Can a slick strategy play deny Red Bull another win at Saudi Arabian GP?

Max Verstappen has only won once in three races in Saudi Arabia but starts from pole for Red Bull

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Red Bull may be in tatters off the track but on it, they are widely expected to continue their dominant start to the 2024 Formula 1 season at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Max Verstappen starts on pole for the first time in Jeddah and his pace in Thursday’s only practice session under the lights suggests he will romp to a ninth consecutive victory.

Charles Leclerc will be alongside him on the front row but will surely be looking over his shoulder at Sergio Perez, Fernando Alonso, the McLarens and Mercedes.

Anything but Verstappen win will be a shock

Pole position qualifier Max Verstappen is presented with the Pirelli award by Gianluigi Buffon in parc ferme at the 2024 Saudi Arabian GP | Mark Thompson/Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

Even if Leclerc beats Verstappen off the line, the Dutchman should be able to breeze past whenever he wants thanks to the three long DRS zones at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit.

Red Bull don’t have the straight-line speed advantage they had in Saudi Arabia 12 months ago but Verstappen‘s tyre wear in Thursday’s only practice session under the lights was exceptional.

He had barely any tyre degradation and was a few tenths per lap quicker than everyone else, so it’s hard to see how he doesn’t win on Saturday, especially as F1 cars are so reliable these days.

“Thursday’s long run felt good even though I think the setup we had was not as good as today, so I’m looking forward to the race,” said Verstappen.

“Normally, we should have good race pace. And actually, of course, the degradation won’t be as high as in Bahrain. So, we’ll have to see how close everyone else is. But from our side, I think the car is set up well.”

Leclerc doesn’t rule out beating Verstappen

It looked like Leclerc would fail to get the best out of qualifying for a second event running but he delivered a stunning lap to get his Ferrari onto the front row.

Ferrari have definitely improved their tyre degradation but still don’t have the outright pace of Red Bull, or at least Verstappen, so Leclerc will be fighting hard for the podium spots.

“I’m always optimistic, so we’ll try our best,” said Leclerc. “However, we know that normally they have the upper hand and they have a bit more pace in the race than in qualifying.

“Looking at the gaps in qualifying, it’s going to be a difficult one to get the top spot. But I’ll do everything as always.”

One-stop looks certain but what rubber?

Pirelli’s soft, medium and hard tyres | Total Motorsport

An ill-timed safety car would be one of the few things that could disrupt Verstappen, and every single Saudi Arabian GP has seen the safety car make an appearance.

There’s actually been four deployments in just three races in Jeddah, so teams will have factored that into their calculations. While a soft-hard one-stop strategy may be the fastest, 2023 saw 17 drivers start on the mediums which allows more opportunity to go long and benefit from that safety car.

Verstappen, Leclerc and Perez would appear to be the most likely candidates for the podium positions but that’s far from a lock. The punishing Jeddah Corniche Circuit has seen 14 non-finishes in three years and it’s unclear who the next-best-placed team is.

Alonso has been mightily impressive in Saudi Arabia but Aston Martin‘s tyre degradation has not been good so far. Meanwhile Mercedes would appear to have the edge on McLaren in race pace but already outperformed expectations in qualifying and neither Lewis Hamilton nor George Russell looks comfortable in the W15.

“We noticed that the C2 (hard) is working very well so far, proving it is clearly an ideal compound for the race both in terms of degradation and consistent performance,” Pirelli‘s chief engineer Simone Berra said.

“As for the C3 (medium) and C4 (soft), both showed signs of graining, as indeed is predictable on a track like this. The majority of teams concentrated on the C3 for their long runs, but there were some drivers who simulated the first stint of the race on the C4, which shows it cannot be ruled out for the moment.

“In a race where the most likely strategy is a one-stop, benefiting from the extra grip that the softest compound can deliver in the first few laps or the final ones, could be an important factor. Another element to consider is the wind which not only affects car stability but also can cause the tyres to slide, which in turn can lead to graining.”

Adam Dickinson
An international multi-award-winning journalist, Adam Dickinson has written for Total-Motorsport.com since June 2022 and also contributes to TNT Sports, Eurosport and the Rugby Paper. He's also had articles published in the Daily Telegraph and several local newspapers, previously worked for Last-Lap.co.uk and FeederSeries.net in motorsport, and graduated with a First-Class Journalism Degree from the University of Sheffield having also studied in Oklahoma. Adam started watching F1 by accident in 2007, catching the last race in Indianapolis, and attended his first race as a journalist at the 2023 British Grand Prix.
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