RACE DEBRIEF

    Walking through Jeddah’s sprawling King Abdulaziz International Airport late last night, a banner hanging in the arrival hall gave returning fans and media a timely reminder of last year’s crackling Saudi Arabian Grand Prix debut on the F1 calendar.

    The image, taken from the 2021 race, showed Lewis Hamilton – adorned in the rainbow-flecked helmet he wore for the final races of 2021 – pulling hard left as he tried and failed to avoid Max Verstappen’s slowing Red Bull RB16B, the Dutchman appearing to try and manoeuvre Hamilton past him in order to claim the DRS advantage for the following straight.

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    It was the culmination of a fiery encounter between the two drivers on track that night, which would go on to set up an equally fiery season finale across the Arabian Peninsula in Yas Marina.

    Fast-forward four months and F1 is back in Saudi Arabia – but the vibe is far less charged than it was last December.

    For one, there’s no title on the line. Saudi Arabia’s F1 debut last year also happened to be the penultimate race of one of the toughest-fought championship battles in F1 history. The tight walls of Jeddah that night seemed to concentrate and amplify the simmering tension between Hamilton and Verstappen. This time, though, the stakes are different.

    Neither driver won the opening race of this year in Bahrain – and with 2022 having ushered in a sweeping new set of regulations, both have their own problems to overcome this weekend.

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    For Verstappen, a comfortable second place in Bahrain was taken away by a suspected fuel pump issue and damaged steering. For Hamilton, the problems seem to stem more from the core performance of the W13 than reliability concerns – Mercedes remaining unhappy with porpoising issues on the car, as well as its performance in slow-speed corners.

    Fortunately for them, there aren’t too many of those in Jeddah. But where Hamilton and Verstappen were the favourites the last time we came here, this weekend it’s Charles Leclerc and Ferrari with the target on their back after their perfect start in Bahrain.

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    The mood at Ferrari seemed quietly contented on Thursday, as the paddock at a breezy Jeddah Corniche Circuit hosted a media barbecue as the sun set – the Scuderia’s red-clad mechanics laughing and joking as house music pumped from traffic light-sized speakers, less than a week on from the church bells in Maranello tolling out the first Ferrari win since 2019.

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    Leclerc pipped Verstappen in Bahrain, but he'll be looking to return the favour this weekend

    Just as the ambience is different compared to 2021, the venue has undergone some changes too, designed with the aim of allowing the drivers to race harder around the spectacular coastal street track. TV screens now adorn a number of corners to give the drivers extra visual clues into what’s happening around the bend – while sightlines have generally been improved, and the final Turn 27 widened to 12 metres.

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    Whether or not Sebastian Vettel will get a chance to test any of that out is a moot point, however – Aston Martin confirming this afternoon that it was still TBC as to whether the four-time champion would make the trip out from Europe to race this weekend, after he contracted Covid-19 ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix.

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    Will Hulkenberg be called into action again this weekend?

    Super-sub Nico Hulkenberg is here with the team and ready to go if required – although continuing to get up to speed with the 2022 cars and get his head around the winding Jeddah Corniche Circuit will be no mean feat for the German...

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    With the paddock beginning to empty out on Thursday evening as attention now turns to the serious business of Friday running, the stage seems set for another epic contest around this undeniably epic track.

    The outcome of race two of this new era of Formula 1 promises to be just as fascinating as round one.