The Saudi Arabian Grand Prix will be held on Sunday 5 December 2021, it’ll be the 21st round of the Formula 1 World Championship. The race will take place on the street circuit of Jeddah Corniche, which winds through the city port. The works, financed by the sponsor Saudi Aramco, who for years has been pushing for the participation of Saudi Arabia in Formula 1, begin after the agreements made with the FIA, on 1 April 2021. The project will be completed in April 2021. We are talking, therefore, about a circuit that was built in just eight months, a short time according to many insiders, a feat impossible to say the least according to others. Responding to these concerns is the race director Micheal Masi, who, not expressing the slightest concern about the regular holding of the event in Saudi Arabia, says:
"Formula 1 has visited regularly in recent months, as well as the Ross Brawn team, the plan is to race here on 5 December 2021, and I believe it will be respected. For the progress I am noticing, I have no doubt about it. Contrary to what happened in Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and Buriram, the works began immediately after the agreements, on 1 April 2021, and the race will be held in December".
Micheal Masi’s words prove to be true: in fact, the circuit on the shores of the Red Sea, in December, is ready to welcome the penultimate world challenge. With a length of 6,174 kilometres, Jeddah is the second longest circuit of the championship, after Spa, and with an average speed per lap fixed at 252 km/h is outlined as one of the fastest circuits of the championship, second only to the Temple of speed, represented by the Monza circuit. The lap time is estimated at one minute and twenty-seven seconds for qualifying, while one minute and thirty-three seconds for the race. The first intermediate is located 265 meters before turn 13, the second intermediate 120 meters before turn 22, while the third intermediate coincides with the finish line of the main starting straight.
Speed trap, the point where the maximum speed is detected, is located 200 meters before turn 27. The planned race distance is 50 laps, equal to 308,450 kilometres. The FIA establishes three zones for the use of the Drag Reduction System. It is the first circuit in which, since its creation, three zones are established for the use of the mobile device. The first zone is fixed on the main starting straight, with detection point at the entrance to turn 27, the second zone is established between the exit of turn 19 and turn 22, with detection point fixed at the exit of turn 17, The third zone is determined between the entry of curve 25 and curve 27, with detection point fixed at the entrance to curve 22.
The former Formula 1 driver Vitantonio Liuzzi is appointed Deputy Commissioner by the FIA. In the past, the Italian has performed this function on several occasions, the last in the first edition of the São Paulo Grand Prix. For this Grand Prix, like the previous one, it is the British car manufacturer Aston Martin to provide the safety car and the medical car. The two safety cars use the colours of the host country. For this Grand Prix, Pirelli, the unique supplier of tyres, offers the choice between compound tyres C2, C3 and C4, the three central compounds of the range, since existing data and simulations made by the teams suggest that this type of compound is the best solution. In this regard Mario Isola, Formula 1 and car racing manager of Pirelli, comments:
"Jeddah is perhaps the biggest unknown of this year as the track was completed very shortly before the race. As a result, we can only rely on the simulations provided by Formula 1 and the teams and other information that we were able to gather to establish the nomination of the compounds. This street circuit seems to be different from any other seen so far. The high speed and the alternation of fast turns will certainly play an important role in determining the behaviour of the tyres. Jeddah has more corners than any other track in the calendar and one of these - the 13 - also has a 12-degree banking, so there are quite a few factors that will keep the tires constantly busy".
Saudi Arabia is the fifty-second denomination used in the Formula 1 World Championship. After the Bahrain Grand Prix, the first race of the season, and the previous new Qatar Grand Prix, The Saudi Arabian Grand Prix is the third round held in the Middle East in this championship, which is a new record. Formula 1 arrives in Saudi Arabia after having raced in the Qatar Grand Prix, where the seven-time World Champion Lewis Hamilton triumphed, with a margin of twenty-five seconds on the Dutch driver Max Verstappen, in second position. To complete the podium was Fernando Alonso, who with his Alpine managed to gain the third position.
The race was initially scheduled for Sunday, November 28, 2021, but following the move to the beginning of the year of the Australian Grand Prix in the final part of the season due to the problems dictated by the pandemic of COVID-19, which was later canceled, said Grand Prix was postponed by a week. The organizers of the event, on the eve of the Hungarian Grand Prix, applied to host the third and final Sprint Qualifying of the season, in the event of a scheduled cancellation of the debut of the São Paulo Grand Prix due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The possibility of a date exchange with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, established as the final event of the season, was also announced. The United Arab Emirates was part of the United Kingdom’s Group of Countries on Emergency Quarantine Travel. Formula 1 personnel travelling to the country were expected to serve a ten-day quarantine period before returning to the UK.
Saudi Arabia becomes the thirty-fourth country to host a race as a valid test for the Formula 1 World Championship and is the fifth Grand Prix hosted by a nation of the Middle East, after the Grand Prix of Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Sakhir and Qatar. Saudi Arabia had already stated several times that it wanted to host a Formula 1 Grand Prix and already in 2019, the Saudi government had moved in this field. In fact, the state company Saudi Aramco after the first negotiations started in the same year, became the main sponsor of the Formula 1 World Championship from 2020, sponsoring several races. In December of the same year, it was officially announced that the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix would become part of the Formula One World Championship this season. However, the main objective of the organizers is to move the current headquarters of the Grand Prix in Jeddah to a permanent circuit in Qiddiya from 2023, a district of the Saudi capital Riyadh.
The event is held at night, for the fifth time in the history of the highest category after the Singapore Grand Prix, Bahrain, Sakhir and Qatar. It is the seventy-fifth circuit to host a race valid for the Formula 1 World Championship and the sixth circuit to debut in the turbo-hybrid era, after the Sochi circuit in 2014 with the Russian Grand Prix, the Baku circuit in 2016 with the European Grand Prix, the Mugello international circuit with the Tuscan Grand Prix and the Internacional do Algarve Autódromo with the Portuguese Grand Prix in 2020, and the Losail circuit with the Qatar Grand Prix in which it took place before this race.
For the first time since 1970 the calendar includes two new circuits in a row, at the time were the Hockenheimring in Germany and the Österreichring in Austria. Also, this race, at its first edition, is disputed with the presence of spectators on the stands, so not affected by the pandemic, as happened in this championship since the French Grand Prix. For the inaugural edition of the race is established 100% of the capacity, instead of 40% as previously announced. The works for the construction of the plant are completed a few days after the dispute of the race because of significant delays accumulated in previous months. It is the first circuit in history to be built with the 5G network. In fact, the Grand Prix is sponsored by STC, a digital company that offers telecommunications services.
The Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, once its presence on the world calendar became known, received criticism from Amnesty International about human rights in the country. According to Human Rights Watch, the Grand Prix and other sporting events are being used by Saudi Arabia to distract people from serious human rights violations. The director, Minky Worden, called on Formula 1 to assess the situation in Saudi Arabia and insist on releasing the women’s rights defenders who spoke in favor of the latter driving. Last February, 45 human rights organizations called on British Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton to boycott the Grand Prix citing Saudi Arabia’s role in the Yemeni Civil War, his detention of women’s rights activists and the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Saudi Arabia has always argued that the race is part of a process to open the country to the outside world. After the missile interception in Dirʿiyya at the e-prix of the same name, some doubts were raised about the feasibility of the event. But Liberty Media later stated that they would never go to areas of high security risk, although they also claimed to have every confidence that the Saudi government and its agencies have both the technology and the capacity to ensure the necessary security. On the eve of the United States Grand Prix, it is announced that during the weekend of the Grand Prix men and women must respect the strict rules of clothing. Subsequently, before the Mexican Grand Prix, the personnel present in the paddock of Jeddah will not have to follow any dress code, but it will remain in force for Saudi citizens who want to attend the race weekend in the grandstand.
Before the dispute of the previous Qatar Grand Prix, the FIA announces the arrival of a technical directive concerning the front and rear wings before this race. The teams have received assurances if any rear wing do not pass the controls. In any case, there is no disqualification in the last three races of the season. The new findings should be more understood as tests by the FIA for the future to avoid scenarios related to flexible wings. In this race and the following one in Abu Dhabi, the last round of the World Championship, the FIA measures the deflection of the rear wing profile with 35 kilos.
On the eve of the previous new Qatar Grand Prix, Ferrari announces that the new simulator will debut in the next Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Mattia Binotto, team principal of the team, explains that the calibration and development of the new Dynisma simulator has reached the final stage, so it is the team’s intention to use this innovative tool in view of the final appointment of the championship. Then the manufacturer anticipates the plans making known that the race has been prepared with the new simulator. The organizers of the Grand Prix appoint Reema Juffali as ambassador of the event, the first female driver of Saudi nationality, engaged in British Formula 3. Reema opens the event at the wheel of a 1979 Williams, distinguished by the sponsor of the national airline.
On December 1, 2021, few days before the Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia, Mercedes signed an agreement with Kingspan, a well-known construction company and world leader in products and services related to environmental sustainability and its issues. The company logo makes its debut on the German team’s cars during this Grand Prix, while the Alpine takes part in this Grand Prix with a special livery. The Transalpine team celebrates the partnership with the team’s fuel, lubricant and engine oil supplier Castrol, establishing this partnership for the 100th race. However, the news of Kingspan’s sponsorship arouses outrage and anger from the Grenfell Tower victims' association in 2017.
The skyscraper in West London was engulfed in a fire that claimed 72 lives and the subsequent investigation found that some of the building’s insulation materials would not do their job, burning in the fire and aggravating the budget. Among them was a well-known Kingspan product. Grenfell United therefore sent an open letter to Toto Wolff, declaring the partnership shocking and asking for some degree of public censorship for Kingspan, after what emerged from the first phase of the investigation and waiting for the launch of the second. Alongside the association of the victims of the Grenfell Tower disaster, Michael Gove, Secretary for Construction of the British government, is also on the social networks:
"I am deeply disappointed that Mercedes AMG F1 has accepted the sponsorship of Kingspan, while the Grenfell investigation is still ongoing. I will write to Mercedes to ask them to reconsider the agreement. The community of Grenfell does not deserve this".
Williams team principal Jost Capito is not present at the helm of the team for this Grand Prix because of the positive attitude at SARS-cov-2. In addition, on the liveries of the two FW43B and the rest of the cars, is remembered the former owner of the Grove stable, Sir Frank Williams, who died recently, able to win seven world drivers and nine world manufacturers, for a total of 114 victories in the category. The English team announces the arrival of Sven Smeets' sports director, a role he assumed before the Qatar Grand Prix. Smeets will be responsible for sports governance and team representation in all sporting matters related to the FIA, other teams and motorsport associations.
Orlen, Polish oil company and main sponsor since the 2020 season of Alfa Romeo Racing, Wednesday, November 24, 2021, extends his contract for a third consecutive season, thus sponsoring the Hinwil team in the next championship, while Robert Kubica, As the team’s third driver, he was confirmed in 2022. At the same time, Aston Martin announces that Eric Blandin, aerodynamic head of Mercedes since 2017, and after experiences with the former Jaguar team, and with Red Bull Racing and Ferrari, will join the British team at the end of the 2022 season.
"We can confirm that Eric Blandin will start working for the Aston Martin Cognizant Formula 1 team next year, the start date of his adventure with us has not yet been set, but the transition from Mercedes will be friendly".
The following day, Thursday 25 November 2021 Haas announces that Russian Formula 2 driver Robert Švarcman, a member of the Ferrari Driver Academy, and currently third in the minor category drivers' championship, will participate in the usual end-of-season tests after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, in which the teams will have to field young drivers.
"First of all I would like to thank Haas, Ferrari and the Ferrari Driver Academy for this great opportunity. This will be my first test with Haas and I can’t wait to get in touch with a new environment so I can learn the most from them. Having the chance to drive for another Formula 1 team is amazing and I’m really looking forward to it".
While Friday November 26, 2021, the contract for the dispute in the calendar of the Formula 1 World Championship of the Spanish Grand Prix is renewed until the 2026 season. The circuit of Catalonia remains the venue of the event, a track that hosted 31 editions of the Grand Prix, after being used for the first time in the 1991 championship. Stefano Domenicali, CEO of Liberty Media, said:
"We are happy to announce the agreement with the Barcelona circuit. I want to thank the promoters and the authorities for the enthusiasm and commitment shown in wanting to continue to host Formula 1 in Barcelona, with improvements that will be made on the track and facilities".
During the race weekend it is revealed by sources inside Liberty Media that during the following season there will be six Grand Prix in total, compared to the three established this season, where the Sprint Qualifying will be used, to establish the starting grid. The Grand Prix chosen are those of Bahrain, Emilia-Romagna, Canada, Austria, The Netherlands, and São Paulo. However, the first point that should be defined is the costs that the teams have to bear in a weekend that also includes the Qualifying Race. Rather than insurance in case of accidents, the teams would like a defined sum of money to be added to the cap budget depending on the number of Sprint races that will take place (negotiations start from a base of 500.000 dollars per race). In addition, solutions to increase drivers to points are also to be evaluated. In this 2021 only the top three have scored points, the goal is to enlarge the points zone to the top ten.
As for the World Championship situation, Max Verstappen is ahead of Lewis Hamilton by 8 points, 351.5 points total against 343.5 of the seven-time World Champion. The first match point for Max Verstappen to win the Formula 1 World Championship will take place in Saudi Arabia. In fact, should the Dutchman win the race, without a fast lap, and Hamilton crossed the finish line over sixth, or if Max won the race, with the fast lap, and Hamilton was over fifth, or just in case Max came second at the finish line and scored the fastest lap, and if Hamilton were ranked tenth or out of the points, he would become World Champion.
In all the situations listed above, Max Verstappen would end in his favour the challenge with Lewis Hamilton. As for the Constructors' Championship, Mercedes leads the standings with five points ahead of Red Bull. To win the eighth consecutive title, reinforcing the record already held of titles won consecutively in the category since 2014, the Anglo-German team must get 40 points more than the Anglo-Austrian team. We can therefore say that the climate in Jeddah is extremely tense both among the drivers and among the teams fighting for both championships.
All this, without forgetting that a few days before the start of the weekend that will lead to the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, during the morning of Sunday, November 28, 2021, the entire world of Formula 1 suffers a serious loss. Leaving us is Sir Frank Williams, founder and manager of the homonymous team that won sixteen world titles between 1980 and 1997 (nine manufacturers' championships and seven drivers' championships). The longest-running Team Principal ever in Formula One goes down in London at the age of 79. Announcing his death is the British team, who through their social channels spreads a short statement:
"Sir Frank Williams left peacefully, surrounded by his family".
After the news of his death, many protagonists of Formula 1 pay homage to the historic founder with a few words in his memory, including the CEO of Liberty Media, Stefano Domenicali, who commemorates:
"A giant of our sport, he overcame the most difficult challenges of life and fought every day to win on and off the track. We have lost a very loved and respected member of the Formula 1 family and we will miss him so much. His incredible achievements and personality will remain forever impressed in our sport. My thoughts go to the Williams family and their friends in this sad moment".
Ferrari, through Twitter, expresses some words to pay homage to the founder of Williams:
"We pay tribute to a great man, who has played an important role in the history of Formula 1. Sir Frank was passionate about Motorsport, a fierce and courageous rival, who led the team that still bears his name to so many successes. She will always be an example to look at and an inspiration to many for her incredible inner strength and determination. Our thoughts go to his children, Claire Jonathan and Jaime, to all his family and friends in this sad moment".
But what is Lewis Hamilton worried about on the eve of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix? Certainly not the unknowns of the circuit, already tried at the simulator, but the British driver admits he still has the fear of a return of the Covid-19:
"At home I am still alone, even if the experiences accumulated last year allow today to better manage the situation. However, I live with constant fear. I have already contracted the virus, and it was one of the hardest experiences I have ever faced".
Beyond the personal aspect, Lewis Hamilton fears any repercussions at the sporting level; in fact, if the Briton were to fall ill again, this would lead to the conclusion of his hopes of winning the World Championship:
"The people next to me don’t care if they lose a day’s work, but for us drivers it would be decisive. I also see other athletes who look very relaxed, and they don’t seem to have any particular problems if something happens to them. It’s all very strange to me. Moreover, last season the championship had lasted only six months, while in 2021 it extended for almost the whole year. The rules have eased a bit in some areas, making it easier to be negligent and get into trouble. So you always have to keep that in mind. My way of relating to people has also changed from the past. Now I keep my distance from everyone, and I always hold my breath when there are people around me".
So speaking of the World Championship title that Lewis Hamilton would win for the eighth time, the British driver admits:
"If it would be the title with more meaning? Yes, for sure. It is something that no one has ever done before. It’s the toughest fight this sport has seen in a long time and it’s the biggest challenge. But I’m more relaxed than ever. I think it’s because I’ve been in this business a long time. It’s not my first title fight. I remember how it went in my first championship, and also in my second and third championship. I remember sleepless nights and all that sort of thing. Now I’m obviously much more confident in myself and I feel better than ever".
Max Verstappen seems to have other ambitions, swearing that in his mind there is only the goal of winning a Formula 1 World Championship, to enter the history of this sport.
"After reaching my goal in Formula 1 I wouldn’t have many other ambitions. You have completed your goal, and that would be fine. But after that, it doesn’t matter how many I’ve won, because you’ve already got one. Then, I would still try to win more, but with the knowledge that I have already accomplished my mission. I’m sure I’ll do my best to achieve that, but after that, there’ll be a lot less pressure. Obviously, I will still love to race, but I would already start thinking, gradually, about other goals to be concretized outside of Formula 1".
Then, talking about last season, the Dutch driver admits:
"Last season was quite boring, I often couldn’t do better than third place. The fact that we are now fighting for the title in the final stages of the year is impressive on our part. I’m doing what I’ve been doing all season, without any changes. It’s a new track and, first of all, I have to learn it. I’m just focusing on the weekend to try to be as competitive as possible. We’re very motivated and it’s a new challenge for everyone. We just hope it can be an exciting weekend and be competitive, but it’s too early to say anything about it".
On the other hand, having brought Mercedes to the final showdown is already a great pride for the Red Bull team, as Christian Horner points out:
"If I think that at team level, we are better than Mercedes? Yes, we won more races this year. For us it is already a great privilege to have led Mercedes to play the titles up to Abu Dhabi, who had succeeded in this regulatory cycle? Winning just one of the two titles would be an extraordinary achievement for us".
Mercedes Team Principal, Toto Wolff, will obviously try to go against the intentions of the Red Bull driver, pushing his team ahead of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.
"The fact of being in the running for both championships is the figure of our resilience, just see where we were at the beginning of the summer. Everything is still in play and our mission is clear, we are veterans from Qatar where Hamilton was impeccable. The car behaved well and reached the best form state at the right time of the season, now both drivers have the confidence to push. Now we have the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in Jeddah, a completely new event for which the work behind the scenes in view of Friday’s free practice is mammoth. It will be essential to start the weekend as well as possible with an already discreet base set up tested at the simulator to be able to collect a lot of fundamental data in the free practice sessions on Friday. The battleground does not allow room for error, and this will make everything even more exciting. We are hunting".
Lewis Hamilton’s team-mate Valtteri Bottas from Finland is also preparing for the challenge, admitting:
"Every point is super important, Lewis and I will try to get the most, but at the same time we are drivers, and we have a mutual respect. Also, I don’t think Max can calculate the rankings during the race. Of course, I aim for victory, which is always my main goal. Alternatively, we will aim to collect as many points as possible. Therefore, we want to complete a smooth weekend. We must avoid any kind of risk, even if it will not be easy since the track is still a bit 'dirty".
Valtteri Bottas will take the place of Antonio Giovinazzi in 2022, in Alfa Romeo. The Italian driver, on the eve of the first edition of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, analyses the differences between the characteristics of a Formula 1 car and an electric motor, given the recent pre-season tests conducted in Valencia:
"They are really different, only during the second day of practice I managed to adapt to the car, but now I have to cancel everything, and I hope to return as quickly as possible to the driving style suitable for a Formula 1. This circuit will be difficult for me, also because here mistakes pay them more, but I cannot wait to live this challenge. First, we have to understand how much grip we will be able to have, also because there are some circuits where it is difficult to do at FP1. It is not necessarily said that there will be problems, but this aspect is important to understand how fast the track will be, especially as we will be able to tackle the curves quickly. It will be a battle. My main goal will be to enjoy these two remaining races, although I don’t want to say that they will be the last, why ever say never. I want to take advantage of a new lead for everyone like this, where anything can happen. It would be nice to get a good result, even to complete in the best way a season so far difficult. I will try to give a hundred percent, and if I had to get what I wanted I would obviously be happy".
In anticipation of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, many have wondered how safe it will be to race at medium to high between asphalt walls. In this regard, Carlos Sainz Jr. admits:
"Obviously, as a driver, you try not to think too much about this and try not to focus too much on this kind of thing, relying fully on the FIA’s indications, which are normally quite precise and good. The only thing we discussed with colleagues is that if an accident occurs in front of you, three seconds away, considering the fact that you exceed 250 km/h in each corner, there will be no time for us to react, Because there’s a wall between the accident and ourselves. Obviously, we can’t see through the walls. This is perhaps the only big point to raise with the FIA, to stay alert with the yellow flags and safety cars. You don’t have to go too slow in all those high-speed curves, because the speed differential can be huge here on a cooling ride. But as I said, we have to rely on the safety measures of the FIA and hope that they have done their job properly, because the track itself seems more challenging and completely different from the circuit types we have been on recently. However, I think that Formula 1 should have normal tracks, where there are fast tracks and full of high-speed curves that allow you to extract everything from a car; in a nutshell, manage to do such a thing without earning by going off the track. This is what happens in modern circuits. I think all of us drivers have been pretty clear, and that’s what we want. This looks like a high-speed track experiment with the walls, and we’ll see how it goes. I hope that the race can be really fun, obviously in complete safety and without nasty surprises".
Charles Leclerc, however, in his pre-race statements focuses more on the analysis of the possibilities that Scuderia Ferrari can have in Jeddah, to race a Grand Prix that will give the Maranello team the necessary boost to win the challenge for the third place in the constructors' championship.
"On paper it doesn’t look like one of our best tracks because of the long straights and the fact that it is a high-speed track, but we can only make these speeches once we get on track, and also the new engine will help us: if it will be enough to beat McLaren I don’t know, it will be hard, but anything can happen. I hope that we drivers can make a difference, I can’t wait to try this circuit tomorrow for the first time. In addition, there are three DRS zones, and they are very long. I think that one third of the track is covered by DRS, so I don’t think overtaking is as difficult as it is in any city track. Surely it will be a challenging circuit for us drivers, it is at high speed and there are walls nearby: there is no room to go wrong. If next year we can make another big step forward? I think we are working well, there is no reason to believe otherwise. We are making great strides at the team level; we have improved the car a lot from 2020 to 2021 and now it is up to us to take this big step to win again next year. I am confident: we can do it".
After the focus on environmental education, before the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix Sebastian Vettel organized a kart race, in Jeddah, with a special highlight: only women can participate. The event, called Race for Women, is attended by eight girls. Aston driver Martin comments on his initiative by declaring.
"There have been many discussions and reflections ahead of the first race in Saudi Arabia. I was thinking about what I could do, and we’re going to look at some countries' negative examples of human rights. So I tried to think positively, so I organized this kart event with the hashtag #RaceForWomen. There is a group of seven to eight women, we will put on a nice event just for them. I wanted to try to convey some of my experiences in life and on the track to do something together and expand their confidence. In Saudi Arabia women have been allowed to drive only recently (since June 2018, ed), so only some of them have a license. Some are passionate about Formula 1, others did not know anything about engines until today, it is a good mix of women from different backgrounds. Their stories inspired me; I am confident about the changes in the country. It is true that if we look at the situation in Saudi Arabia from our point of view (the Western world, ed.), there are still many things that need to be addressed and improved, but some things are changing and for these people make a huge difference. For us who come only on a weekend it is difficult to judge perfectly not knowing exactly the context and people. That’s why it was important to know some of these women, it was a very stimulating day".
Finally, a funny note: during the press conference to present the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso give life to a fun show. Interestingly, in fact, Alonso and Vettel are respectively first and second in the ranking of overtaking this year. A particular ranking and certainly not particularly felt, but to which the social media of Formula 1 give much space, just for the names involved. Behind Alonso, who made 116 overtakings, and paired with Vettel, who followed at 115, there is another World Champion, Kimi Raikkonen. Questioned at a press conference about their challenge, the two drivers of Alpine and Aston Martin indulge in some jokes.
"We don’t know what the prize is yet".
Comments sarcastic Vettel.
"We have to know him, so we can split him in half".
Alonso exclaims, immediately after proposing the idea of letting Raikkonen win, since the Finn had to miss two Grands Prix because of Covid-19, arousing the hilarity of his colleague.
"We could distort it by starting to outdo each other".
During the first free practice session, which takes place on Friday 3rd December 2021, the track looks better than the drivers expected. The seven-time World Champion, Lewis Hamilton, is the only one to record a time less than 1'30"0 in the first free practice session of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, the Mercedes driver - with the help of Soft tyres - manages to score a stunning time, taking into account that none of the drivers who will race in Jeddah has ever raced in this circuit: 1'29"786, a time that Max Verstappen will try in every way to reach. The Dutch driver, driving his Red Bull RB16B, decided to take advantage of the remaining minutes of FP1 not to test the race simulation, but to take, with the same rubber, only 0.056 seconds from the time of the English driver. In the last moments of the session Valtteri Bottas, despite having recorded his time with soft tyres and with Hamilton’s trail, is overtaken by the Dutchman and climbs to third place in the standings.
Remarkable is also the performance of the French driver Pierre Gasly, who marks the fourth time with his AlphaTauri, followed by Antonio Giovinazzi who places Alfa Romeo in fifth place. The Italian driver, who is immediately at ease in this new circuit, is positioned just in front of the Ferrari of Carlos Sainz Jr. and Charles Leclerc, respectively in sixth and seventh place. The two SF21 cars precede the McLaren of Daniel Ricciardo, who with his MCL35 marks the eighth time, while his teammate Lando Norris fails to go beyond the thirteenth position, probably to cauda of some problems found after having ruined the bottom on a curb. Fernando Alonso set the ninth fastest time for Alpine, followed by Sebastian Vettel with Aston Martin. Both precede Sergio Perez, who has some difficulties more than his teammate.
Esteban Ocon is twelfth; during the tests, the French driver is involved in a misunderstanding with the Red Bull driver, Max Verstappen because he cannot move in time from the trajectory, while the Dutchman completes his lap. Also, when Ocon moves from the ideal trajectory, he unwittingly leads the Dutchman to the escape route. Lando Norris leads the Aston Martin of the Canadian driver Lance Stroll, in fourteenth place, and the Japanese of AlphaTauri Yuki Tsunoda with the AT02 of Faenza, in fifteenth. The Finn Kimi Raikkonen, in sixteenth place, George Russell in seventeenth, and Mick Schumacher, who placed between the two Williams takes the eighteenth position. Nicholas Latifi and Nikita Mazepin close the ranking, covering respectively the nineteenth and the twentieth position.
At the end of FP1, on Friday afternoon, December 3, 2021, FP2 began, which confirmed Lewis Hamilton at the top of the standings of the best times, and Ferrari’s driver, Charles Leclerc, involved in an accident in which he destroyed his SF21. The second free practice session of the penultimate round of the 2021 season begins at 8:00 p.m. on the street circuit of Jeddah. The results achieved by Mercedes, during FP2, respect the goal that the team principal Toto Wolf had set himself, bringing the two W12 cars in front of Max Verstappen. Fully satisfying the Mercedes target, Lewis Hamilton is ranked in first position with a time of 1'29"018, obtained with the help of medium tires.
Valtteri Bottas is just 0.061 seconds from his teammate. Max Verstappen, in fourth place, fails to achieve the competitiveness expressed during the Mercedes qualifying simulation, also given that his RB16B is equipped with gasoline loads higher than the cars produced by the Berkeley team. For this reason, the Dutchman is also bypassed by the AlphaTauri driver, Pierre Gasly, who in the wake of the Finn is 0.081 seconds, while his teammate, Yuki Tsunoda, manages to score only the eighth best time. The pair of Alpine drivers, consisting of Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon, is behind them. Next comes the Spanish driver Carlos Sainz, who with his Ferrari marks the seventh best time. His team-mate, Charles Leclerc, closed the top ten at 0.004 seconds from the Mexican driver, Sergio Perez.
Despite the tenth position, during the second free practice session, the Monaco driver suffered a very high-speed accident in the 22/23 corners. Four minutes into the session, Leclerc’s SF21 lost control in the 22/23 turns at about 300 km/h and crashed into the barriers. Fortunately, the pilot gets out unscathed, but the car is wrecked. This means that Ferrari mechanics will have to work hard, during the night before qualifying, to repair the car. After losing control of the rear area of his car, Charles first slams the rear part of the train, and then the right side of the car of Maranello. After the big bang the gearbox is damaged, and you have serious doubts about the Monegasque driver’s EVO power unit. The same goes for Leclerc’s body, which crashed into the wall in sixth gear.
Charles Leclerc is followed in the standings by the pair of McLaren drivers, the team with which Ferrari is fighting for the third place in the constructors' championship. Ricciardo holds, therefore, the eleventh position and his partner, Norris, the twelfth. Alfa Romeo drivers follow McLaren closely, aware that they did not have the opportunity to test the track with the simulator; Giovinazzi occupies the thirteenth place and Raikkonen the fourteenth. The Aston Martin of Vettel and Stroll, George Russell and, as in FP1, Mick Schumacher who fits between the two Williams cars. Last placed is the Russian Nikita Mazepin, protagonist of a spin, which does not cause him any particular damage to the car. At the end of the tests, disappointed by what happened, Charles Leclerc admits the mistake made during FP2, which will force his mechanics to work overnight to repair the damage:
"Unfortunately, this day did not end as we would have liked. Looking at the positive aspects, we were able to complete our program and we did all the tests we had planned for these two sessions. The potential is there and if we can put it all together tomorrow, I expect a good day. I am sorry for the team that will have to do a great job to put my car back and I will do everything to repay their effort with the best possible result. I really like the track and I would say that the part where it is best to drive is the section where you go faster but it is also the one that does not admit mistakes. The most difficult aspect is to take the rhythm by touching the walls and getting familiar with the blind curves, but as soon as you can, this stretch is even more exciting. The grip was better than expected and I must say that the circuit staff did a great job to clean the asphalt making it much less dusty than yesterday. One of the things that struck me most was the evolution of the track that was very different from that of the traditional city circuits. Tomorrow it will be crucial to get the right moment to get on track in qualifying to have a clean lap avoiding traffic, since the track is quite narrow".
His teammate, Carlos Sainz Jr., also expresses his feelings at the end of the first two practice sessions:
"It’s a different track than any other track I’ve ever driven on before. The intensity that this circuit gives you, which brings adrenaline and chills, is something that I haven’t lived in a long time. It’s particular, with very high speeds very close to the walls. You try to gain that extra inch before you go to bump. Fortunately, on our side of the box we were safe today. We hope to continue like this tomorrow and Sunday. I feel quite confident, I managed to build my day by finding the rhythm step by step. I always had a good feeling. We just need to see with the different fuel loads who’s actually in front or behind. The fight with AlphaTauri, Alpine, McLaren and us is very tight, as was also in Qatar".
Lewis Hamilton can be satisfied with the work done by his team, given the excellent performance expressed by his W12:
"The grip was the same in both sessions, what I noticed immediately was that the grip is very high. The rhythm of the long run was similar, but decent. We tried some things with the set up and I would say that we are not fast on the single lap compared to the others. Our pace on the race simulation though is not bad. The soft rubber is perhaps a bit too soft for the high-speed section. It seems that the tire is going to give up gradually, but it is still very exciting to manage the tires. From the point of view of traffic this track is definitely much worse than many other places we go. It is on the model of Monte-Carlo. The speed with which you get on the front cars is definitely something dangerous. Overall, the track is incredibly fast, there is also a lot of grip. If you can pick up the pace it’s a great track".
After which, called into question on social issues related to Saudi Arabia, Lewis Hamilton responds sincerely:
"I received a warm welcome here but felt obliged to the human rights associations, which accuse Saudi Arabia of using the race to distract public opinion from its abuses. It’s pretty terrifying that being a homosexual is a felony in this country. I do not feel comfortable here, I repeat: however, it was not my choice to race on this circuit. Changes are needed, for example only from 2018 women can get their license, but some are still in prison for driving many years ago. There are many changes that need to happen, and I think our sport needs to do more".
But remaining on the subject of motor racing, for the Technical Director of the Silver Arrows, Andrew Shovlin, there are no particular plans to ensure that the reigning World Champion is able to recover the top of the standings two races before the conclusion of the World Championship, as reiterated by the same British engineer:
"The issue is very simple. Lewis must win the remaining tests and always have his goals clear. We engineers will have the task of creating a car that can conquer the pole and that is also the fastest in the race. It’s a job we’ll do over the night, but if we can achieve our goal, Lewis will do the rest. We currently have some ideas, as we have identified some imperfections that we will try to resolve tonight. We are happy with how the car behaved during the long run in the dry lap, however, we were more satisfied this morning than in the afternoon. In addition, we must pay attention to the level of adhesion of tyres, especially with regard to soft rubber. In race overtaking will be difficult, so you will need to manage the consumption of tires and the car in general".
And in conclusion, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff reiterates his commitment to trying to win the British driver’s title:
"We have to do whatever it takes to get the best car on track on Saturday. The speech is very simple: we are eight points behind in the standings and we must give our best in each of the remaining weekends. Only then will we have a chance to win the title. Everything is still possible, but on paper we are behind. I come from the financial world, and it is above all a question of possibilities. And from a purely mathematical point of view, we are at a disadvantage. I mean, we have to win the last two races, simple".
Help that must be decisive for the Mercedes team also comes from Lewis Hamiton’s team-mate, the Finn Valtteri Bottas:
"During FP1 the track turned out better than I expected on the eve. It was a bit dirty, but nothing extreme, also because we are not the only category to run here. They did a great job with the grip of the asphalt. I think I have already said that this track is spectacular: running at high speeds near the barriers is what we like and is able to give you an adrenaline rush. The tyres have lasted long enough today, and I don’t think we’ll see many stops in the race. We drove well with all the compounds, even if the fastest laps, mine and Lewis, we completed them with the medium. I can only confirm the level of grip, which we have detected thanks to a specific starting setup based on an estimated grip standard. We start from good bases, however, even if there are several curves to face at high speed, which cause a certain consumption of the soft. Moreover, traffic situations have also been generated, where everyone has struggled to manage it".
The Finnish driver has reached his penultimate race with the Anglo-German team, and with strong bitterness, but also with extreme correctness, admits:
"Winning the championship was my goal when I signed with Mercedes, but Lewis' performance and consistency were too much for me. I found on my way perhaps the best pilot in the world, but I am calm because I know I have given everything. Now, however, I want to leave a good memory: finish with the conquest of the Constructors' title and give a hand to Hamilton for that Drivers, with the hope maybe to win more Grands Prix because in Formula 1 nobody knows what can happen. I’m super loaded and motivated. Lewis is a lovely person. When he works, he is super focused and can still win for a few years: I do not see stretch marks in his performance. Verstappen, for age and experience, is already a complete driver and in recent times has also become more consistent, commits fewer mistakes and accidents. But it obviously remains beatable. For example, qualifying is one of my strengths and is my biggest chance to get ahead of it. In the race Mercedes and Red Bull are equal, so we can beat him if I could have good qualifying and start well. The goal is always the same: double-cross. Our team knows how to win, let’s say we have more than fifty percent chance of winning".
Then he goes on saying:
"There were many good moments in these years with Mercedes: all the victories, especially the first one. Then the constructors' world championship. Here I learned to win, to conquer the pole. I will bring with me a working methodology, the winning mentality. We’re talking about a team that proved almost unbeatable with Lewis, but I wasn’t interested in a single year of contract anymore. From this point of view I have simplified Wolff’s life. Right now I need guarantees, to have a clear vision of the future. Toto’s explanation was logical: Mercedes invested a lot in George Russell and the change in the rules in 2022 meant that it was the right time to promote it, besides it has now accumulated a good experience. And after five years on a top team, I was ready for another adventure. I did not look for alternatives to Formula 1, I wanted to continue because I still enjoy racing here. Alfa Romeo is a historic brand. It was nice to receive, for example, in Mexico, after the pole, the replica of Fangio’s helmet that won the title with Alfa in 1951. I would like to test the production cars, help the brand in the development, but we have not yet talked about it".
On the opposite side, French driver Pierre Gasly believes in the concrete possibility that Max Verstappen can become World Champion:
"Max is at the top of the leader board, and I see him as the winner of this championship. Only two races left, he has eight points ahead and is clearly in a better position. This weekend, however, will not be easy for him, also because the Mercedes will be very strong here. But if he makes it to Abu Dhabi still at the top of the world championship, at that point I think he will become champion. Obviously, racing with them on track, we can’t see all the live action, but I can still say that it has been a positive year with everything that has happened this season. We will see who will prevail in the end, but we would like to see another similar duel in the future, maybe with more protagonists able to fight for the title".
Then, speaking of the exceptional services provided by Alpha Tauri, French admits:
"We know that we usually perform well on Saturday, so I’m pretty confident about qualifying, also because I think we can still improve. At the same time, I don’t feel as positive about the long runs, and in fact we will still have some work to do to better prepare the race. I really like this track; the curves are incredible and there is a great adrenaline rush when you tackle this circuit. Overall, the day was really good for us, and I’m happy with the pace so far. Overall, I think we are pretty competitive. Although I couldn’t complete any long runs, today’s performance makes me positive. Hard gum works well here, but we’ll still have to evaluate the other compounds, so there will be work to do. The track is really fun, especially in the first sector. I’ve never driven on a circuit like this, and it was a special experience. In general, the pace was satisfactory".
Just Max Verstappen, on the side-lines of the first free practice of Jeddah, talks about the concrete and real chances of victory, also in relation to the performance provided by the Honda engine:
"Clearly we don’t have the power spikes shown by the new Mercedes engine. But our engine has a pretty smooth operation for its life cycle. Replacing it with a new one wouldn’t help us much. We know what we have available in terms of power unit, and we should be able to get to the end of the championship with those we have".
As is well known, the young Dutchman has the mathematical chance to win the title already in Saudi Arabia, if some combinations were to materialize, but the team principal of Red Bull, Christian Horner, preaches calmly:
"We see in the team tension but also enthusiasm. Everyone should think about doing their best work and nothing else. Winning the title would be a fantastic achievement. Qualifying will be crucial, like those that take place on all road circuits, even if everything can then happen in the race. You can see that it is a fairly narrow and quite challenging circuit. Given the proximity to the walls and the high speed of travel, it will be essential to know how to make the most of the tires, as well as find the right set-up that allows you to maintain speeds sustained a short distance from the barriers. So, it will be a fascinating race. We had good results with the hard tyres, but we still have to get the most as we move on to a softer compound. In this sense, several analyses will be carried out on the basis of the rounds that we will complete. Moreover, listening to the general comments, I do not think that we are the only ones to face this problem".
Turning to the performance analysis of his drivers, Horner dwells on the first sensations expressed by Verstappen on the new track, admitting a certain optimism despite the result temporarily favourable to Mercedes:
"I talked to him after the session, and he’s having fun. Max just has to show what he’s made of: he worked incredibly hard, like the whole team, to get to this position with two races to go. Moreover, this is the circuit suitable for its characteristics: high speed, walls, curbs. Not surprisingly, he had also recorded a faster time than anyone else".
More cautious, in all senses, the commentary on Sergio Perez’s performance, still not quite at ease on the Jeddah track, as shown by the ninth-place finish in FP2:
"Sergio is slowly becoming familiar with the track and doesn’t want to take big risks right away".
In conclusion, Horner focuses on the battle with Mercedes for the title for drivers and constructors, feeling satisfied also for the implementation of the load tests on the rear wings introduced by the FIA:
"I think that even today we have noticed very similar speeds, without big discrepancies. This is encouraging, and we hope that it will remain so this weekend and next. In Gedda we are in a ranking situation for which we have struggled, with 5 points to recover constructors and 8 advantage in drivers. In the last seven years we have experienced the domination of Mercedes, and finally we are able to put pressure on it".
In this scenario, therefore, the statements of Helmut Marko, always quite clear in his own statements, are not surprising:
"We haven’t seen a Mercedes dominance. What looks like long straights here are actually fast corners. This means that here Mercedes cannot lower the car as we have seen them do. So in general we think we can keep up".
At the end of the first day of testing, also Lando Norris expresses his personal first impressions on the track of Jeddah, without hiding his positive opinion on the layout of this track that marks the penultimate event of the world championship:
"A fun but difficult first day. Fun because it is a new circuit and a new challenge, and it is wonderful to feel all the features of the track. Surely it is one of the most complex to put everything together and get the precision needed to pass near the walls, but not too close, of course. However, it has also been a difficult day because, at least until now, we have encountered some problems in finding the right balance of the car. So, we have work to do tonight to try to get better for tomorrow. Confidence is there, I feel confident to push the car, but we just have to perfect it. We’ll see what we can do in qualifying".
Sebastian Vettel seems to have the same idea, at least for Friday:
"It was quite interesting; the circuit is very fast and extremely challenging for us. There is no room for mistakes, but it is fun. In the evening we did not go so well with the car as it had been in the afternoon. We tried some things, but we got some answers. I expected the grip to be much worse as the track was completed so late, you can see that there is still stuff around everywhere. When it is dark, however, it is not visible, but the track itself has a very good grip".
Finally, Fernando Alonso is also in favour of the layout of the Jeddah circuit:
"It’s been a fun day today; I like the track. The circuit is as fast as expected, but it also seems to have a fairly high grip, which was a nice surprise, especially considering that it is a street circuit. Formula 2 helped us today by cleaning the asphalt before driving in the afternoon. There are still a few unknowns for everyone in terms of trim and we will have to fine-tune the cars tonight perfectly. I am optimistic for tomorrow and it should be a great show for everyone".
During the night, the transmission of Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton was changed. The two drivers did not incur in a penalty, because they had used a component used on other occasions, for more than six consecutive Grands Prix. Like them both Haas drivers, Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin, change part of their car: in this case it is the seventh unit of the exhaust system. And even in this case, pilots are not penalized because the installed unit is among those usable according to the maximum number established by the regulation. Saturday, December 4, 2021 begins the third free practice session, which opens with a big surprise: Max Verstappen, the one who had problems all Friday, lowers by almost a second the time obtained by Hamilton during FP2. While at the end of the session the British driver will have to be called up for not respecting the yellow flags and for hindering Mazepin in turn eight, Verstappen stands in the first position of FP3, with 0.214 seconds ahead of his rival to the title.
Behind the two contenders are Perez, in third position, and the pair of drivers of AlphaTauri, with Tsunoda in fourth position and his teammate, Gasly in fifth position. In sixth position is the other Mercedes, that of Valtteri Bottas, just 0.082 seconds ahead of the pair Ferrari, Leclerc and Sainz, and the French driver Esteban Ocon, who in ninth position precedes the one who concludes the top ten, Lando Norris. To open the last ten positions is the Spanish Fernando Alonso, who with his Alpine is in front of the Italian Antonio Giovinazzi and his teammate Kimi Raikkonen.
Daniel Ricciardo follows the two Alfa Romeo drivers, and in turn precedes the Canadian Lance Stroll. To occupy the last five positions are Russell, Vettel, Latifi, Schumacher and Mazepin. At the end of the third practice session the race commissioners decided not to penalise Lewis Hamilton for not respecting the yellow flags; however, having obstructed Nikita Mazepin in turn 8, the British driver receives a reprimand, and the Mercedes is fined 25.000 euros, because the team did not warn the driver of the arrival of the Haas of the Russian driver. Red Bull, which initially appealed against the decision not to penalise Lewis Hamilton for obstructing Mazepin, decided not to appeal.
It’s finally 9:00 p.m. on Saturday, December 4, 2021: the illuminated track is ready to host the penultimate qualifying test for the 2021 Formula 1 season. Before the start of qualifying the Mercedes team mechanics are forced to intervene on the car of Valtteri Bottas, victim of a fuel leak, at the end of the last free practice session. On the Finnish car the power unit is changed, but this does not entail any penalty for the driver, as the team uses a power unit already used in previous races.
All drivers face the first stage of qualifying using soft tires. Verstappen immediately scored an excellent time, 1'28"659, breaking Lando Norris by 0.477 seconds. Lewis Hamilton, on the other hand, made a driving error in his first attempt, and was forced to continue for a second quick lap. Carlos Sainz Jr. is third, ahead of Bottas, while, later, Sergio Pérez manages to do better than everyone, except his teammate. Then, however, Hamilton closing his lap without errors, and barefoot from the summit Verstappen, thanks to the time of 1'28"466. Confirmed their competitiveness, shown in practice, the two AlphaTauri: Gasly climbs third, while Yuki Tsunoda is second.
It was then Norris' turn to improve, bringing him just o.1 seconds behind Hamilton, beaten by Charles Leclerc. The other Ferrari driver, Sainz Jr., beats Hamilton, taking the first place (1'28"330). The track is constantly improving; this allows Verstappen to go down to 1'28"285, before Bottas limits again, up to 1'28"057. The fast lap challenge between Red Bull and Mercedes continues with Pérez at the top of the time list with 1'28"021. Hamilton gave up the time of Pérez, while Verstappen, very fast, found six slow cars, which forced him to raise the time.
Bottas is worse, because of an engine problem, he has to go back to the pits slowly, until he locks the car in the entrance lane. At the last attempt George Russell went up to thirteenth place, Gasly eighth, and Daniel Ricciardo won the third time. Nicholas Latifi, the two Aston Martins and the two Haas were eliminated. Despite technical problems, Bottas managed to take part in the second phase of qualifying. All drivers, except Russell, opt for medium tyres. Verstappen immediately signs 1'27"953; Leclerc is over six tenths from the Dutch, while Pérez is almost a second behind. Hamilton, a bit penalized by the presence of slow cars on the track, scored a time of almost eight tenths higher than that of Verstappen.
Ricciardo climbs to fourth place, before Bottas climbs to second place. The Finn is beaten by Pérez, just before Sainz Jr. is the author of a spin: the car hits the barriers, damaging the rear wing. Pérez did even better later, bringing the session limit to 1'27"946. Behind the Red Bull duo are ranked the two Mercedes, with Bottas better than Hamilton, and the two AlphaTauri. With the last quick lap Hamilton moved to 1'27"712, subtracting the best performance from Pérez. Sainz Jr., in his only remaining attempt, made another mistake and failed to qualify for Q3. Together with the Spanish driver, Ricciardo, Kimi Räikkönen, Fernando Alonso and George Russell do not even enter.
Hamilton made a mistake in his first attempt in Q3, which forced him to abandon the fast lap. Bottas scored a time of 1'28"143; the time, caught with soft tyres, is also superior to his best performance in Q2, obtained with Medium tyres. Tsunoda, second, precedes Leclerc. Hamilton, who does not take excessive risks, closes his first full lap with a time of 1'28"035. Even the World Champion is not able to improve on the time of Q2. Max Verstappen takes the lead, with 1'27"653, the best time of the whole weekend. Pérez is only fourth, however, so much so as to be preceded also by Gasly, slipping fifth.
The Mexican recovered the fourth position, before Hamilton, with a time of 1'27"511, snatches the provisional pole position at Verstappen. Bottas also does better than the Dutchman, who drops to third position. Verstappen, in his last lap, seems to be able to regain pole position, but right at the last corner he slightly loses the rear of the car (after missing the braking point at the entrance of the last corner) and hits the barriers. The position of the car forces to stop the qualifying session.
Hamilton took pole position for the hundred and third time in the World Championship. Jeddah becomes the thirty-second different circuit on which the British conquers this milestone. Mercedes monopolizes the front row for the 80th time. At the end of qualifying, Pierre Gasly and Carlos Sainz Jr. They were called up by the marshals because the French driver would have obstructed the Spaniard at Turn 3, during Q1. Therefore, Gasly receives an official notice. Meanwhile, back in the pits, Max Verstappen declares:
"Terrible mistake. I made good qualifying; it was difficult to warm up the tyres. But the pace is there. We showed it at the last attempt. I don’t know what exactly happened, I blocked it slightly. I was trying to keep the car on track to finish the lap, but I touched the wall with the rear wheel, and I stopped. The third position is disappointing considering the lap I was doing. But this shows that the car is fast. We’ll see what we can do tomorrow. Broken gearbox? I don’t know. We just stopped. We have to see".
In this regard, Red Bull’s consultant, Helmut Marko, reveals:
"An in-depth analysis is required to verify the exchange conditions. However, our approach will be to not look for unnecessary risks. Remembering what happened in Monaco with Leclerc who then could not take part in the race, we are ready to make the replacement if necessary. We are fast on this track and to risk in this way would be counterproductive".
Replacing the gearbox would make Verstappen drop in eighth position. But at this point, however, it is likely that the Red Bull team decides to introduce a new thermal engine ahead of Abu Dhabi, five positions that would lead Verstappen in thirteenth position with the aim of recovering up to the third final position. The challenge, however, also expands beyond the two title contenders, inferring the tense environment in itself, as evidenced by the words of Jos Verstappen, who expresses his opinion - negative - against the reigning World Champion, Lewis Hamilton:
"I never spoke to him, just as he never spoke to me. I’m nobody to him. I only respect him as a pilot, nothing else. Max and Lewis only talk on the podium, and not much. When I see my son interact with other drivers, I think they feel good, but not with Hamilton. Lewis lives in his world. Max is what he is: some people like him, and some people don’t. But he always says what he thinks, without following certain policies in certain countries, just like Lewis does. My son simply performs his job and his role as a sportsman, and that’s it".
Instead, Lewis Hamilton, who will start from pole position in Jeddah, is radiant:
"Amazing track, extraordinarily technical and complex. Impressive what they managed to build. Pace and speed are phenomenal. We were very fast during practice, but in FP3 and in qualifying we struggled with rhythm and tyres. Doing a double today makes us very proud. I’m very proud of Valtteri, the guys and the team. They all worked very hard. The result is great. Winning both races is the goal. We worked a lot with simulation and set-up. Valtteri is the best teammate I’ve ever had. We worked together to get the set-up right and have the car in the conditions we wanted. Red Bull on this track is special. But I’m grateful for what we were able to do with what we had. They are very close in the race pace. Our long run yesterday was good, but they fixed something. They’re really fast. It’s gonna be close battle tomorrow. But Valtteri and I will be careful".
It is in fact his teammate, Valtteri Bottas, to shoot alongside the reigning World Champion:
"I struggled, we had to change the engine, but the guys made it just before qualifying. Everything worked perfectly and I am very happy. The last lap was at the limit, and I had fun. The track is difficult. Lap after lap the grip changes, but we did a great job. Obviously, I would like to win the race, but the first goal is to focus on the championship. Lewis is still fighting. I don’t. I’ll do my best in every way and also try to enjoy the race".
Lewis Hamilton also ended in the whirlwind of controversy over the signing between Mercedes and the new sponsor Kingspan, a company involved in the burning of the Grenfell Tower in 2017. The skyscraper in West London was engulfed in a fire that claimed 72 lives and the subsequent investigation found that some of the building’s insulation materials would not do their job, burning in the fire and aggravating the budget. Among them was a well-known Kingspan product. Hamilton comments on the issue, simply stating:
"I don’t want to talk about it publicly. I do not return to the negotiations with the sponsors, with the exception of the partner Tommy Hilfiger that I brought to the Mercedes. Toto will fix everything".
Unlike the two Mercedes drivers, Max Verstappen’s team-mate, Sergio Perez, had no luck during qualifying and finished in fifth place:
"We were in the lead in Q1 and Q2, but in Q3 I’m afraid we got the tyre approach wrong. In fact I had a lot of understeer problems suddenly, which did not allow me to match the time recorded in Q2, which is a shame. These tires are so demanding that, if you are not in the right temperature window, your balance is totally different, and that’s exactly what happened to me today. It is a physically demanding track, it puts you under physical and mental stress, and the same transition from one session to another is tiring. Today was not an ideal day for us as a team, but tomorrow there is still a lot at stake; it will be a long race, where everything can still happen. I can’t wait, the pace was close to the set one, and I really hope to be able to improve immediately our starting position to enter the podium area very soon. We will see if it will be an advantage to start from the clean side of the grid, also because I think that the start is a good opportunity to attack. If we succeed, we will then be in a position to fight with the leaders".
Then, speaking of the circuit, the Mexican admits:
"It is a very nice circuit, although it is very dangerous. There are a lot of straights, but you still have to turn and you have blind turns, and I hope nothing happens. If you want, it’s too dangerous without a real reason. It just seems to me that the track is a bit too risky for no reason, with the speed that we have and with the deltas that there are between the various cars in the different points of the track it seems a bit 'useless. It’ll be something we can probably assess after this weekend. We can’t forget the fact that safety has to take priority, I talked to some of the other drivers, and we all think that in the end we are the ones sitting in the car. With these speed differences, if something goes wrong, a huge accident comes out. It’s a straight. I don’t see the point of doing it that way. Of course, it is partly the character of the track, but it is something we will have to talk about after the race".
Charles Leclerc, who took fourth place with his Ferrari, says:
"Finally a good lap, normally I’m good in qualifying. Obviously after the problems of Qatar and some qualifying where I had struggled more, I’m really happy to have put everything together and have done some good tests. Especially after yesterday it was not easy to regain confidence. Today up to Q3 I just wanted to try to push my limit a little further, then in the last lap of Q3 I said to myself, let’s go and see what happens. In turn 22 I was afraid to finish like yesterday, because I had a huge gap in the middle of the bend, but everything went well and I’m really happy to start fourth. I owe a huge thank you to the guys. I gave them a lot of work to do yesterday, but they always do it with a smile. I am really happy to have obtained a good result to thank them".
And he adds:
"I don’t think we could have expected anything more than this, the lap was really very good, it was really on the edge. At turn 22 I kind of closed my eyes during my fast lap and it worked. It was a great lap and I’m very happy to start fourth. Closed eyes, of course, is a figure of speech. I’m pretty sure I had my eyes open, but yes, I lost my back and honestly I thought the end would be the same as yesterday. This time I kept her on track [the car] and pushed her, so I was very happy".
Laurent Mekies, Ferrari’s sports director, comments on a decidedly atypical Saturday:
"A mix of emotions in this qualification. We are happy for the nice fourth place of Charles who has gradually regained confidence with the car after yesterday’s accident and, at the very last attempt, has proved once again to be one of the best drivers around with a fantastic lap. We are very sorry for Carlos, who failed to achieve the result he had shown he could achieve throughout the weekend and also in the first part of qualifying. That small mistake in Turn-10 cost him a lot and he will have to face an uphill race. In view of the race we will first try to prepare ourselves in the best way to try to further consolidate that third place in the Constructors' classification which is our main goal in the season finale. On a track that does not forgive, we expect a race full of surprises: it will be important to know how to exploit every possible opportunity".
Carlos Sainz was worse, forced to start from 15th place after making a mistake during Q2:
"The episode that occurred in turn 11 had never happened to me during the weekend, I lost control of the car without expecting it. I managed to control the spin, but the problem is that I touched the wall slightly with the rear wing. I didn’t hear anything, but after I looked in the mirrors, I noticed there was damage. From that moment there was a bit of confusion: I tried to do another lap with the damaged wing and, up to turn 11, I still had a good pace. At that point, however, the wing moved, and as a result of the load I started the car again, even at 13. Too bad, because it is small mistake that had a big consequence. I have been very fast in Q1, as well as in the last four races and also throughout the weekend. Unfortunately, it is an uncertainty that costs me dearly".
By contrast, McLaren Team Principal Andreas Seidl admits that even if he were to get fourth in the championship, the British team would not mind:
"In these last two races we will give everything to bring home as many points as possible but, at the same time, if we arrived fourth, I could feel, in all honesty, happy. Ferrari is coming back strong, and it was to be expected from a team of this level. I think we have managed to maximize our points in the first half of the World Championship, also exploiting some problems of Ferrari itself. On the contrary, in the last three races we lost about 30 points. However, these are the steps I want, and I must see the team take, because they only confirm the validity of our project".
Among the drivers enthusiastic about the result of qualifying there is undoubtedly Antonio Giovinazzi, who at the end of the evening exclaims:
"It was a great qualifying and I had a lot of fun, the car today was just brilliant. We knew that the average tyres would be better, and we showed how good they were in Q2. The softs in Q3 were not so good and we struggled a bit more, it took more time to put them in the right window, but tomorrow we will start with averages, which is good. I could have improved my lap even more in Q2, but I had a little contact with the wall. Luckily, I still managed to pass. Starting tenth, with our favourite tyres, on a track like this, will be positive. I can’t wait for the race. We have had a good weekend since FP1 and now we just need to keep this pace. With a bit of luck that we missed throughout the season we can bring home a good result".
And equally happy is George Russell, 14th with his Williams:
"I’m really happy with the lap made in Q1 and to have conquered the access to Q2. For the first time since PL1 we used the medium tyres in Q2, and I was satisfied for the first lap, unfortunately I was not able to improve in my second attempt, going slightly wide in the central sector. So I’m relatively happy with the 14th place, but we’re a bit behind Alfa Romeo than we’d like to be. Putting the tires in the right window is difficult, but our location reflects the performance of our car right now. I think overtaking will be difficult in the race, but we’ll have to see on Sunday. No one knows how the tires will behave and the level of grip is quite high".
Fernando Alonso, after seriously risking the elimination also from Q2 with the fifteenth and last place available to enter the second phase, has then almost reached Q3, the decisive one for the allocation of pole position. A disappointment that the Spaniard himself expresses at the end of the Saudi qualifications:
"It’s been a difficult session for us tonight. Yesterday the car was fast and had a good balance, but today, both in FP3 and in qualifying, the car was different. On a road circuit, going close to the walls, it is quite difficult to continue when you are not perfectly comfortable with balancing. We have seen that in Formula 2 there were more overtakings than expected, so, while imagining that it will be more difficult for us to stay in the wake at such high speeds, we remain hopeful of catching up tomorrow. I hope to make a clean race, also because our goal is to score as many points as possible in order to keep the fifth place in the constructors' standings".
Among the discontented there is also Sebastian Vettel, who after the exceptional performances expressed in Qatar hoped to be repeated in Jeddah:
"If I’m disappointed? Well, qualify 17th... if that’s not disappointing for you. Except if you’re a Haas, because theirs is the worst car on the grid. Nothing has changed [compared to Losail], it’s the same car. I think it’s not suitable for this track. We struggled a bit to make the tires work, but I think it was like that for everyone. Simply, I think it is not efficient here. In the laps the car looks good, the balance - once obtained - is good, but we are far away. And then if you look at the on-boards of others there are no particular secrets. They are simply faster".
The following day, at 9:30 p.m. on Sunday, December 5, 2021, on the Jeddah circuit, the tension is palpable and the drivers, after the minute of silence made in memory of Sir Frank Williams, line up on the grid, illuminated by thousands of artificial lights. After having ascertained that Red Bull driven by Max Verstappen does not require a change of gearbox, the formation lap starts. The drivers face the circuit trying to warm up the wheels, then go back to the grid. The lights turn on and a few seconds later they turn off. The Saudi Arabian Grand Prix begins.
Hamilton managed to keep the lead ahead of team-mate Valtteri Bottas and his rival, Max Verstappen. Charles Leclerc, Sergio Perez and Lando Norris followed, both of whom suffered from front wheel blockages at the first corner, which fortunately did not cause excessive damage. The race proceeded with Lewis Hamilton progressively breaking by more than a second from Bottas and by 2.6 seconds from Verstappen. The tenth position, initially occupied by Fernando Alonso, was taken first by Antonio Giovinazzi, then by Carlos Sainz Jr.
During the ninth lap, however, everything changes. Mick Schumacher lost control of his Haas and ended up against barriers in turn 23, reproducing an accident similar to the one Charles Leclerc was involved in during free practice on Friday. The Race Director, Michael Masi, decides to take the Safety car out of the pits, and several drivers take advantage of the neutralization of the race to mount the Hard tires using half the time. Hamilton, Bottas, Leclerc and Pérez all took advantage of the situation. Unlike them, the Red Bull team decided to continue, so that Verstappen found himself leading the race followed by Hamilton, Bottas, Ocon and Ricciardo.
At the moment the Mercedes team plan to make a double pit stop, with Hamilton and Bottas. However, to ensure a margin of safety on the operation, without risking being overtaken by Verstappen if he too had returned to change the tires, the Finnish driver lifts his foot from the throttle, blocking the Dutchman, thus making a manoeuvre to the limit of the regulation. Under the Safety Car regime, in fact, point 39.5 of the sports regulations says that no car can be driven unnecessarily slow, erratic or in a way that could be considered potentially dangerous to other drivers or any other person at any time while the Safety Car is on the track. The assessment is therefore discretionary. But that Bottas has slowed down far beyond what is required by delta-time, is confirmed by the same radio messages between the engineers of Mercedes and the Finnish driver.
Mercedes: "Safety Car. Safety Car. Keeps the delta positive. Stay safe on the delta".
Mercedes: "Then, box, box. Stay very safe on the delta".
Bottas: "Got it".
Mercedes: "Lewis 2.5 forward; 3 forward".
Mercedes: "Lewis 4 seconds ahead".
Mercedes: "Gap of 6 seconds".
Mercedes: "Check the balance".
Bottas: "The balance is good".
Mercedes: "Lewis 7 seconds ahead".
Mercedes: "Now 6 seconds ahead, you’re getting a little closer".
Mercedes: "Gap 5 seconds. Another 5 seconds. Adjust the break balance to the input. Gap 6 seconds".
Valtteri Bottas is now back in pit lane, after losing about 3.5 seconds from Hamilton in Safety Car. This time guarantees the Finnish driver not to have to wait behind his team-mate during tyre replacement, triggering the wrath of Max Verstappen and the Red Bull team.
Verstappen: "Valtteri is driving extremely out of rhythm".
Red Bull: "I agree. It’s a joke. Absolutely a joke".
Red Bull: "Stay out Max. Stay out".
Verstappen: "What he did should not be allowed".
A few moments later, the race is blocked by the stewards with a red flag. The motivation? The stewards have to fix the barriers that Mick’s exit destroyed. This choice benefits many drivers, first of all Max Verstappen, who can change the tires in red flag regime without losing the head of the race. After several minutes the neutralization of the race, by means of red flag, because of the arrangement of the protection barriers, is completed and it starts again with the race. A race that now seems endless, despite only a few laps have passed. At the restart Verstappen maintained the first position, despite the continuous pitfalls of Lewis Hamilton, which was however overtaken by Esteban Ocon. Behind the first three, chaos is unleashed: Sergio Perez collides with Charles Leclerc, his Red Bull goes against the barriers and turns horizontally on the track.
Perez’s surprise entrance creates havoc: Russell slows down suddenly, and Nikita Mazepin hits him at full speed. The race is neutralized again by the display of the red flag, and the drivers return to the pits. In this new start Verstappen starts in third place, leaving the first place to the Alpine driver, because of the defensive manoeuvre carried out on Hamilton at the first corner. The Englishman will start in second place. This further event will trigger new controversy at the end of the race, because Race Director Michael Masi, before leaning towards the decision to back the Dutch driver instead of penalizing him, contact the respective sports directors of the involved teams, Mercedes and Red Bull. By doing so, Masi avoids having to involve the judgment of the race stewards.
The third start of the endless race in Jeddah is still full of emotions, as Hamilton is put in by Verstappen, and comes into contact with Ocon, causing slight damage to the front wing of his Mercedes, that allow him to continue the race without having to replace the spoiler. Hamilton took second place. However, as the two title challengers ended up in the escape route of the first corner, having returned to the track still in the lead, and having gained an advantage from the maneuver accomplished, five laps later the race commissaridanno decide to inflict a penalty of five seconds to Max Verstappen. In the meantime, Ocon follows the two leading drivers in third, ahead of Ricciardo, Bottas, Gasly and Giovinazzi.
During the twenty-second lap the Race Director, Micheal Masi, from beginning to a phase of Virtual safety car because of the debris deposited on the track following a contact between Yuki Tsunoda and Sebastian Vettel. The German driver’s car has not been damaged, while the Japanese driver is correct to return to the pits to replace the front wing. The virtual safety car regime will be imposed again, a few laps later, following a contact between Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel, in which the Aston Martin of the German driver is slightly damaged, while the Finnish driver will be forced to replace the front wing. While Hamilton, favored by the mounting of new Hard tires, quickly recovers ground on Verstappen.
But it is during the thirty-eighth lap that the unthinkable happens: Max Verstappen, in an attempt to give up the leadership to Hamilton close to the last corner, slows down dramatically in the middle of the straight and in full trajectory, being hit by the Englishman. It will only be discovered at the end of the race that Max Verstappen intentionally generated a Brake-test in full straight, pushing Hamilton to misunderstanding, error and subsequent collision. At the same time, angered, believing he had lost the World Championship following a possible retirement, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff took off his headphones and threw them on the table.
The two cars can continue, even if the Mercedes of the reigning World Champion is damaged in the front wing, while the rear left tire of Red Bull will have two cuts due to the collision. The Dutch’s defence maneuver was penalized by the race direction with an additional ten seconds. Following the fight, Verstappen surrendered the position to Hamilton, overtaking him shortly after using the wake. But the maneuver, considered too aggressive, is not appreciated by the race direction, which forces the Red Bull team to leave the position to Hamilton again. The British driver soon widens the margin of advantage over his opponent; Verstappen, however, sees the margin of advantage reduced over Ocon and Bottas. A useful margin to stop at the pits to fit soft tyres, and try to score the fastest lap, in order to take away the additional point to Hamilton.
At the end of the 50 laps, Lewis Hamilton won the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix ahead of Verstappen and Bottas, who overtook Esteban Ocon in the sprint, winning the third position just a few meters from the checkered flag. The seven-time World Champion took the hundred and third world championship win, winning on the thirty-first different track, and signing the nineteenth hat trick in his career, namely getting pole position, fast lap and victory of the Grand Prix. The number of Hamilton’s wins, 103, is equal to the number of pole positions achieved.
The podium is marked by Hamilton, Verstappen and Bottas for the twentieth time. Verstappen equals the record of podiums in a season, 17, reaching Michael Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel and Hamilton himself. The seven-time World Champion, with the conquest of victory and point of the fastest lap, reaches equal points with Verstappen at the final race, which will be held in Abu Dhabi on Sunday 12 December 2021. This happened only in 1974 with the Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi on McLaren-Ford Cosworth, then World Champion, and the Swiss Clay Regazzoni on Ferrari in the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. At the end of the race, Max Verstappen was voted Driver of the day, and Red Bull team principal Christian Horner told the Dutch driver:
"I think there is someone on your side Max, because you were voted driver of the day. If not the FIA, someone else is on your side".
And answering questions by radio from the British interviewer, Verstappen upped the ante, thanking the fans and attacking the stewards.
"Fortunately, the fans have a clear mind about racing, because what happened today is incredible. I’m just trying to compete. This sport is more penalty than racing. For me this is not Formula 1, but at least the fans enjoyed it. I gave it all today. Clearly, we were not fast enough, but I’m still happy with the second place".
Behind the two contenders to the title and Valtteri Bottas are ranked, in order, Esteban Ocon, Daniel Ricciardo, Pierre Gasly, Charles Leclerc, Carlos Sainz, Antonio Giovinazzi and in tenth position Lando Norris. While waiting for the commissioners' decisions regarding the contact between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen at Turn 27, and their subsequent convocation, the British driver was interviewed at the end of the race. The reigning World Champion admits that the race was tough, and confirms that he did not understand the behaviour of his opponent when returning the first position:
"It was incredibly hard, no doubt. I tried to use the head and the experience gained in these years as hard as the battle could be, trying to keep the car on track and staying clean. It was difficult but we kept pushing as a team and we believed in it, despite all the things that happened. To be able to gain ground today is due to the hard work of everyone, and I am grateful for the car that they have made available to me. The accident? I didn’t understand why at one point he suddenly braked so hard, I hit him. He moved, after I received the communication that said he would let me pass: maybe that was the reason but I didn’t understand. We have a great pace, but they are really very fast and it is difficult to overcome them. We did a fantastic job with the material we have and Valtteri did a great race, bringing a lot of points to the team. This race is for all the boys and girls of the factory. The atmosphere here was really great, I felt very welcome here, people were lovely to me. Jeddah’s track is phenomenal, it’s very difficult physically and mentally but it’s what we want in the end".
The British driver, returning to talk about the contact, will say after the awards:
"I’ve avoided so many collisions with him and I always have to keep in mind that I have to. And I do it because I want to keep running and fighting. Why didn’t I pass Max when he slowed down? I had not received the information, so I did not understand the situation, it was a moment of great confusion. At one point I saw it slowing down, then it started to move a bit, it seemed to me that he was trying to make some crazy tactics. Then when the message came in, he just braked really hard and I hit him, I couldn’t help it. But he didn’t care if we both retired. Instead, I wanted to finish the race. Abu Dhabi? Personally, I’m comfortable. I feel like I’m in a boxing ring, I’m ready to go".
Meanwhile, Max Verstappen, second at the finish line, says he wanted to let Lewis Hamilton pass, without adding too many details:
"Yes, the race was quite eventful. A lot happened with which I don’t totally agree, but it went as well. At least I tried to give everything on the track, but I wasn’t sure that the tires could last until the end. They lasted at the beginning but towards the end of the stint not so much. I tried to fight to the end but still came second. The incident with Hamilton? I slowed down, I wanted to let him pass, I was on the right. He didn’t want to overtake me there and we touched. I don’t really understand what happened there. The World Cup will be decided in Abu Dhabi, we hope to have a good weekend and see".
Valtteri Bottas, third at the finish line after a gruelling comeback and a overtaking occurred in the last meters available, talks about his personal race:
"It was not an easy day; I encountered many obstacles. Many red flags made my life complicated. Maybe it was a mistake to put the hard tires in the first interruption, but then we mounted the average too. We pushed; it was not easy to pass today but in the end at the last straight I won the third place. It’s a nice track but it’s a great challenge on a physical and mental level, I can’t wait to come back next year. I feel good, I start to race the last Grand Prix with the team, and I think it will be exciting. At the restart with the hard tyres, we were at a disadvantage, and we lost some positions. However, we continued to fight, although it was difficult to catch Esteban today, because they were surprisingly fast. But I did, and it’s a great result. It was a tough race, because there was no time to rest. It was very, very intense. Obviously, it all started with the first red flag, which was unfortunate for us as a team".
After the traditional podium award ceremony, where Max Verstappen decides to desert the party after receiving the award, the Dutch driver and his rival will have to talk with Garry Connelly, Silvia Bellot, Vitantonio Liuzzi and Hassan Al Abdali, about the contact during the thirty-eighth lap. The Dutchman slowed down - in trajectory - to let Hamilton pass after the decisive closing of turn-1 (which cost him five seconds of penalty). Hamilton, however, did not expect this move (and perhaps did not want to overtake him at that point), centering him in full. Now the Commissioners will have to assess possible responsibilities. About this episode, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner comments:
"It was a very complex race to manage between Safety Car, red flags and Virtual Safety Car for the removal of debris on the track. All this without forgetting the penalty imposed on Max, who impressed us a lot. As for the incident, he and Lewis will explain everything in front of the stewards. Max was trying to give up the position, and at that moment we informed the race management of this manoeuvre. He raised his foot, as did Lewis, and it was clear that he wanted to be overcome".
Through a radio contact, Lewis Hamilton claimed to have been the victim of brake testing by Verstappen, that is, the Dutch driver braked specifically to damage it. Helmut Marko points out at the end of the race that Red Bull is not at all satisfied with what happened on the track, and that he would be in possession of the data available to prove that the Red Bull driver would not have braked to damage Hamilton.
"We do not understand why Hamilton was not penalized; we have the data that shows that Verstappen did not brake. Hamilton said that Verstappen set a trap for him by holding him back, but that’s not true. Hamilton hit Verstappen, causing two cuts to the rear tire, so we had to take out power and Max could no longer defend himself or attack. In addition, at the restart he left more than ten cars between him and Verstappen to cool the tires of our driver. In the past, Vettel in Hungary was penalized for this. Then, Hamilton also pushed Verstappen off track. We do not feel treated in the same way as Mercedes is treated by the Race Management".
A theory that obviously is not supported by the Mercedes Team Principal, Toto Wolff, who in the post-race talks also dwells on the controversial moves of the Race Director Michael Masi, maker of choices that have generated total confusion, on track and outside:
"We came here thinking that it would be a favourable circuit for our car, but we saw that, in qualifying, they were half a second faster. But today we were faster than them. We have to understand this, because in Abu Dhabi a similar circumstance will happen again. Now it is important to be on equal points in the Drivers' Championship, especially because we didn’t think we could get into this situation. I don’t remember much of this race because of the accidents that happened. We thought we were going to win, then lose, then win again. However, there were many circumstances that I did not like, starting with the second start on the grid. Moreover, before making comments, I want to understand the reasons behind these decisions of the Race Management. I have no idea what the FIA will do about the contact between Lewis and Max. Max drives very well, as shown by the manoeuvre he made at the second start. But he makes other moves that seem like a replica of Brazil. When you push out other car, you have to expect the penalty. In some cases, I think it was too hard".
Among all the discussion elements of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, one in particular disgusted all Formula 1 fans, namely the way Race Director Michael Masi restored the order of the second restart.
"We don’t penalize you for the first restart manoeuvre, but you agree to start behind Lewis Hamilton".
Milton Keynes' team agreed, and Lewis Hamilton’s overtaking in favour of Max Verstappen resulted in damage to the Briton’s front wing. In this circumstance it would have been ideal to be able to explain these decisions, but the Director of Race Michael Masi declares that his work is perfectly normal, stressing that such mediations have always existed.
"I wouldn’t call it an agreement, because from the point of view of the Race Director I didn’t have the authority to actually order the teams what to do in that situation. I can make them an offer, but the choice is theirs. The stewards obviously have the power to impose sanctions, but I can give them my perspective. That’s why I offered them the chance to give up that position. For Turn-3 incidents, the priority was to make sure every driver was okay, which is a priority we have in every red flag situation. And that way, the marshals could clear the runway. Perhaps yesterday’s decisions were taken a little longer than usual, but it was a perfectly normal debate. When I saw what happened at Turn 2, I immediately told the stewards that I would offer them a chance to return that seat. But I repeat that this is a normal discussion, which has happened on many occasions this year and in recent seasons".
The Saudi Arabian Grand Prix ended with endless controversy over what happened not only on the track between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, but also about the decisions of the Race Management. A real sequel of confusion and chaos generated starting from the tenth lap of the race, when Mick Schumacher’s Haas crashed into the barriers after a spin by the German. Initially decreed the Safety Car regime, with attached pit-stops by the majority of drivers, two laps after the accident Michael Masi imposed the exposure of the red flag, resulting in the suspension of the race.
However, while the cars were in the pit lane, Max Verstappen - third until the moment of impact - was able to take advantage of the sports regulations, which allow the teams to make tyre changes during the race break. A move that not only allowed the Dutchman to jump in front of the Mercedes, but that angered several drivers, upset by the existence of a similar rule, including Lando Norris, who came tenth at the end of the race due to this episode. After the hostilities on the track, the British driver has no half measures in expressing his opposition:
"His luck should not be poured out at the expense of others, also because he ruined our day. The team did a good job, and this suck. It’s a rule that doesn’t help, and we said that last year. Without detracting from the success of Pierre Gasly at Monza last season, part of his victory has matured because of this free tyre change, and I don’t think he deserved to finish in the lead. The red flag is, probably, the worst rule invented by someone. Or rather, to be able to change tires under the red flag. In the end, our result is better than nothing: Daniel came in fifth, and he was also unlucky. I repeat that this is an unjust rule".
At 10:19 p.m., the stewards issue the document clarifying what happened during the thirty-eighth lap, inflicting on Max Verstappen ten seconds of penalty and two points on the License for a total of 7 before the 12 to which the disqualification race takes place: this is the decision of the Commissioners against the Dutch driver for the collision with Lewis Hamilton. In the document the Stewards point out that Verstappen exerted a 69-bar pressure on the brake pedal, suddenly decelerating by 2.4 g. Moreover, the college of Commissioners admitted that yes, Hamilton could have passed him, but that the fact that Verstappen was waiting for the detection point for the next DRS zone was taken into account in the analysis of the episode. The Commissioners confirmed a brake test by Verstappen, who was punished, but without losing positions in the finishing order and points in the standings. Max Verstappen commented on the Commissioners' decision when he heard about the penalty:
"In Brazil we both went long, as on this occasion, then no one was penalized, but here I was penalized. The penalties only give them to me. In any case it is frustrating to talk more about white lines and penalties than track. We are tied, we will play in Abu Dhabi and all this is very exciting for Formula 1".
Unlike the Dutch driver, Red Bull’s consultant, Helmut Marko, will apologize for the claims made at the end of the Grand Prix in the following days, retracting what he said about the lack of a brake-test carried out by his pilot in full straight:
"At the time of the television interviews, I transmitted exactly the information I had received from the engineers previously. Obviously, they were not correct, so I apologize for this. We hope that the unfortunate chapter of Saudi Arabia is now closed. Anyway, we’re just looking ahead. We want to win in Abu Dhabi and then win the title. We’ll do everything to get this. But we will not do any unfair action. Already in Saudi Arabia we had the pace to keep up with Hamilton, the track in Abu Dhabi should be more suitable for us".
However, the feat of Lewis Hamilton, who reached the finish line with the car visibly damaged by the two collisions that involved him, remains intact. The first episode occurred at the second start after the exposure of the red flag: in that case, thanks to the overtaking maneuver Verstappen inside, Hamilton has widened to leave room for the Dutchman, but going to hit Esteban Ocon, placed outside the curve. In this way, the Englishman touched the Alpine with his own wing, while still managing to continue without having to return to the pits. The Technical Director of Mercedes, Andrew Shovlin, in this regard comments:
"He was going up and down in the sandwich with Esteban, who passed him over the wing. Initially we lost a tenth or two per lap. We were pretty lucky that it bounced a few pieces after hitting the asphalt, but no further damage. After contact with Max we lost about 4 tenths per lap. Lewis was very determined to continue in those conditions. We weren’t sure that the wing could hold out until the end, even if, at that moment, we also saw other drivers struggling with tyres, and therefore not at full speed. Lewis made the decision not to go back to the pits because he couldn’t see the state of his wing from the cockpit. If he had been in front of the TV, like us, he would have thought about the choice".
At the end of the race, Charles Leclerc and Sergio Pérez were also called up by the sports stewards due to a contact between the two drivers at turn 3. However, Pérez did not receive any penalties.
"It was not the best weekend for the team, we lost crucial points in the constructors' championship, now we go to Abu Dhabi to try to turn things around. We were a bit unlucky with the first red flag, but we went well after the restart. We passed Gasly and Leclerc and as I came out of the third corner there was not enough room for everyone. I ended up bumping into Charles, he cut my rear tire with his front right. It was a bad and unfortunate time for everyone. It’s a great pity, we needed those points today. I stayed with the car on track trying to turn the engine back on. We thought we could reboot it, but it was a little too hot, so we had to retire. It was a very important race for the team today, so this hurts a lot, but there is hope for Abu Dhabi. There is still optimism, and we will give our best in the last race of the season, let’s look ahead".
The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will not have the honor of inaugurating the new instrument made in collaboration with Dynisma for Scuderia Ferrari, simply because this has already been used to prepare the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, in which Charles Leclerc was able to get a splendid fourth position, ruined by the red flag after a promising start. The Scuderia Ferrari team principal, Mattia Binotto, talks about it:
"We anticipated a race; we didn’t think we could do it. So far it has not given anything more because we are still in the process of tuning. It will, however, soon give us a better performance. We think that its realism compared to the previous version is greater thanks to a better correlation of data. It will be an evolution of the current one and there will be an improvement".
Commenting when it happened in Jeddah, Carlos Sainz Jr. admits:
"Yes, it was a tough race physically and mentally, because of the two red flags. It’s not easy, but I am fit and I could do the whole race on the attack. That’s the important thing. To go to Abu Dhabi with a smile? Yes, today was actually a race where you could get into the top-5 without yesterday’s mistake. But making a comeback like the one we did was good. Too bad for not having finished seventh, but it was a positive day".
On the other hand, Sebastian Vettel, who was damaged in the Middle East race, talks about the damage caused to his car:
"The damage to the back of the car made it very difficult to finish the race regularly and it was a shame, because we lost the chance to fight for the points correctly. Things were going well in the first part of the race: having started in P17, we were in the top ten after the restart. I found myself in front of the Ferraris, but we didn’t have a good pace and we were constantly under pressure. Then Yuki hit me in the first chicane, which made me fall back in the pack. Then there was the incident with Kimi, which completely destroyed my race, with damage. There wasn’t enough room for two cars in that corner, I think Kimi should have raised his foot".
Remaining on the subject of damage, Haas Team Principal Gunther Steiner sounded an alarm after both Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin were injured in accidents:
"It’s better that the damage is done, and it didn’t come five races ago. There is only one race left on the calendar and we have enough spare parts to rebuild the cars, but not enough if there will be accidents in Abu Dhabi. There is not much margin, we did not expect to destroy two cars at the penultimate race. It is never good to have this weekend, also because we will have to replace absolutely the chassis of Nikita, which has all the front destroyed. We planned to bring spare parts in case things went bad, but now we’re at the limit. Good thing there is only Abu Dhabi, because if we had to face three more races, we would have needed to reproduce the pieces. However, this is not possible now. We have enough and we hope to get to the end".
The controversy, however, does not stop at the decisions of the Race Direction. The track, for example, enjoyed a lot, but the system has speeds comparable to those of Monza, but enclosed between narrow walls, with no escape routes and no space to avoid a possible accident between multiple cars. This last problem has emerged in a clear way in the case of the collision involving Mazepin and Russell, following the accident of Sergio Perez after the first restart. George Russell, as spokesman of the Grand Prix Driver Association, underlines the danger of the Jeddah track that will also host the 2022 edition of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, waiting for the completion of the permanent circuit in the locality of Qiddiyah.
"It’s fun to drive, but it’s a recipe for disaster. From Turn-3 to Turn-7 it’s impossible to see if there’s a car behind the curve. I believe that this weekend must be taken as a lesson to learn, we must treasure what happened in view of the future because for us drivers it was impossible to understand what was happening at the crash at the second start. As selective as it can be in Qualifying, this circuit showed great limits when it had to support the Grand Prix".
Even tougher in the comments is Sebastian Vettel, who says:
"I think Suzuka is an incredible track, but you would never do Suzuka with walls. Instead, it’s what they did here [in Jeddah], more or less. It is [a challenging track], but it is useless to have so little visibility for so long".
And Carlos Sainz Jr. also says:
"There were very clear examples of what we drivers have been saying all weekend, we saw it with Mazepin. This is exactly what this kind of track generates. There is no room to try to avoid an accident, there is no visibility and Nikita could not dodge the accident in front of him. That’s what we’ve been saying since we arrived on Thursday. So, there are some things to learn, analyze and evaluate by March, to see if we can make it a little easier".
After the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, only one race remains for Kimi Raikkonen, who at the end of the World Championship will retire after more than twenty years of career.
"Many people tried to give me advice, but I didn’t listen to them. I always thought I should live in the best possible way. At work, if I could choose, I would never do most of the things that I’m asked to do, but only the way you live your life. You have to do it mainly for yourself. If you do what they tell you to do, you might last a couple of years, but it won’t end well. I am happy to have followed my instincts: for better or for worse, they are consequences that I accept, because the result of my decisions. Now I’m happy to finish my career".
Then it goes on:
"I had already left Formula 1 for two years. At that time, I was dedicated to Rallies, but at home I feel good and happy doing everyday activities, so I’m not worried. Formula 1 has taken up a lot of my time, but I never considered it the main activity: there are many other things that are more important in life. Now I can’t wait to dedicate myself to my family, without having anything planned from the outside. In any case, if I had spent more negative than positive years in my career, I wouldn’t have gone that far. It’s never nice to leave your family for a ten-hour flight. I’m fine when you get there on the weekend, when you do what you’re there for. In general, I’m glad I’m about to finish".
This concludes a weekend full of emotions and surprises, which opens the way for the long-awaited last race of the World Championship, the one that will decide the World Champion for the 2021 season. The event will take place in Abu Dhabi on December 12, 2021. And it is hoped that at least this can be free from controversy...