Verstappen’s racing savvy and Red Bull’s strategy deny Leclerc a second win RaceFans

The 2022 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix was a raw exhibition of the duality of modern Formula 1.

On-track, an enthralling display of wheel-to-wheel racing between two of motorsport’s highest caliber talents. Off-track, a deeply unnerving weekend where Formula 1’s commercial ambitions clashed with the inescapable political realities that come with being a truly global sport.

The ethical debate raised and amplified last weekend will linger on long after the fall of the checkered flag. But the trophies and championship points F1’s competitors had arrived in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to contest were rewarded as planned, something which appeared in doubt at one stage, two days earlier.

Just 112 days on from a chaotic inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, the second edition of Formula 1’s newest race saw a first time pole-winner, Sergio Perez, lead the field of 18 starters on the formation lap. In the paddock, Mick Schumacher and Yuki Tsunoda watched on as their colleagues lined up on the grid without them, having been prevented from doing so themselves for vastly different reasons.

Fire at Aramco oil plant after attack, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 2022
A missile attack left many questioning if the race should proceed

As the race got underway, Perez successfully converted his maiden pole position into the holeshot for turn one as the Ferrari duo of Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jnr filtered in behind. With Sainz tucked up behind his team mate entering the second turn, Max Verstappen took advantage of the copious room on the outside to run clean around the outside of his former Toro Rosso team mate, taking third place in the process.

“I was squeezed a bit in between Checo and Charles,” Sainz later explained, “and I had to lift. This gave Max the opportunity to go on the inside, and pass me outside of turn two with a better run.”

Pirelli had brought their C4 compound as an option for the first time this year, but after qualifying teams decided they had no further use for it. Therefore, the race developed an oddly old-school flavor with only two compounds to consider through the 50-lap race distance. Just three of the 18 starters – Kevin Magnussen, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Hulkenberg – had opted to start on the hard tires rather than the mediums.

At the front Perez, who has seldom led the early phase of a race, was looking confident. He gradually opened up a gap of around 2.5 seconds to Leclerc’s Ferrari behind and calmly relayed to race engineer Hugh Bird that his tire degradation felt “steady” inside his Red Bull.

Aware how long the hard tires would likely last through the second stint, Ferrari began plotting their move. Approaching the fast kink of turn 22 on lap 15, called their shot. “Box to overtake, box to overtake,” Leclerc was instructed, red overalls suddenly flooding out from the Ferrari garage.

The pair were rounding turn 26 when Ferrari’s message was relayed over the world feed television broadcast. Mere seconds later, as Perez braked for the final corner, Red Bull responded. “Box, Checo, box,” the leader diving into the pit lane as a result.

“Stay out! Stay out!”, Ferrari updated their driver. “Push for the overcut.”

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Despite their opposition successfully baiting them into giving them clear air, Red Bull and Perez knew they should have the benefit of warmer tires by the time Leclerc eventually came into the pits to make the switch to the hards. But the calculations were wrecked when Nicholas Latifi’s Williams smacked the barrier at the exit of the final corner.

Start, Jeddah Corniche Circuit, 2022
Gallery: 2022 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in pictures

The deployment of the Virtual Safety Car as Leclerc approached the crash site at turn 27 could hardly have come at a more opportune moment for Ferrari. Leclerc was able to casually roll into his pit box, take on the hard tires that should see him to the end of the race and resume onto the track with only a red Mercedes AMG Safety Car in front of him.

Verstappen inherited second place while, behind, Sainz emerged side-by-side with the luckless Perez. The Red Bull driver crossed the white Safety Car line at pit exit fractionally behind the Ferrari, yet incorrectly assumed third place ahead of him.

Having started on the hards, and not wishing to attempt to run a set of mediums to the end from this point in the race, Magnussen and Hamilton stayed out. They gained three places each as those ahead pitted, all 17 runners now running on hard tires of varying ages.

“We were unlucky there,” Perez’s engineer Bird commiserated his driver. “Leclerc and Max have got the jump on us.”

“Yeah, copy,” the former race leader glumly replied.

Early leader Perez lost out under Safety Car

Once the scattered shards of Williams were removed from the track, the race was set to resume at the end of lap 20 for what was effectively now a 30-lap sprint for the four leaders and their competitors behind. Leclerc waited until he was midway through the hairpin to stamp on the throttle and resume the race> Moments later, Perez handed back third to Sainz on the run to turn four to earn immunity from the stewards taking action against him, though Sainz was distinctly unimpressed this was not done prior to the restart.

Leclerc was now the one who had to be wary of those behind him – namely Max Verstappen, who never let the Ferrari’s advantage grow to over 1.7 seconds across the next 14 laps.

Despite the relatively mild temperatures around the Jeddah Corniche Circuit in the evening air, Fernando Alonso – who had spent the early phase of the race locked in a spirited battle with his team mate – suddenly had a worrisome warning flash up on his steering wheel’s dashboard as he fought Magnussen’s Haas on lap 35.

“’Cool the car’ message,” he reported to the Alpine pit wall. “No power.”

As Alpine relayed various instructions to try and fix the ailment as the field behind flashed by him through the high-speed turns, panic then struck the McLaren pit wall too when Daniel Ricciardo in ninth place suddenly started to slow behind team mate Lando Norris, his car losing drive after crunching down the gears under braking for the final corner.

Ricciardo tried to reach the pit lane but his car came to a standstill mere meter from the start of the white line marking the start of pit entry. The Virtual Safety Car was called as race control closed the pit entry to allow for Ricciardo’s McLaren to be recovered, but not before Magnussen and Haas had taken advantage to pit and finally switch from the hard tires to the mediums.

Mercedes had attempted to do the same with Hamilton, but despite getting the instruction to pit before the final corner, Hamilton appeared to miss his opportunity and was forced to remain out on-track until Ricciardo and Alonso’s cars were eventually cleared.

(L to R): Charles Leclerc, Ferrari;  Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Jeddah Corniche Circuit, 2022
Verstappen grew wise to Leclerc’s tactical racing

When the race resumed at the beginning of lap 41, Leclerc glanced in his mirrors to see Verstappen barely a second away behind him. Over the final nine laps, it would be a direct fight between the pair of them with tires of equal age to each other. But with both drivers having been virtually inseparable on the timing screens all weekend, there was a crucial difference between how the Red Bull and the Ferrari had been set up for the race.

“It was very difficult because we had two cars that were in a very different place,” Leclerc explained after the race. “I was very strong in the first sector, in all the corners, and basically much less strong in the straights. So it was very, very tricky.”

That top speed advantage for the Red Bull was evident with how rapidly Verstappen was able to gain on the leader down the pit straight the first time by after the green flag. Using the new 2022 aerodynamic rules to his advantage, Verstappen was able to stay within a second of Leclerc throughout the lap until approaching the final corner, when the Ferrari driver backed off – as he had in Bahrain – to allow Verstappen to cross the DRS detection line first so he could pass the Red Bull back down the straight.

“I basically knew that if I was leaving Max with a DRS behind for the main straight, I will basically be overtaken very easily,” Leclerc explained. “On the first lap, I braked very early and I got the DRS and manages to overtake back on the run to turn one.”

The second time around, however, Verstappen was wise to the Ferrari driver’s tactics, the pair awkwardly slowing to a crawl to avoid crossing the detection line.

Verstappen finally prised the lead from Leclerc’s hands

Eventually, at the end of lap 46 with just four tours remaining, Verstappen judged his approach perfectly and swept by the Ferrari as they crossed the timing line and keep ahead through the opening two corners. Leclerc fought back hard to keep in touch with the Red Bull, but a yellow flag at turn one after Alexander Albon hit Lance Stroll compromised Leclerc’s opportunity to make a lunge into the corner.

Verstappen held on over the final two laps to successfully fend off the Ferrari and take the chequered flag for his first win of the season by a margin of just half a second at the end of what had been a true sprint finish for the pair.

“Charles really played it smart in the last corner,” said the winner, “so it was not easy for me to actually get by.

“Once I was ahead, it was really like four laps flat-out trying to stay ahead because Charles was consistently in my DRS. So yeah, it was quite tough out there.”

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Leclerc, still the championship leader, could accept being beaten on the day during this early stage of the season. “It’s obviously disappointing to lose the win so late in the race but it was a fun fight,” he said. “We’ll try again next race.”

Sainz had to settle for third but was perhaps happier with his performance this weekend than the one he had put the week before in Bahrain which had earned him second place. Having lost the lead through a poorly timed Safety Car, Perez was magnanimous about what the win meant for the team after a scoreless first round.

“I’m very happy for Max and the team after the disappointment we had last weekend,” said Perez. “To get those results is really nice.”

The champion bounced back from Bahrain disappointment

George Russell achieved what appears to be the best possible on-merit result available for Mercedes in fifth. Ocon, seventh in Bahrain, went one better with sixth.

Norris gave McLaren some much-needed cheer and their first points of the season by dragging his car to seventh place, while Pierre Gasly fought off both Magnussen’s Haas and severe abdominal pain in the final laps to claim eighth. After his lowly 15th place start, Hamilton claimed the final point in tenth, several places further back than he might have been.

As the drivers cruised back to the pit lane fireworks illuminated the night sky over the Red Sea coastline, intended to celebrate a thrilling conclusion to the second race of the season. But they acted more as an eerie bookend for a weekend in which a very different kind of explosion had transformed the skyline on Friday.

Jeddah’s second grand prix had succeeded in providing an enthralling contest for viewers to enjoy and provided more evidence that the remaining 21 rounds could be equally riveting. There was also relief the race saw no further serious incidents, in a weekend when one F1 and one F2 driver had been ruled out of competition after brutal crashes at turn 10.

But beyond the spectacle of the competition on track, the severity of the accidents endured by drivers over the weekend and the danger of another kind witness by the paddock on Friday will leave Formula 1 having to answer some very uncomfortable questions about itself long after the last team member has finally left Saudi Arabia.

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