Why the Saudi Arabian GP will see a more competitive race weekend

Can Red Bull and Max Verstappen be beaten? Here are all the talking points ahead of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

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You might have been thinking we are in for a long 2023 Formula 1 season when Max Verstappen finished 38 seconds ahead of the next non-Red Bull car at the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Verstappen led teammate Sergio Perez to a front row lockout in qualifying and dominated the race as Red Bull won the season-opener for the first time since 2011.

Fernando Alonso battled his way to a 99th career podium whilst reliability woes hit Charles Leclerc and Mercedes had what Toto Wolff described as “one of the worst days in racing”.

In terms of having a competitive championship this year, Bahrain did not bode well. However, this weekend in Jeddah could be different.

Another track, different challenges

People are very quick to judge and jump to conclusions about something after one event nowadays but we have to remember the teams have built a car for the 23-race calendar.

It would be wrong to say how a season will go having seen one pre-season test and one race weekend.

Unlike Sakhir, Jeddah has very few slow speed sections, is not too hard on the tyres and relies on efficiency.

The teams will also be learning with every session and can find chunks of time by fine-tuning their setup and getting the tyres into the optimal operating window.

Just look at how Ferrari started the 2022 season, before fading away operationally and performance-wise.

That’s not to say the same will happen with Red Bull, as they have proved time and time again they are the benchmark when it comes to race operations and not making mistakes, but you never know.

“It’s a very different circuit here,” Sergio Perez told the press. “The requirements are very different, the degradation is not as severe as Bahrain.

“We certainly believe that Ferrari is going to be very strong around this place, so certainly Astons, Mercedes are going to be a lot closer to us because the requirements are very different here.”

Sergio Perez ahead of the Saudi Arabian GP | Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Ferrari already on the backfoot

There has been a lot of talk about Ferrari staff changes since Bahrain, with their head of vehicle concept David Sanchez confirmed to have left the team and is expected to join McLaren.

Laurent Mekies‘ future has also been questioned and, on the track, Leclerc will already take a 10-grid place penalty due to using a third control electronics unit.

You can only use two in a season and Leclerc had two problems on race day in Bahrain, with the second one being the cause for his retirement.

To have a grid penalty at the second event is so poor and worrying. Psychologically too it’s a massive blow for the entire team, knowing they can’t fully trust the power unit will hold up.

Pressure is now on Carlos Sainz to deliver for the Scuderia and he is confident they will improve.

“I have the feeling that we’re going to be a bit more competitive, enough to beat the Red Bulls,” said Sainz.

Carlos Sainz speaking to the press ahead of the Saudi Arabian GP | Scuderia Ferrari

“Given how competitive and how strong they were in Bahrain is going to be extremely difficult. But I want to be more optimistic after Bahrain and feel like this weekend, we have a good chance to get back on the podium.”

Aston Martin could be Red Bull’s closest challengers

Whilst Ferrari should give Red Bull a run for their money over one lap, Alonso and Aston Martin are likely to be the closest challengers on Sunday.

The Aston Martin looks so good to drive, giving Alonso and Lance Stroll bags of confidence, which you need around Jeddah to get close to the walls.

Where Red Bull really shone in Bahrain was in the slow speed corners as they had amazing traction. However, Aston Martin were a match in the high speed turns, so should be right on the pace in Jeddah.

Alonso needs to at least be ahead of both Mercedes and probably one Ferrari though. At the season-opener, he lost so much time battling Lewis Hamilton and George Russell.

Fernando Alonso in action during Bahrain GP qualifying | Aston Martin

As exciting those duels were, we never got to see Alonso in clean air over a stint. What would be fascinating to see is whether Alonso can keep up with the Red Bulls if he is running in second or third after the first lap.

The main weakness for Aston Martin seemed to be straight line speed as Alonso needed to be right on the back of the Mercedes and Sainz to get by in Bahrain. Let’s see if that will be a problem again on Sunday.

As for Stroll, he had admitted his wrists were in a lot of pain on the Monday after the Bahrain GP and is yet to be back at full fitness, but is feeling better.

“I’ve been getting better every day, feeling better every day,” said Stroll. “So, I think the worst part is behind me, still not 100 percent.

“It takes a bit of time for these things to heal, but I’m definitely feeling much better than I was 10 days ago, or whatever we were in Bahrain.”

Where will Mercedes be?

To put a long statement out to their fans on Saturday was telling from Mercedes and something that is very unusual in F1.

All of the talk has been rather negative and Wolff has alluded that they will change their concept as the current design has not delivered the performance hoped.

It will be very difficult to do that this year though because of the budget cap restrictions, so the team will need to unlock as much as they can from what they have.

There are no golden bullets in F1 but surely things are not as bad as Hamilton and Russell have said to the press.

When asked if he felt Mercedes‘ deficit to Red Bull was bigger than last year, Hamilton simply answered: “Yes”.

He added: “I think last year we were very draggy. We were struggling not only on the straights, we had to take a much bigger wing, but we were equalling, or if not, losing in the corners as well.

Lewis Hamilton looking on at the 2023 Bahrain Grand Prix | Mercedes F1 Team

“This year, it’s mostly through the corners. I think down the straights we’re quick. But [corner] exits, these guys [Red Bull] have a lot of rear end through the majority of the corners.

“I think in the race they weren’t pushing and so I think they’re a lot quicker than they even seemed. But we have it as them being a second and a half faster in the race per lap. Something like that.”

Watch out for Williams

Williams were arguably the biggest surprise at the Bahrain GP after testing suggested they would be towards the back of the grid.

Alex Albon‘s 10th place was a brilliant start to the season for the team and their low drag car should also suit the characteristics of Jeddah.

“Look at where we were, coming into last year, our first race it was really tricky,” said Albon. “And we did struggle out there. We made it into Q2, I believe, last year but that was a bit of a surprise back then.

“So coming into this year two weeks ago now, to be honest with you, we were slightly on the backfoot going through testing and Friday, but then we turned it around on Saturday and Sunday and to get away with a point.

“I think it’s the first point we’ve had for our first race in six or so years. That’s definitely something to be very proud of and it’s a great way to start the year.”

McLaren can only go up

Bahrain was a disaster for McLaren with reliability woes and a lack of performance. However, Norris‘ pace in clean air was very good after a hydraulics issue and he was matching the times of the front-runners, albeit on fresh tyres.

Without doubt, he would have been fighting for points, so it’s not all doom and gloom for McLaren.

Sakhir was also their low point of the 2022 season and the Woking-based team are certainly in the midfield battle.

Norris says it’s certainly not a crisis at the moment and is confident for at least a top 10 result.

“Q3 is not possible yet, or it wasn’t in Bahrain,” added Norris. “Some cars seem much quicker in qualifying and then struggle in the race and some vice versa. So I think we’re just a little bit in the middle there.

“But I believe we should have at least had a fight with Alex and Alex was just ahead of me before we started having some of the issues.

“It [Jeddah] is a very different layout, different tarmac and many things so hopefully that plays a little bit more into our hands.”

Lando Norris of McLaren during 2023 Bahrain GP | McLaren F1 Team

All out attack

Off the track there are many human rights issues in Saudi Arabia and questions remain about whether F1 should be racing there.

Jeddah is here to stay and on the track, Herman Tilke and his team have created a very challenging circuit which has had some of the best racing and moments from the last two years.

The final detection zone has been moved to after the last corner, so there will be less incentive to play the DRS games which have happened at the Saudi Arabian GP so far.

Turns 22 and 23 have been tightened too, so that section will be slightly slower, but still a massive challenge to be accurate and hit your marks.

There will be a pecking order change this weekend but can anyone really stop Red Bull? It’s more possible than you think…

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