Why Saudi Arabian GP could throw up a different F1 mix to Bahrain

Certainly, the first two contests on the Jeddah Corniche Circuit haven’t been short of talking points. See Verstappen clipping the wall in 2021 to scupper his hitherto sensational Q3 lap before the title battle with Lewis Hamilton took another heated turn, as the protagonists repeatedly went wheel-to-wheel between red flags before their infamous collision.

Then, last year, after the very credible threat of a driver boycott in response to the nearby missile strike was avoided, Verstappen and Charles Leclerc entertained with a second DRS duel hot on the heels of their spar in Bahrain. That track record is short. But the propensity for Jeddah to breed crashes, safety cars and compelling racing does initially bode well.

However, that promising precedent of course provides nothing in the way of a guarantee. Happily, though, there are other indicators that Saudi will be a closer-fought contest at the sharp end of the grid. For instance, the way in which Red Bull excelled in Bahrain with might be precisely why Ferrari can provide a much more credible challenge only a fortnight later.

Red Bull was the favourite heading into last season’s Saudi GP. Testing and the opening round in Bahrain had revealed that the rebadged Honda engine was working wonders at top speed. Ferrari had the edge under initial acceleration, but the RB18 was king of the speed traps. As a result, the flowing Jeddah street track suited this trait down to the ground.

But the two teams appear to have swapped places for 2023. GPS traces from pre-season running and the race at Sakhir reveal that the new SF-23 now has the legs over its rival machine in a straight line. In turn, Red Bull now has more fire power out of the slower corners but is comparatively out of puff north of 180mph as the Ferrari eventually drags itself in front.

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-23, Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB19

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-23, Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB19

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

To aid the Ferrari cause, the Saudi lap features three points where speeds exceed this figure. That’s according to data from 2022, the first year of the new ground-effects regulations. In fact, at its peak, the speedometer will keep on climbing to 196mph. If Ferrari can therefore make the straight-line efficiency of its car pay — either in qualifying or by tucking into DRS range of the RB19s — then Verstappen and Sergio Perez might not waltz their way to an unchallenged 1-2 for a second time in quick succession.

What’s more, Leclerc breaking down in Bahrain set to one side, Ferrari was keen to stress that it hadn’t fully optimised its SF-23 for the curtain-raiser. That, so the top brass said, explained its lack of pace rather than having a fundamentally worse car concept compared to Red Bull. Although, that imperfect set-up notably came despite all teams entering the race fresh off the back of three days and no fewer than 417 laps of testing at the circuit…

After Leclerc qualified 0.292s behind polesitter Verstappen only to never mount a challenge for victory before retiring, new Ferrari team principal Fred Vasseur said: “I never saw a car to match the pace of another one in quali and not to able to race. [So] then it’s a matter of set-up and some choices on the car. It’s not a matter of concept at all.” He believes the SF-23 already has what it needs to challenge the RB19, and it’s not fundamentally an inferior design.

In terms of refining its set-up to combat Red Bull, Ferrari should be further helped by the Saudi asphalt. Or, more accurately, leaving the Sakhir surface far behind. The comparison often made in Bahrain was that the Tarmac was about as kind to the tyres as running over a cheese grater. The holed surface chewed up the Pirellis.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-23, Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB19, Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-23, Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin AMR23

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-23, Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB19, Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-23, Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin AMR23

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Red Bull and Aston Martin excelled because they controlled this the best to preserve the rubber, while Ferrari was in part sunk by its extreme tyre degradation. Granted, this also was a weak spot of the F1-75 in 2022, but the Scuderia still reckons it’ll fare far better this weekend.

Verstappen concedes something similar, too. The two-time defending champion says: “Saudi is quite a different track. You have a lot more like straights, fast corners, and a lot less degradation. And I think [in Bahrain] we were particularly good on the deg. So, I do expect in terms of race pace, that everyone is closer in Jeddah.”

He added: “Jeddah is going to be quite different again. Our car seems quite strong in high speed [corners], but I think Ferrari is quite quick on the straight, which in Jeddah, of course, is very nice to have.”

On paper, it does seem to be largely up to Ferrari to take the fight to Red Bull. While Alonso ran early in Q3 in Bahrain to qualify fifth when more was perhaps expected of the fast-out-of-the-blocks AMR23, the car excels at low speed and under braking but is comparatively draggy in a straight line. Although some set-up tweaks can reduce this, Jeddah is not a track where the green machine is necessarily expected to excel.

As for Mercedes, over the weekend it wrote a letter to fans to ask for patience with its protracted quest to arrest its ground-effects dip in form. This act was prompted by an uninspiring 5-7 result in Bahrain and suggests the Three-Pointed Star isn’t banking on challenging with its W14 this weekend either, albeit Hamilton is not expected to repeat his dismal 2022 qualifying result of 15th.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W14

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W14

Photo by: Erik Junius

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