Hamilton on the charge and Perez vs Leclerc – What To Watch For in the Saudi Arabian GP
From Sergio Perez looking to capitalise on a milestone result to Red Bull reliability concerns, and from Lewis Hamilton recovering from a Q1 exit to a thrilling midfield fight, we pick out some of the key areas to keep an eye on in round two of the 2022 season at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit...
1. Perez chasing a second Red Bull win
It took 215 attempts but Sergio Perez finally has the first pole position of his Formula 1 career. Much like 12 months ago, it was the second race of a new season with Red Bull when the Mexican really got the car in the right place for qualifying, and he delivered a stunning final lap to pip Charles Leclerc.
Perez admits he was risking a lot to get the pole position, and it could prove to be a crucial one as Red Bull and Ferrari appear to be closely-matched on race pace.
If Perez can maintain the lead at the start of the race, he will have a great chance of converting pole into his second Red Bull victory, having won for the team on another street circuit in Azerbaijan last season. With Max Verstappen starting fourth, Perez can also play a bit of a role in preventing the Ferrari drivers pulling away at the front, giving his team mate the best possible chance to make progress.
2. Hamilton battling from the back
The season isn’t yet two races old and we’re already seeing some dramatic moments, with the latest on Saturday evening right up there as Lewis Hamilton was eliminated in Q1. The seven-time world champion was clearly unhappy with his car as he struggled to match team mate George Russell in the first part of qualifying, and was bumped out by just 0.087s by Lance Stroll.
Hamilton apologised to his team on the radio after his early exit, and is left with a mountain to climb on Sunday as he starts from 15th on the grid (following Mick Schumacher’s crash) in a car that does not have the pace advantage Mercedes have become accustomed to in recent years.
Despite that, we have seen some epic recovery drives from Hamilton in the past – the most recent in Brazil last year when he started last for the Sprint and outside the top 10 for the Grand Prix and won – and he will be looking to repeat some of that form in an effort to climb back into the points on a track he won at less than five months ago.
3. Red Bull reliability
This might be a little bit unfair on Red Bull for a number of reasons, not least because when I say Red Bull, I actually mean Honda due to the main concerns surrounding the power unit. It was a fuel system issue that took both cars out of the race in Bahrain, but Red Bull are confident they have found fixes for that and it's not actually the works team that has been the trigger for the worries this weekend.
Sister team AlphaTauri also hit trouble in the opening race of the season when Pierre Gasly stopped abruptly with a battery-related issue that led to a fire, and he needed to take a whole new power unit for this weekend’s race. Unfortunately, FP3 saw him hit even more trouble, as the Frenchman stopped at the end of the pit lane and missed the second half of the session.
Even more concerning was the need for Yuki Tsunoda to also take a new power unit ahead of the final practice session, and then not set a time in qualifying due to a further problem, so there are clearly issues that need addressing within that set-up. Both Red Bull and AlphaTauri will be hoping it doesn’t hurt their race chances, having already seen three of the four cars retire from the opening round.
4. The fight for best of the rest
Behind Red Bull and Ferrari is a massively competitive fight for best of the rest, with less than 0.2s covering Esteban Ocon, George Russell, Fernando Alonso, Valtteri Bottas and Pierre Gasly in Q3.
Four different teams all had a genuine chance of securing fifth on the grid, but it was Ocon who got the job done this week and lines up ahead of a Mercedes that he will fancy his chances of holding off.
There are other names to keep an eye on, too, with Kevin Magnussen starting 10th but in a Haas that proved to be extremely quick in the opening round in Bahrain, and with the Dane doing well just to reach Q3 after numerous reliability issues limited his running on Friday.
Although they didn’t make it into the top 10, and saw Daniel Ricciardo pick up a three-place grid penalty for impeding Ocon during qualifying, McLaren also showed some solid progress from their Bahrain struggles and have Lando Norris starting 11th, with an eye on the team’s first points of the new season.
It’s going to be an intense battle to pick up the points behind the top four cars, and any drama at the front could open up a surprise podium for someone.
5. Safety Car interruptions
The Jeddah Corniche Circuit is an unforgiving venue and the competitive sessions that we’ve seen so far during this weekend have been littered with incidents. Last year’s race saw red flag interruptions as well as Safety Car and Virtual Safety Car periods, and it would certainly be no surprise to see more of the same on Sunday.
There are very few places on the track where a car can stop and be cleared away without the need for some kind of Safety Car intervention, and given how close a number of teams appear to be in terms of performance such an incident could well prove crucial to the race outcome.
Get lucky and be able to dive into the pits quickly for a fresh set of tyres and drivers could well be gaining multiple positions, while on the other hand if you’ve just made a pit stop prior to any interruption then you could lose out badly. Even with the improved ability to follow and good overtaking opportunities that Jeddah provides, track position is always going to be preferred.