Another Perez, Verstappen, and Alonso podium finish shows us who the two teams to beat are this season.
The second round of the 2023 Formula 1 season proved more interesting than the first after Max Verstappen's driveshaft failed during the second qualifying session. This meant the Flying Dutchman was relegated to a starting grid position of 15th while his teammate, Sergio Perez, claimed pole. Fernando Alonso qualified in third but was bumped up to the front row after Charles Leclerc received a 10-place grid penalty thanks to Ferrari being Ferrari. Alonso's stellar performance proved that the Bahrain Grand Prix wasn't just a fluke. But when the chequered flag was waved after 50 laps in Saudi Arabia, Perez had claimed the top spot, followed by Super Max in second and Alonso in third. The FIA might as well just put embroidered towels for these three in the cool-down room.
Red Bull and Aston Martin have built the best cars on the grid, and everyone else is playing catch-up. Some teams are more successful than others. Mercedes is once again out to prove how important consistency is. It's level on points with Aston Martin (38), primarily due to Aston's second driver, Lance Stroll, not finishing the race through a technical issue forcing his retirement.
Meanwhile, Ferrari finds itself in fourth position, in unfamiliar territory. Carlos Sainz qualified fifth with Leclerc starting 12th after his penalty, but neither driver could crack the top five, with Sainz losing one position and Leclerc gaining five and ending seventh.
Alpine is currently in fifth place, with its traditional arch-nemesis nowhere to be found; we'll discuss McLaren later, but Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly are slowly getting to grips with A523 after a disastrous first race of the season.
Surprisingly, it was a clean race. Only two cars failed to finish, and neither was involved in an accident. Following a series of much-needed changes, the Jeddah Corniche Circuit is slowly becoming a viable track. Let's never forget how shambolic the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix was.
There's a lot to unpack after the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, so let's get cracking.
Max Verstappen started 15th, which had toxic Hamilton fanboys drooling all over the internet. Was there any doubt that he'd finish on the podium? Not really. The RB19 is a rocket ship, and it's easy on its tires. It's the perfect racing machine, and it has no equal.
We predicted Verstappen would climb to a podium position at the halfway mark, after which Red Bull would tell Checo to move over so the two-time champion could do his usual thing and humiliate everyone else by finishing with enough of a gap to have a Red Bull and read the latest edition of De Telegraaf. That's not what happened, though.
Sergio Perez knocked it out of the park, beating the fastest time Verstappen set in Q1 by half a second.
Perez lost the lead to Alonso in the first corner but claimed it back on lap four. And that's where he remained until the end. Verstappen got within five seconds of Checo, with Alonso 17 seconds behind (thanks to a five-second penalty). Red Bull could have easily switched the duo around, but instead, it ordered both drivers to stick to 1:33 lap times - eventually. First, Checo was told to stick to a 1:33, but when asked what Max was doing, he was shocked to hear the reigning champ was nailing 1:32.6s - questioning why he was being instructed to slow down. He didn't.
Christian Horner later stated that the team has taken a new stance this year; the drivers are free to race if they keep it clean. By lap 46, the gap between Checo and Verstappen was too big, so Red Bull decided to put less pressure on the cars and claim another one-two. Verstappen, however, ignored team rules and went for the fastest lap, stealing it on the final lap of the race and maintaining the championship lead over Perez by a single point.
There's one more point to address regarding Red Bull. After every race, we see the comment, "it's only because he has the fastest car on the grid." Well, duh. Formula 1 does not use equal machinery. If you want to watch a race with identical machinery, tune in to Formula E and take a nap.
Formula 1 is and always has been a team sport. Teams are given a set of regulations and build a car within those regulations. Then it's up to the driver to use that car to score points. It's why there's a championship for the best driver and the best team. A fast vehicle means nothing in the wrong hands in the same way that a fast driver is useless in a tractor.
This year it's all about aerodynamics. Red Bull has Adrian Newey. Aston Martin poached Dan Fallows from Red Bull. Guess who he worked under for many years...
Yes, it's about the car. It's also about the drivers, the pit crew, the engineers, the catering team (they might have been cut), Daniel Ricciardo's smile, and Christian Horner walking around and telling everyone to "change their f%$cking car."
Mercedes must be hurting at the moment. It supplies engines to Aston Martin, which built a better car using many of Mercedes' components than Merc did.
It's disheartening to see Sir Lewis Hamilton not even try to defend passing cars; he effectively waved Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen by. We think this is the closest F1's most successful driver has ever been to retiring. His comments before and after the race show a deeply disheartened man. George Russell put up more of a fight and was rewarded in the end with a fourth-place finish before being bumped up to third and then demoted to fourth again - we'll get to that in a bit. At least by keeping consistent, Mercedes retains its image as a top-tier team.
Ferrari had a disappointing outing, indicating that the team's problems go deeper than ex-team boss Mattia Binotto. Charles Leclerc picked up a grid penalty on the second outing, already exceeding the number of engine control units available for the season. With 21 races to go, how will it affect him going forward? The SF-23 also seemed to lack pace. Verstappen was able to battle from 15th to second. Leclerc could only go from 12th to eighth in a supposedly top-tier machine. Carlos Sainz put up a good fight, but Alonso made passing him look easy.
Sainz is the new star at Ferrari. So far, he's collected 20 points and is fourth behind the new big three. Leclerc is down in eighth, on only six points after his DNF in the first race. Will Ferrari switch tactics and instead support Sainz as the main driver in 2023? Ferrari has always said that both drivers are equal, but there's no such thing in Formula 1.
McLaren finished in fifth place last year, receiving millions of dollars and multiple hours of wind tunnel development time. So how did it get the 2023 car so wrong? Lando Norris has gone from being the 'best of the rest' to hardly featuring and is currently stone last in the driver's standings. This will sound brutal, but from where we're standing, McLaren could have sent an Artura out there, and it would have done better than the MCL60.
Instead of battling with Alpine and Mercedes in the midfield, McLaren is struggling to score points. Both Haas and Williams have points; are we living in some weird parallel universe?
It's time to start asking tough questions because McLaren's performance will have dire consequences. Lando Norris didn't lose his talent in the three months between the last race of 2022 and the first race of 2023.
The various team bosses know he has the goods, and many of them are on record stating that they'd love to have Norris on the team. He has all the makings of a future world champion.
Norris signed a multi-year contract with McLaren last year. It only expires in 2025, but a contract goes both ways. If a driver doesn't perform, a team can let him go. McLaren infamously booted Daniel Ricciardo last year. On the flip side, the drivers all include a clause that an F1 team has to provide them with a machine capable of competing. At the moment, McLaren is arguably in breach of said contract.
As we see it, Lando Norris has two exciting options that might open up this season. Sergio Perez's contract expires at the end of the year, and Lewis Hamilton might retire. Norris is just 23 years old. He had at least 10 years of good racing left in him.
The FIA made us long for the days of Michael Masi. When he made a call, it stood - even if it was often debated later.
Under the new system, the FIA failed two drivers. First, Alonso received a penalty for not parking in his start box correctly. That's fair. The same thing happened to Esteban Ocon last week. When Alonso served his sentence under the safety car, the rear jackman apparently touched the vehicle too early, potentially leading to another penalty.
The stewards had 35 laps to evaluate footage and make a call on this but only implemented the penalty after the podium ceremony. It subsequently handed Alonso another 10-second penalty, meaning Russell was bumped up to third place - something he accepted but only while admitting that Alonso deserved third. Mercedes celebrated Russell's first piece of silverware for 2023, but just hours later, the FIA backpedaled after an appeal from Aston Martin.
In the process, the FIA stewards tarnished Alonso's 100th F1 podium and made fools of George Russell and Mercedes for posting trophy-filled images. "Taste the candy you can't have, Mercedes."
Race control also made a mistake in calling out the safety car for absolutely no reason. Stroll's car was safely parked in an exit-way behind the barriers when Race Control deployed the SC. Later, it was claimed that the GPS tracking had shown Stroll to still be on track, but any number of camera angles, radio communication with the marshalls, or maybe even a cursory glance out the window would've shown he was safely out the way.
What a shambles.
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