The very first visit to Saudi Arabia for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship had everything one would expect from modern Grand Prix racing, but turned out to be eleven. First, a new breed in a country with a questionable human rights record. Second, a new narrow, high-speed street circuit was built for racing in a town near the coast. Third, the FIA racing arbitration is well beyond questionable race control at the marshals’ posts. Finally, the dramatic moments allow everyone to briefly forget all the faults.
Qualifying for the race ended with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen passing through the Jeddah Corniche circuit at a breathtaking pace. Verstappen nearly secured the pole with a performance for the ages until he pushed wide out of the last corner straight into the wall. He had to be content to line up third on the starting grid behind Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas.
It didn’t seem certain that Hamilton would maintain his qualifying position as he was under investigation for not slowing down for yellow flags during practice. However, authorities discovered that a commissioner mistakenly showed the yellow flag. Throughout the weekend, the track conditions were unusually slow to develop. The delays were likely due to several factors, from inexperienced marshals to the late completion of circuit construction.
Mercedes had firm control of the lead at the start, Hamilton first and Bottas second. The race took a ridiculous turn after the safety car deployed on lap 10. Mick Schumacher lost control of his Haas on the 22nd turn and crashed into a crash. Once the car was recovered, the race management launched the red flag to repair the barriers damaged in the accident. It is not entirely clear why the marshals did not communicate effectively to race control how damaged the barriers were so that the red flag could be thrown immediately.
The race was restarted on the 15th lap with a standing start. Verstappen passed Hamilton for the lead but left the track and parked his car at the top to do so. In the race at turn 3 there was a massive incident behind the leaders. Red Bull’s Sergio Perez pressed Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc into the wall and recovered. Haas ‘Nikita Mazepin plowed down the back of Williams’ George Russell as Russell checked to avoid crashing. The red flag is once again launched.
After Red Bull negotiated with race management, the commissioner agreed to a plea deal that Max Verstappen would line up third for the restart behind Ocon and Hamilton. Yes, Alpine’s Esteban Ocon beat Hamilton at the first corner after the Mercedes driver clashed with Verstappen. When the race resumed on lap 17, Verstappen moved up to three abreast with Hamilton and Ocon in the first corner and passed them.
Hamilton eventually passed Ocon and slowly switched to tappen. On lap 37, Hamilton attempted to take the lead but had to fall back into Turn 1. As he backed up, Verstappen darted through the runoff area. Race management informed Verstappen to give up the position. In the straight line of the last corner, Verstappen slowed down his Red Bull considerably. Hamilton, directly behind Red Bull, also strangely slowed down. He did not attempt to overtake Verstappen and collided with his car. Based on current knowledge, race control told Mercedes that Verstappen would be relinquishing the position but far too late for the team to tell Hamilton.
Verstappen and Hamilton continued in their positions. Verstappen briefly gave up the lead and immediately picked it up when asked to give in again. He was asked a third time to give up his lead. Hamilton nearly hit the Red Bull driver in the wall on the last corner as he finally took the lead. At the same time, the stewards awarded Verstappen a penalty of five seconds.
Lewis Hamilton will win the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix ahead of Verstappen. Valtteri Bottas beat Esteban Ocon for the final podium across the line. At the time of publication there is still ongoing investigations which could affect the outcome of the race. But as it stands, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen are tied for the top of the Drivers’ World Championship with one race to go.
Formula 1 will return to Abu Dhabi next weekend.