What To Watch For in the Saudi Arabian GP: Verstappen's gearbox, Leclerc shaking things up and the Safety Car
From reliability concerns for the championship leader to a first lap that could be race-defining, and from a high chance of Safety Cars to the title permutations for Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, we pick out some of the key areas to keep an eye on at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit.
1. Verstappen’s gearbox
Okay, this might be something you have to watch out for before the race as much as during it, but Max Verstappen’s crash at the end of Q3 was dramatic enough on its own before the potential knock-on effects.
READ MORE: ‘It’s terrible’ – Verstappen distraught after sublime pole attempt ends in final corner crash in Jeddah
Verstappen looked set for pole before hitting the wall at the exit of the final corner, limiting him to third place behind the two Mercedes cars. But the bigger concern for Red Bull is that Verstappen’s impact – with the right-rear corner – could have done some damage to his gearbox.
It was a new gearbox for this event and gearboxes have to do six consecutive races, so if there are any doubts, a change would demote him five positions on the grid. That means Red Bull are going to really want to avoid doing so, even if it's a bit of a gamble from a reliability perspective, so if there is no change before the race it’s worth keeping an eye out for any concerns during it.
2. A crucial opening lap
It's tough to make certain predictions about how a race is likely to play out at the best of times, let alone when it’s taking place on a circuit that is brand new to the calendar, but there have been some signs of what we can expect already this weekend.
The first Formula 2 race showed that overtaking is possible into Turn 1 and the final corner using DRS, but track position is still extremely important due to the high-speed nature of the circuit. The driver who led into Turn 1 – Marcus Armstrong – went on to win the opening race despite multiple Safety Car periods, and in the second race it was a lock-up for leader Jehan Daruvala that eventually opened up the chance for an overtake from Oscar Piastri later on.
READ MORE: ‘Max would have been ahead’ says Hamilton, as title rival’s qualifying crash hands him crucial Jeddah pole
Numerous things can shake up the race but without a clear speed advantage it’s going to be tough for cars to pass each other, so getting your elbows out on the opening lap is going to be particularly important. But it’s a tough balance for drivers to find because push too hard and you could compromise your whole race with a mistake or contact.
The first visit to Baku springs to mind as a prime example, where the whole field played it slightly safe expecting drama and opportunities that never came, because they were all leaving that extra bit of margin for error. So we could see a few more risks taken early on in Jeddah.
3. Leclerc as the joker in the pack
While Mercedes will be hoping for Valtteri Bottas to hold Max Verstappen at bay, for Sergio Perez to join the party he needs to clear Charles Leclerc first. Leclerc wanted to repay Ferrari for the repair job they had to do on his car overnight after his FP2 crash, and he did that in a big way with fourth on the grid.
READ MORE: Norris says he will ‘pay the price’ for using softs to reach Q3 as angry Ricciardo rues damage in qualifying
And when asked whether he's going to get in the mix with the title contenders or stay out of their battle, Leclerc said he has no problem fighting with the likes of Verstappen and Hamilton as he has his own battle with Norris for fifth place to think about.
In reality, Leclerc’s race is likely to be with AlphaTauri pair behind him based on the pace shown so far, and with Norris when it comes to the Ferrari vs McLaren battle for third in the constructors' championship. But with both Pierre Gasly and Yuki Tsunoda looking particularly quick this weekend, the Ferrari driver can give himself a bit of a buffer by getting into the train with the top four rather than slipping behind Perez.
4. Title permutations
In case you missed it, this is the first race weekend where Max Verstappen can win the drivers’ championship, an opportunity he’s never had before in his Formula 1 career. In fact, Verstappen’s rise to F1 was so rapid he's actually never won a single-seater title, but that didn't appear to be weighing heavily on his shoulders as he has finished in the top two in each of the past six races.
Perhaps his final corner crash in qualifying could be seen as a sign of pressure but Verstappen was on a special lap and still starts from third place, so he's in the mix at the front behind Hamilton on pole.
READ MORE: How the Hamilton vs Verstappen battle compares to the closest F1 title fights since 2010
To be champion, Verstappen needs to keep his run of top-two finishes going, because third place will not be enough to secure the title regardless of what happens with Hamilton. But if the Red Bull driver wins the race and sets the fastest lap, Hamilton will need to finish in the top five to keep the title fight alive heading to Abu Dhabi.
If Verstappen wins without the fastest lap then Hamilton will need a top six finish, while second and the fastest lap for Verstappen will win him the title if Hamilton is 10th or lower. The only other way Verstappen becomes champion is if he finishes second and Hamilton fails to score.
Or to put it another way: if Hamilton finishes in the top five, we’re going to a championship decider at the final race whatever happens.
5. Safety Car
There's no escaping the fact that the Jeddah Corniche Circuit is going to be a massive test for the whole field, because of the concentration levels required throughout the race. The drivers were big fans of the high-speed street circuit from their first outing on Friday, and it was a spectacular sight throughout qualifying as they pushed to the limits on low fuel.
Saudi Arabia qualifying facts & stats: Hamilton nabs consecutive poles for the first time this season
But one of the biggest challenges is the precision that is required to find the lap time when there is so little room for error. The close walls combined with high-speed corners mean just a small mistake can lead to contact with the barrier, and that's all before you factor another car into the equation.
Up to now, the drivers have been focused on just themselves, but when the lights go out on Sunday they have to thread the needle while battling other cars, and that’s only going to increase the likelihood of incidents. As stricken cars can take a little while to clear on such a unique circuit, we could well see a number of Safety Car interruptions that will have the potential to turn the race on its head in an instant.