What we learned from Friday practice for F1’s Saudi Arabian GP

Max Verstappen delivered another hammer blow to his rivals’ hopes of challenging Red Bull after his clean sweep of Friday practice sessions ahead of Formula 1’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

Having spent the last few days struggling with a stomach bug, Verstappen was absent from Thursday’s media sessions after arriving in Jeddah late, but any lingering effects caused the Dutchman no issues as he plundered his way to the top of the two timed sessions on Friday – his RB19 chariot proving effective in both daylight and nightfall.

Red Bull crucially had more evidence to back up their early credentials, and the Milton Keynes squad demonstrated great pace on their longer-running simulations in the second half of FP2. As such, it’s hard to make a case for any of the other teams who perhaps had hoped to factor in the mix for a podium finish, unless they are able to count upon the intervention of a higher power to stop a rout in Sunday’s race.

The story of the day

In the afternoon FP1 session, Verstappen posted a 1m29.617s to go nearly half a second faster than his team-mate Sergio Perez, but the usual caveats around the night-time races F1 is accustomed to in the Middle East apply with regards to track conditions.

Trackside observations suggested that the RB19 remains hermetically sealed to the road in even the most challenging of high-speed corners, and both Verstappen and Perez could nail the reprofiled Turn 22 with consummate ease.

While the corner has less sting than its previous iteration, requiring a further couple of downward clicks on the downshift paddle to spool up the right amount of torque on the exit, the two were able to walk the line perfectly. Neither looked in danger of invoking the wrath of those in charge of monitoring track limits, such was their command of a compliant car.

As ambient conditions pushed the mercury towards 30 degrees C, escalating track temperatures, Red Bull’s domination of the first hour of running could be taken with a pinch of salt given the cooler conditions in the evening. But, for the nine other teams, there was no such luck in FP2.

There, Verstappen again flexed an advantage over the rest of the field. He was a scant 0.014s up on his best lap from the daylight session, setting a 1m29.603s on a set of soft tyres, but remained relatively untroubled. Fernando Alonso, continuing to impress in his first few months at Aston Martin, did more than half the deficit Perez faced – but was still over two tenths adrift of the Red Bull by the close of the soft-tyre running in FP2.

A stomach bug didn't slow down Verstappen who topped both of Friday's sessions

A stomach bug didn’t slow down Verstappen who topped both of Friday’s sessions

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

In particular, Verstappen appears to have oodles of confidence when tackling the quickfire toboggan run after Turn 4 and, on approaching Turn 9, the Dutchman felt sufficiently confident to add a further stab of throttle before slowing down to make the most of Turn 10. The likes of the Mercedes duo and Fernando Alonso eased off earlier ahead of Turn 9, while Leclerc has to lift slightly sooner and maintain the throttle position to decelerate as late as Verstappen could.

Alonso continued to look serene at the wheel of the AMR23, though, and it’s clearly a machine that fits him like a glove. His 1m29.811s brought him into Red Bull territory in the box-office hot lap phase of FP2, suggesting that in qualifying trim, he can at least offer some degree of disruption to the rampaging Bulls.

F1 Saudi Arabian GP — FP2 results

Pos. Driver Team Time Gap Laps
Max Verstappen Red Bull 1m29.603s   29
Fernando Alonso Aston Martin 1m29.811s +0.208 26
Sergio Pérez Red Bull 1m29.902s +0.299 26
Esteban Ocon Alpine 1m30.039s +0.436 27
George Russell Mercedes 1m30.070s +0.467 27
Pierre Gasly Alpine 1m30.100s +0.497 28
Lance Stroll Aston Martin 1m30.110s +0.507 27
Nico Hulkenberg Haas 1m30.181s +0.578 27
Charles Leclerc Ferrari 1m30.341s +0.738 28
10  Carlos Sainz Ferrari 1m30.592s +0.989 29

After a difficult Bahrain, Alpine offered glimpses of encouraging pace as it hopes to deliver on its ambition of challenging the Ferrari-Aston Martin-Mercedes trifecta. Esteban Ocon was fourth-fastest ahead of George Russell, with Pierre Gasly also within half a second of Verstappen’s benchmark behind them.

From data seen by Autosport, the suggestion is that Ferrari was not running at its full capacity during its soft tyre runs, with a straightline speed disadvantage over its immediate rivals suggesting that the engines were turned down. With reliability concerns having proliferated on Leclerc’s side of the garage in recent weeks, resulting in a grid penalty for a new energy store, this could simply be a decision to err on the side of caution.

In that data, Mercedes showed a comparative lack of strength in the corners, owing to a decision to run at a lower downforce level. The team was able to keep tabs on its rivals in terms of straightline speed, but the slower sections of the track were compromised relative to the Ferraris, who had a tiny delta to the Red Bulls in the braking zones.

Mercedes is still losing time in the corners compared with its rivals

Mercedes is still losing time in the corners compared with its rivals

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

How strong is Red Bull in the race runs?

Verstappen and Perez were split on their longer runs in the second half of the session; the former was tasked with exploring the limits of the soft tyre which, although initially faster, began to show a marginal deficit to Perez on the mediums. The two compounds are relatively evenly matched, as per Pirelli; although the soft tyre will naturally offer an earlier drop-off point, and this will be exacerbated on higher fuel loads. Thus, there are suggestions that there may be plenty of teams willing to explore a start on the medium compound.

Alonso’s longer run on the medium tyre was initially on terms with Perez’s efforts, but the Aston Martin driver experienced a slightly greater drop-off in pace and was around half a tenth behind the Mexican after six laps on the same yellow-marked boots, while Perez’s times continued to fall.

Ferrari’s long-run pace looks more solid, but the engine power level caveat still applies — Sainz did six laps on the same medium compound, but this was split between two low-fuel laps and three laps towards the end at a higher fuel level; thus, Leclerc’s 15-lap run has been used in the following table of average run times on the medium tyre as a more representative indicator of its pace. His run, like Alonso’s, was much less consistent relative to Perez – but the Scuderia helpfully seems to be in a similar ballpark to the Aston Martin and Mercedes squads.

The pace of Alpine should not be discounted, however – and if the team can carry its pace over into the race on Sunday, it could be a real threat to those squabbling over the final podium place as per Ocon’s times in the table. Gasly’s soft-tyre run, spanning 12 laps, was on par with Verstappen’s 16-lap soft stint towards the end of the session. Mercedes should be in the mix too, depending on whether a switch to a higher-downforce set-up yields a stronger race car, but it may compromise the team in its qualifying ambitions.

Average long run pace on medium tyres

Pos. Team Avg. Time Laps
Red Bull 1m35.096s 15
Aston Martin 1m35.281s 15
Alpine 1m35.373s 14
Mercedes 1m35.449s 13
Ferrari 1m35.452s 15
Williams 1m35.855s 12
Alfa Romeo 1m36.142s 10
Haas 1m36.664s 14

*McLaren, AlphaTauri did long runs on softs and hards 

But although Red Bull is playing its cards close to its chest, and Verstappen suggested that a lower-degradation race relative to Bahrain could condense the pack, there are very clear signs that the team is primed for another strong result in Saudi Arabia. The picture can change, of course, but few of the other competitors expect to have a hope of beating last year’s title-winning team.

Verstappen and Red Bull remain the ones to beat in Saudi Arabia

Verstappen and Red Bull remain the ones to beat in Saudi Arabia

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

Quotes of the day

Max Verstappen: “We had a positive day. But there’s still quite a few things that we can do better. We are closer to each other but it’s more because of just managing the tyres. They don’t really let you push here at the moment, so with a low deg circuit then I think the lap times are all very close. So it’s definitely not like Bahrain…”

Fernando Alonso: “I think Friday is always not very representative, also in Bahrain we were okay like P1 on Friday, and then we were P5, nearly P6, in qualifying. So you never know until we go to qualifying. But we tested what we wanted to test in the car. I think it’s still not an ideal balance, so we still need to chase a little bit of grip tonight. But yeah, so far so good. It’s another good start.»

Sergio Perez: “Learning the conditions from FP1 to FP2, they always tend to change. So getting a good read was essential. We had a bit of an issue with the car mechanically, which hopefully we are able to sort it out for tomorrow and will bring us a bit more pace, hopefully, at least we can have a better idea of where the car is. It was a bit of inconsistency and difficult to get the proper read today, but overall, we seem to be to be strong. But the competition is there as expected.»

Could Alonso challenge the Red Bulls in qualifying?

Could Alonso challenge the Red Bulls in qualifying?

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

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