5 Key Points From The 2022 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Formula One / 8 Comments

F1's fastest street circuit delivered on racing thrills, but questions still remain.

With the increase in the size of F1 cars over the last decade and a half, many have questioned the place of street circuits on the F1 calendar, where you're all but guaranteed to finish in the same place as you qualify, if you finish at all rather than crash into the barriers. But the 2022 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit this past weekend turned that notion on its head, providing some of the best wheel-to-wheel racing we've seen in recent memory.

But when the checkered flag fell, it was Max Verstappen who emerged victorious ahead of Ferrari's Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr., officially starting his 2022 title defense campaign after retiring from last week's Bahrain GP. Along the way, however, the Saudi Grand Prix provided much to talk about, from terrorist attacks in the run-up to drama and disaster in qualifying. Here are five key points from the Saudi Arabian F1 Grand Prix.

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1. Redemption For Red Bull

The opening race weekend was a disaster for Red Bull, but this second round of the championship went some way towards showing signs of recovery. While Alpha Tauri and Yuki Tsunoda struggled with reliability all weekend, breaking down on the way to the grid after failing to qualify, the main Red Bull team faired far better. In qualifying, Max Verstappen had struggled to outpace the Ferrari duo, but in the dying moments of Q3, Sergio 'Checo' Perez snatched pole position - ending his run as the longest F1 career without a pole (215 races) - while Max could only claim fourth.

During the race, Checo was in a commanding position after a great start and was pulling an early lead on Charles Leclerc. But after pitting a lap earlier than Leclerc, a safety car deployment - Nicolas Latifi put his Williams into the wall for the second time this weekend - halted Perez's charge up-field, and allowed Leclerc, Sainz, and Verstappen to pit cleanly and remain well ahead of the Mexican driver.

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Despite his best efforts to close the gap, he was unable to regain a podium position, despite being briefly ahead of Sainz before having to give back position on a technicality.

But where disaster struck for Perez, Verstappen was faultless. In the final ten laps of the race, he plied all his racecraft to apply pressure on race-leader Leclerc, eventually making the pass in the first of two DRS zones down to the final hairpin of the Jeddah Corniche Circuit on Lap 42. The move left Leclerc within DRS range for the main straight as he quickly regained the lead, and Max had to think through his next moves carefully.

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He displayed his skill on Lap 47 when through the first sector, he stuck right on Leclerc's tail, only to hold back on the second-to-last straight to avoid a repeat of what happened earlier. This time, he made sure he was within DRS range and surged past Leclerc's Ferrari SF-75 on the main straight, holding on for the final few laps to bring home his first F1 victory of 2022, and match Kimi Raikkonen for the number of F1 career victories to his name. Leclerc managed to steal a point for fastest lap on the final lap, but it was little consolation.

Despite his loss, Leclerc was immediately full of praise for Verstappen on the team radio, lauding the Dutchman's efforts and the clean battle between the two racers, who have enjoyed a fierce rivalry since their early karting days. "It wasn't enough today but oh my god, I really enjoyed the race," said Leclerc after the race. "Again, it was hard racing but fair. Every race should be like this. It was fun."

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2. Hamilton A.W.O.L.

Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton has had a catastrophic start to 2022. Despite luckily managing a podium in the first race, the Mercedes-AMG car has clearly been off the pace. Nowhere was this more visible than on qualifying day when Lewis was knocked out in the first qualifying session, the first time this has happened through poor performance since the late aughts. Some had suggested he may have been preoccupied with the political climate in Saudi Arabia, as Aston Martin F1 sponsor and Arabian oil giant Aramco had a nearby depot attacked by terrorists on Friday, but Hamilton shrugged these off, saying he simply wasn't gelling with the setup of the car.

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A tweak to the setup meant Hamilton was more competitive on race day, using a pit strategy that saw him on hard tires until the final ten laps of the race and eventually seeing the Briton come home in tenth. Meanwhile, teammate George Russell managed significantly better, finishing fifth. Mercedes needs to iron out the setup issues, and Hamilton needs to step up his game. On more than one occasion we saw him losing track position to the Haas of Kevin Magnussen who finished in ninth. Saudi Arabia was yet another miserable weekend, and one Hamilton will want to put behind him as soon as he can.

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3. Alpine Dogfight

While the late stages of the race provided plenty of action, in the first half, the cameras were glued to the pink-liveried Alpine cars of two-time champion Fernando Alonso and his colleague Esteban Ocon. The two teammates went back and forth in an exchange of overtakes that lasted ten laps and proved, once again, that the 2022 regulations engineered to improve wheel-to-wheel racing and close following distances have worked exactly as planned.

Alonso and Ocon got their elbows out and provided the close battle we've been yearning for, giving us more overtakes on a street circuit. More exciting than the fights was team boss, Otmar Szafnauer's insistence that the two be allowed to fight for an extended period of time before eventually stepping in to tell the kids to calm down. With new race directors on board this year in place of Michael Masi, teams will have to self-police a lot more in terms of handing back positions, etc, so seeing this within the Alpine team has given us confidence for the season ahead.

While Alonso's car suffered mechanical failure and he ultimately didn't finish the race, a P6 for Ocon points to good forward momentum for the team.

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4. Jeddah Corniche Still Dangerous

The Jeddah Corniche Circuit may have been widened and had its sightlines revised from last year's complete circus of a race, but Saturday's qualifying still showed that "fastest street circuit" is a dangerous bragging right. With the new era of F1 cars relying heavily on underbody aero, harsh curbs have the potential to throw cars wildly off course, and at high speeds, this becomes dangerous. Mick Schumacher was on the receiving end when a small snap of oversteer sent him onto a high-speed curb and his car careening into the concrete walls bordering the circuit. In the middle of the lap. While he eventually emerged unscathed and was medically cleared later in the evening, his car was in tatters, quite literally splitting in two when the cranes lifted his Haas from the track.

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The incident highlighted that a high-speed circuit with little to no run-off is very dangerous - a lack of run-off has previously been the excuse used to rule out the use of other circuits like Kyalami in Johannesburg, South Africa - and that the additional weight the 2022 cars are carrying is there for a reason. Romain Grosjean's fiery crash in 2020 resulted in the new rules stipulating stronger chassis bracing.

The fact that Mercedes-AMG GT 63 medical car wasn't enough and an ambulance had to be dispatched is cause for concern. The Saudi Arabian Grand Prix is likely to move soon, but with F1 President Stefano Domenicali suggesting up to 30 races in a year is in the cards, the tracks need to be safer.

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5. Midfield Battle Is Where It's At

Last year, we only had eyes for the battle at the front of the field. But while the Ferrari/Red Bull duel is going to be stout this year, the midfield is even more exciting. Had it not been for Mick Schumacher's crash, Haas would've had two strong cars in contention, and even with only one, K-Mag still turned in points for a second race running. Alpine's midfield battle was exciting and proves the team's race pace, and even McLaren recovered substantially from their dismal first race. Only Williams appears to be genuinely lacking pace, with the remainder of the teams all locked in heated battles for points.

The fact that a Haas, an Alpine, an Aston Martin, an Alfa Romeo, and a Mercedes can all be vying for a top-five finish is remarkable. What remains to be seen still is whether the DRS regulations will be revised at all, as currently, they make certain aspects of racing a little predictable.

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Next Stop: Australia

A two-week break now awaits teams as they head to a revised Melbourne Grand Prix Circuit for the Grand Prix on April 10. This gives Haas enough time to rebuild Schumacher's car and Mercedes enough time to iron out issues with Hamilton's car. Alpha Tauri will be looking to bounce back from a slew of technical problems, while Sebastian Vettel is hoping to return a negative Covid test before then.

Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr. currently lead the championship for Ferrari with defending champion Verstappen in third on 25 points - 20 adrift of Leclerc. Russell and Hamilton are just behind on 22 and 16 points, respectively. But if the other teams can find reliability to match their pace, the Mercedes drivers are going to be in danger as Ocon, Perez, and Magnussen are all within four points of Lewis.

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