F1 2022′s second great race saved a problematic event…

A great race saved the Saudi Arabian GP.

A great race saved the Saudi Arabian GP.

The Saudi Arabian Grand Prix is the most uneasy and tense Formula 1 event in recent memory, dwarfing that of the ill-fated 2020 Australian Grand Prix at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But it ended with a brilliant fight for victory. That battle between Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc, the second in as many races, was a sporting triumph to cap a weekend in which sport played second fiddle to politics and finances.

Before we get to that, though, it feels worth acknowledging just how good a grand prix we got to witness.

The brilliant race in Saudi Arabia

I wrote after Bahrain that this season could be tremendously fun. I didn’t think Saudi Arabia would immediately underline the point. But one good thing about this track, with its three consecutive DRS zones, is it does create the conditions for good racing between evenly matched cars.

It was fascinating to see two different philosophies shake out in Jeddah, with Red Bull going for a lower downforce, lower drag aerodynamic solution. It meant the Red Bull and Ferrari generated very similar lap times in different ways, setting up an intriguing prospect in the race.

If the Ferrari was ahead, the Red Bull would be in position to attack. If the Red Bull was ahead, it would be well placed to defend. Leclerc was in a tricky place either way and as Sergio Perez grabbed pole, he was certainly on the back foot.

Fortune favoured Leclerc in giving him track position when Perez’s pitstop just preceded a safety car, that gave Leclerc, Verstappen and Carlos Sainz a ‘free’ pitstop while Perez was crawling around at reduced speed.

Advantage Leclerc. But Verstappen sniffed a win and seemed to have a bit more pace on the long second stint on hards, managed his tyres well, and had the added benefit of being quicker on the straights and then getting the DRS when within a second of the Ferrari.

This set up, for the second race in a row, a brilliant and intelligent fight between the two drivers. Again, they raced hard and fair. There were no silly dive-bombs, no squeezing beyond the track edge, no allegations of brake testing…

Within that there were some little games. The position of the DRS detection line before the final corner in Jeddah meant, as we saw last year, any drivers approaching it almost side by side want to back off and avoid giving the other the DRS for the main straight.

This reached slightly comic levels this year as Verstappen and Leclerc slowed right down and dived hard on the brakes – Verstappen got the DRS but had slowed down too much, and Leclerc darted clear.

Eventually, Verstappen judged it right and got ahead. Still, the race went down to the last lap but Leclerc was not close enough to attack into the final corner.

That even the defeated Ferrari driver was happy – with the battle, if not the outcome –  was testament to the quality of race this turned into.

There’s little more to say about Leclerc vs Verstappen other than to reiterate it’s truly a mouth-watering prospect. They have a proper back story, rivals for many years since karting, and had a few run-ins in 2019. They are both mega young drivers who could define the championship for the next decade or more with their respective teams.

For now, they are keeping it clean. But then again, so did Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton at the start of last season…

The reality of racing in Saudi Arabia

Formula 1 drivers shouldn’t feel relieved when a race weekend has finished for any reason other than they’ve had a difficult or uncompetitive event.

But after what happened in Saudi Arabia last week…well, Saudi Arabia’s different.

“Of course I am relieved,” said Lando Norris at the end of the weekend. “We love racing. Under any circumstance all we want to do is race and that’s what we love. That’s why we do the jobs we do.
“But I guess it’s a nervous place to be and as drivers you’re going to have these nerves and that’s why we had the chats that we did.
“But we got reassurance from everyone that we were safe. I think from my side and everyone’s side, we believe that, we had to believe it and it’s true.”

The human rights issue is something F1 was braced for on its first visit to Saudi Arabia last December and something it had stock answers to. What has been too easily glossed over is the fact this country is in armed conflict with a neighbour.

The conflict between a Saudi-led coalition and the rebel Houthi group in Yemen is in its eighth year. When a missile strike causes a fire so close and so aggressive that drivers can spot it while on-track during practice, this issue rapidly comes into the foreground.

And it spooks people. Even the drivers, who held long conversations after Friday practice and briefly put the entire event in doubt. Some people – including F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali – were keen to stress that this was not as dangerous a situation as the basic facts made it seem, because of the security assurances given by the authorities.

The most common positions were dismissing this as either a terrorist attack, or simply that this is effectively just part of the fabric of this part of the world and something F1 needs to accept if it is to race in Saudi Arabia. Mercedes boss Toto Wolff even said “these things happen here”.

My question is what exactly F1, its teams, its drivers, its thousands of personnel, are supposed to be accepting? That a condition of a job working in a sport is that you might occasionally go to a country that has a heightened risk of suffering a missile strike?

The arguments for staying were that national and international intelligence indicated the event was not a target. Nor were civilians. Only infrastructure. And, the word in the paddock was, even if a missile did come into the vicinity of the circuit a very sophisticated defence system was in place to monitor and intercept.

If there was a concerning security incident in the vicinity of any grand prix, it would be handled by the authorities. And if those authorities ruled it was an isolated attack, one not connected to the grand prix and a coincidence in terms of timing and location, we may well expect that grand prix to go ahead.

But this was no one-off, not in the wider context of the country’s ongoing conflict.

Act rationally, not emotionally, was Domenicali’s message. Rationally, missile attacks being common in this part of the world, is not justification for an F1 race to take place in a country where those strikes are occurring. It’s the opposite.

There will be many in F1, like Norris, relieved this event is over. And I wonder how many will willingly return, because F1 surely will.

A crumb of comfort for those that reluctantly follow is that it should at least be worth their while from a sporting perspective.