F1 The Loser After Chaotic Hamilton Victory In Saudi Arabia
Following on from the inaugural Formula 1 race in Qatar a fortnight ago, today we had another debut event in the form of the first ever Saudi Arabian Grand Prix and, with the fight for both the Drivers’ and Constructors’ titles being so close this year, the outcome in Jeddah was crucial. What we had was a Grand Prix full of chaos, accidents, red flags, safety and virtual safety car periods, bad tempered arguments, ill feeling between the management of the two top teams and questionable driving standards from both their leading drivers, which simply tarnished the reputation of F1. Mercedes’ Sir Lewis Hamilton ultimately emerged as the victor ahead of his arch rival, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, meaning they will head to the Abu Dhabi finale next weekend exactly level on points after 21 Grands Prix.
The victorious Lewis Hamilton was keen to again wear his LGBTQ+ helmet design in Saudi Arabia
The sad loss just days earlier of Sir Frank Williams pervaded the atmosphere in the Saudi Arabian paddock, but I am sure he would have insisted on the focus being more on the continuation of racing, just as had been the case for himself after losing drivers and close friends in ontrack accidents in the past. The momentum at the two Grands Prix prior to Saudi Arabia had been very much in Hamilton’s direction with victories in Brazil and Qatar and the seven time champion had arrived in Jeddah just eight points behind Verstappen. However, the latter knew that it was mathematically possible that he might be crowned champion this weekend, whereas Hamilton could only potentially become so a week later in Abu Dhabi. On the Constructors’ title front, the results of which determine the level of the season’s prize money for each team, Mercedes’ lead over Red Bull with just two races remaining was only five points.
On a day of so many twists and turns the stewards then announced a five second penalty for Verstappen for leaving the track earlier and soon Hamilton was back in front, with his title rival clearly settling for the runner’s-up spot and Bottas snatching the final podium position from Ocon within sight of the chequered flag.
Hamilton was hoping to be helped by some extra pace provided by the new engine his team had opted to install for him in Brazil, but which hadn’t been used in Qatar last time out. Away from the racing, the British reigning champion admitted that he felt uncomfortable about racing in Saudi Arabia due to the country’s human rights record and intended to again wear the helmet design he had used in Qatar, very much highlighting the rainbow colours of the LGBTQ+ movement. Aston Martin’s Seb Vettel also did his bit on this front by hiring a go-kart track as part of his #Race4Women initiative and inviting an all-female group to take part with him as they shared experiences. Until recent years women in Saudi Arabia haven’t even been been allowed to drive.
The architect for the new 3.83 mile Corniche track in Jeddah, located close to the Red Sea and the second longest in F1 behind Spa Francorchamps, was Carsten Tilke, son of the legendary circuit designer Herman Tilke, and it features a mighty 27 turns, including the spectacular Turn 13 hairpin with 12 degree banking. So much has already been achieved in such a short period of time to construct the brand new facility, but some work still remains to be done beyond the track itself and the F1 paddock and there was some relief that at least the night race television coverage meant this wouldn’t be obvious from the broadcast images.
Max Verstappen ultimately had to settle for second in a race which swung backwards and forwards
This latest track has instantly become F1’s fastest street circuit, with Monaco-esque walls ready to punish the unwary and everyone expecting potential interruptions as drivers explored the limits. There was also a real feeling of caution amongst the drivers that Race Control and flag marshals would need to react very quickly after any crashes as the cars would remain on the circuit and the high speeds, curves and walls would mean that following cars would arrive on the scene “blind” and have very little time or space to react. There were also concerns about the risk posed by slow moving cars preparing for a hot lap being caught with a rapid closing speed by those already on one. Average speeds around the sweeping curves were set to exceed those of Silverstone’s Grand Prix configuration, only beaten by Monza’s “Temple of Speed” on the current calendar. Also, three DRS zones were incorporated in the hope of creating more overtaking opportunities on the somewhat narrow track.
In the McLaren camp their young British driver Lando Norris had announced a few days before the Saudi Arabian weekend that he would be relocating at the end of this season from where he currently lives, close to the team’s factory in Woking, to Monaco, making it abundantly clear that the main reason was tax related and not just the better weather! The 22 year old was aware that the decision might attract criticism, but defended it, explaining that an F1 driver’s career could be short and that he needed to maximise it financially whilst he could. His apartment there is being prepared for his arrival and he will of course be joining longtime Monaco resident Hamilton as well as other F1 drivers like Verstappen, Daniel Ricciardo and Valtteri Bottas plus of course Charles Leclerc who is actually Monégasque. George Russell, the 23 year old rising British star who moves from Williams to Mercedes at the end of the current campaign, is also expected to follow Norris to the world famous tax haven on the Mediterranean.
Elsewhere on the news front, Mercedes found itself in unwelcome hot water after a very public backlash following its recent announcement of new sponsor Kingspan, a cladding and insulation company involved in the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the ongoing public inquiry into it. The UK government also expressed its concerns about the situation and requested that the team reconsiders its commercial decision in this respect, with team principal Toto Wolff feeling a need to make a public apology to those affected by the 2017 fire and its aftermath. Whether the new sponsorship deal will be reversed remains to be seen.
: Seb Vettel enjoyed organising a karting event for a group of Saudi Arabian women
On a separate subject, it emerged in the Jeddah paddock that the F1 authorities have indicated to the teams which six Grand Prix weekends they propose to hold sprint races at next year. These are Bahrain, Emilia Romagna, Canada, Austria, the Netherlands and Brazil and negotiations about the related financial aspects have commenced, to be followed by discussions about a few potential changes to the specific rules used for the inaugural three sprint events this season.
2021 Formula 1 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix
1 Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 2hr6m15.118s
2 Max Verstappen (Red Bull) +11.825s
3 Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) +27.531s
4 Esteban Ocon (Alpine) +27.633s
5 Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren) +40.121s
6 Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) +41.613s
7 Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +44.475s
8 Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) +46.606s
9 Antonio Giovinazzi (Alfa Romeo) +58.505s
10 Lando Norris (McLaren) +1m1.358s
11 Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) +1m17.212s
12 Nicholas Latifi (Williams) +1m23.249s
13 Fernando Alonso (Alpine) Lapped
14 Yuki Tsunoda (AlphaTauri) Lapped
15 Kimi Räikkönen (Alfa Romeo) Lapped
16 Sebastian Vettel (Aston Martin) Retired
17 George Russell (Williams) Retired
18 Sergio Pérez (Red Bull) Retired
19 Nikita Mazepin (Haas) Retired
20 Mick Schumacher (Haas) Retired
Turning back to the ontrack action, after the drivers had had their first experience of the new circuit in the opening free practice session late on Friday afternoon Hamilton and Verstappen topped the timesheets, separated by a mere 0.056s, with Mercedes’ Bottas and AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly the best of the rest. Friday’s second practice period had begun at 20.00 local time under the floodlights and the conditions were therefore far more representative of what the teams would encounter come yesterday’s qualifying hour and today’s race. The session ended slightly early when red flags flew after Leclerc had lost control of the rear of his Ferrari at Turn 23 and suffered a hefty shunt into the barriers. Fortunately the 24 year old was able to walk away uninjured, but his car was left in need of significant repairs. Before the stoppage Hamilton and Bottas had gone fastest ahead of Gasly and Verstappen.
In yesterday’s final practice session it was Verstappen who led the way, followed by his title rival, his Red Bull team-mate Sergio Pérez and the AlphaTauri pedalled by Yuki Tsunoda. There was drama shortly afterwards though when it emerged that Hamilton had been summonsed to appear before the stewards an hour before the start of qualifying for allegedly not respecting double waved yellow flags/lights, an offence which had earned Verstappen a five-place grid penalty only two weeks previously in Qatar. 20 minutes later the news got worse for Hamilton when the stewards also summonsed him for a second separate offence, namely impeding Haas’ Nikita Mazepin who had been closing on the Mercedes driver at high speed and had had to take evasive action to avoid a serious collision. Hamilton was subsequently absolved of any yellow flag guilt due to a brief marshalling system error, but received a second reprimand of the season for clearly impeding Mazepin and Mercedes was fined €25,000 for not warning their driver soon enough about the approaching Russian.
Come the all-important qualifying hour, all the drivers were fully aware that a good grid position would be vital for a strong race today. In a thrilling conclusion Verstappen was set to beat both Hamilton and Bottas to pole position until a small mistake braking into the last corner on his final lap saw him lock his front left wheel and hit the barrier on the exit, leaving him destined to start third behind the Mercedes duo, if ahead of fourth placed Leclerc. This left Red Bull needing to examine his gearbox for any signs of damage to avoid the risk of a failure during the race, accepting that if they did so their lead driver would face a five-place grid penalty.
The Williams cars bore the name of the team’s recently deceased founder and longtime team principal Sir Frank Williams
Today’s Grand Prix wasn’t due to start until 20.30 local time (17.30 back in the UK) and during the build-up to the main event the Formula 2 feature race lasted mere seconds before being redflagged after a frightening incident when the stalled car of Théo Pourchaire was collected by the unsighted Enzo Fittipaldi. Both drivers were extracted from their cars and immediately hospitalised as a result. Every motor racing ticket bought by fans and every media pass reminds us all that the sport can be dangerous and the floodlights still shone down as the grid formed ahead of the following Grand Prix, with Mercedes enjoying its front row lockout.
When those famous red lights went out it was a perfect start for Hamilton and Bottas as they led Verstappen and Leclerc and the leading trio soon started to pull clear of the rest of the field. However, the safety car was called into action on lap 10 after Mick Schumacher had crashed his Haas heavily into the barriers at Turn 23 and most of the frontrunners, including Hamilton, took the opportunity to pit for fresh rubber, switching from the medium specification to the hard compound. In contrast, Red Bull opted to keep Verstappen on track, inheriting the lead behind the safety car, and this gamble paid off when the race was soon redflagged to better allow the required repairs to the damaged barriers. This enabled Verstappen to change to hard tyres for the restart, but Hamilton made the better getaway before controversy followed as the pair clashed at the opening corner, leaving the Red Bull driver in the lead and Hamilton only third behind Alpine’s Esteban Ocon. To their rear contact between Leclerc and Pérez plus Mazepin and Russell immediately caused a further race stoppage and there followed a strange and very public bargaining process as the Race Director Michael Masi made offers to Red Bull as to what position Verstappen should restart from.
It was eventually agreed that the order of the top three on the grid would be Ocon, Hamilton and Verstappen and after a clean restart it was the latter who was quickly ahead of both Ocon and Hamilton. However, the multiple champion was soon past the young French driver into second place and the leading duo then pulled well clear. There followed four separate virtual safety car periods after an off for Tsunoda and then for debris to be repeatedly cleared from the track.
Fernando Alonso hard at work in his Alpine as the sun sets in the Middle East
On lap 37 there was another incident between Verstappen and Hamilton at the opening lefthander, which led to Red Bull instructing their Dutch charger to hand the lead back to his rival. Verstappen appeared to back off near the end of the lap to let Hamilton past, but the Mercedes driver seemed to misjudge the situation and hit the rear of the Red Bull, staying behind rather than sweeping past. Verstappen then resumed racing speed before on lap 42 seeming to let Hamilton past before immediately repassing him. At this stage of the Grand Prix the Race Director also asked Mercedes to pass a warning to Hamilton about his borderline unacceptable driving standards.
On a day of so many twists and turns the stewards then announced a five second penalty for Verstappen for leaving the track earlier and soon Hamilton was back in front, with his title rival clearly settling for the runner’s-up spot and Bottas snatching the final podium position from Ocon within sight of the chequered flag. The extra point for the fastest lap of the race was also earned by Hamilton.
So, with ill-feeling still very much in evidence between the Mercedes and Red Bull camps, it was time for the whole circus to pack up and travel the in F1 terms relatively short 1,140 mile distance east to Yas Marina in nearby Abu Dhabi for the season finale next weekend where both the Drivers’ and Constructors’ championships will eventually be decided. What a journey we have all been on this year and it’s thrilling that we will go into the last Grand Prix of the season with all still up for grabs.
2021 Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship
1 Max Verstappen 369.5
2 Lewis Hamilton 369.5
3 Valtteri Bottas 218
2021 Formula 1 Constructors’ Championship
1 Mercedes 587.5
2 Red Bull 559.5
3 Ferrari 307.5