that, if things went his way, Verstappen could actually seal the title at Jeddah.
Things, quite clearly, did not go his way. And thanks to Hamilton taking the win and the extra point for the fastest lap, the gap between the two is non-existent.
With Verstappen ahead only on race wins countback, now the title will be decided at Abu Dhabi in the coming week. And indeed, that is what fans wanted. For this crazy rollercoaster of a title fight to go down to the wire.
So all’s well that ends well, right? Well, not quite. The Saudi Arabian GP might have given fans what they wanted, but the route it took was anything but easy to watch.
The title rivals were involved in multiple altercations, one of which resulted in a coming-together. There were two red flags, three race starts, one Safety Car and multiple Virtual Safety Cars (VSC).
And, to top things off, the stewards and FIA race director Michael Masi appeared to totally lose the plot as far as controlling the on-track action.
The result? A title fight that has so much bitterness on both sides that it’s a wonder both Hamilton and Verstappen finished the race.
But what exactly led to F1 serving up a dangerous and unsafe cocktail of a race?
The first factor was the driving of Max Verstappen. Given he only had an eight-point lead on a track expected to favour Mercedes, everyone expected him to push hard.
He was unable to get near the two Mercs in the first 10 laps, but Mick Schumacher’s crash handed Red Bull a lifeline. Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas pitted when the Safety Car was called; Red Bull kept Verstappen out and he gained the lead.
What’s more, the race was red flagged soon thereafter; this gave Verstappen a free stop and also ensured he’d start the race in the lead. Hamilton was, at that point, clearly livid.
Verstappen would hang on to the lead at the restart but only just; his squeezing of Hamilton would have, under normal circumstances, led to him handing the position back. But there was yet another red flag, and thus another restart.
Ahead of the second restart, Verstappen handed second to Hamilton on the grid. But he managed to overtake both Hamilton and Esteban Ocon to gain the lead.
However, Hamilton soon caught him again – leading to another squeeze, which saw Hamilton eventually handed the place – but only after Verstappen managed to cause a crash between the two as he looked to hand back the position but get DRS.
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It was dangerous driving, and Verstappen was hit with two penalties – an immediate five-second one and a post-race 10 second penalty. It didn’t affect the outcome, as the Dutchman kept a hold of second.
But Max going over and above in what he calls “hard racing” led to a lot of acrimony – and both Red Bull and Hamilton feeling aggrieved by the stewards’ handling.
There has often been criticism of the inconsistencies in decisions made by race director Michael Masi and the stewards. And this was on display yet again during the Saudi Arabian GP.
First, there was Hamilton’s let-off for blocking Nikita Mazepin during practice. Normal circumstances would have seen a grid penalty being issued; the stewards, mindful of the difficulties on a new track and of potentially impeding the title race, chose against it.
However, it is the farcical scenes after the second red flag which deserve some mention. Verstappen, having gained the lead despite running off track, would be asked to return the position.
But rather than tell Red Bull this, Masi made an ‘offer’ – his words, not mine – to Red Bull before entering some protracted negotiations on this. Ultimately, Verstappen yielded the position to Hamilton before the restart.
Yet why was this being offered to the team? The rules clearly state that no overtakes shall take place off the track; thus any position gained that way must be returned. It was puzzling and left many – including the commentators and Red Bull team principal Christian Horner – baffled.
Masi explained his actions afterwards but again they hold little weight upon examination.
“I wouldn’t call it a deal as from a race director’s perspective I had no authority to actually instruct the teams to do anything in that situation,” said Masi.
“I can give them an offer and the ability to do that but the choice is theirs. The stewards are obviously empowered to impose penalties but I can give them my perspective. That’s why I offered them the ability to give that position up.”
But the truth is that Masi does have authority over the stewards. Him engaging in that back and forth, therefore, ended up appeasing nobody – and confusing everybody.
The main reason for a race this chaotic, however, was the Jeddah Corniche Circuit. The speedy street circuit was challenge that most drivers relished taking on.
However, the sheer number of blind corners left many anticipating some danger. Blind corners are as it is a big no-no for the most part; but on a track this speedy, it’s a recipe for disaster.
Little surprise then that the weekend ended up seeing five retirements along with the red flags and Virtual Safety Cars. At this point, bringing about layout changes seems a no-brainer.
That’s certainly the opinion of George Russell, whose Williams was one of five cars that retired – and through no fault of his own. He believes the circuit could use some fine tuning.
“I think you live and learn from these experiences,” Russell told Autosport. “You can’t blame anyone for trying to make an incredible racetrack and ultimately, that’s what they achieved.
“But I think nobody foresaw what was about to happen with all of these blind corners. In my opinion, track changes are needed.”
Based on what we saw this weekend, track changes aren’t the only thing needed. But it would be a good start to making the race a safer – and hopefully less chaotic – one next year.