BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - MARCH 28: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP prepares to drive on the grid prior to the F1 Grand Prix of Bahrain at Bahrain International Circuit on March 28, 2021 in Bahrain, Bahrain. (Photo by Peter Fox/Getty Images)
Formula 1 | F1 2021 | 5 things we learnt from the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix
Lewis Hamilton takes victory in epic Saudi Arabian Grand at Jeddah Corniche Circuit
Briton and Max Verstappen collide after team orders controversy, following two race restarts and multiple safety cars
Remarkably, after 21 races, Verstappen and Hamilton are now tied on 369.5 points ahead of Yas Marina finale next weekend
JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA – After a race that will live long in the memory for Formula 1 fans, just what did we learn from the this past weekend’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix?
Abu Dhabi showdown set
Well. Where to begin?
After a Formula 1 season blessed with many thrilling races, the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand in Jeddah though, will surely be remembered as its best chapter yet, and one which will live long in the memory.
Even before a single car had rolled onto the track for FP1, there was a real big-time race feel in the Arabian desert with the stakes as high as they were.
Sure enough, the first trip to the waterfront Corniche Circuit supplied more drama that your average Netflix boxset.
As both practice and qualifying saw just how demanding the narrow, almost sinuous track was through Friday and Saturday, few though, could have predicted what was to follow on race day.
To summarise the Saudi Arabian GP in as small a nutshell as possible, a Mercedes front-row lock-out, three standing starts, showers of chassis debris, multiple safety cars and one BIG talking point would just about cover the bases, and yet it would not even come close to tell the palpable tension on show.
Simply put though, after Lewis Hamilton took his third victory on the bounce, the World Drivers’ Championship standings after 21 races reads; Max Verstappen 369.5, Lewis Hamilton 369.5. The last time two drivers went into the final race level was 47 years ago.
How exactly that has worked out across the year is utterly unfathomable, but whatever the case, the dream final day scenario is now set.
Abu Dhabi will get its fitting finale, after the most extraordinary of F1 seasons, of which Jeddah was the perfect sporting metaphor.
High drama in the desert
So what exactly is the long story of the Saudi Arabian GP?
From the moment Verstappen’s on-the-limit last shot at a pole lap fell short after clipping the final bend in Q3, Sunday was always set to be that little bit special.
With Mercedes locking out the front row, after Verstappen failed to make early in-roads on Valtteri Bottas, Hamilton looked set to dominate the race with his team-mate protecting him.
Making a call that would go on to prove the catalyst for most of what followed, Red Bull opted to wait to box Verstappen with Hamilton already four seconds ahead by Lap 10, hoping newer tyres and the undercut would serve their driver better in the latter stages.
But when Mick Schumacher ploughed his Haas into the barriers shortly after, the race began to evolve into one of extraordinary proportions.
Finally pulling alongside the Red Bull to lead on Lap 37, Verstappen again went side-by-side with Hamilton’s Mercedes and regained his lead, but again pushed his foe wide off the track.
But the real the chaos was about to begin.
Instructed to give back the place to avoid further sanctions, Verstappen fully slowed down to allow the overtake in the DRS zone, but Hamilton collided into the back of his car after radio confusion, sustaining damage to his front-wing in the process.
The world, and Toto Wolff, gasped.
As the title race looked to have been thrown into chaos with Hamilton’s W12 labouring, the damage was not as bad as feared, with Verstappen then handed down a five-second penalty. After further cat-and-mouse between the two drivers, Hamilton eventually limped home to win with Verstappen’s tyres failing.
It was quite simply, incredible.
Gloves off in Hamilton-Verstappen duel
We suggested earlier in the campaign that relations between Hamilton and Verstappen were likely to fray as the stakes were upped and the season rolled on. Sure enough after the Saudi Arabian GP, there is now real needle between the two championship contenders.
As Verstappen was forced to swallow seeing the Briton win a third-straight race, the Dutchman was not a peripheral figure on the podium and made his excuses and exited stage right during the trophy presentation.
It was the biggest indication yet that the feelings between two men – who have enjoyed a good relationship in the past – are beginning to sour.
That shouldn’t be a surprise perhaps, given the extra pressure Verstappen is coming under at the business end of the campaign, but nevertheless, it is a development that has thrown fuel on the fire ahead of this weekend.
With each man feeling as if the other had been wronged by their opponent, Hamilton’s comments were telling as he spoke to the press in the pen after the race, making subtle reference to drivers he has faced in the past who have ‘taken it to the edge’.
Make no mistake, Hamilton feels Verstappen crossed a line in Jeddah, but Verstappen also will be burning to have been handed down what appears more and more to be arbitrary punishment, to him at least.
The ongoing battle between both Mercedes and Red Bull bosses Wolff and Christian Horner has become heated in recent weeks and months, but now it appears the fight has been ratcheted up to ten between Verstappen and Hamilton. The gloves are now firmly off ahead of the season’s climax.
F1 lawmen face busy week
The controversy will linger for some time and with this season already having been a campaign of legal wranglings in the steward’s room, the coming week is likely to see every loophole and caveat examined with a fine tooth comb.
Why? The simple reason being that despite the points stalemate, should neither Hamilton or Verstappen score a single point in Abu Dhabi, Verstappen will be crowned champion due to his nine victories this term to Hamilton’s eight.
That could prompt the cynic to envisage a scenario not unlike 1990’s title showdown at Suzuka, where infamously Ayrton Senna unceremoniously took out Alain Prost at the first corner in Japan, resulting in Senna winning the title.
So could we see a similar picture at Yas Marina? After all, the two have already tangled on multiple occasions this season, even before their latest altercation in Jeddah.
There are varying opinions on this, but should Verstappen be ruled to be at fault in a crash with Hamilton this weekend, the Red Bull driver could see a points deduction if he finishes, or more severely, a full disqualification from the championship, as happened to Michael Schumacher in 1997 – though his points technically stood in the final standings.
As it stands there is no clear indication of just what the recriminations of any racing incidents in Abu Dhabi could be; that job will be left to the well paid legal teams at both Red Bull and Mercedes.
And those particular boys and girls’ inboxes are set to overflow before the week is out.
Jeddah thrills but tweaks will come
As documented, concerns had mounted across the weekend surrounding the track’s safety but happily, a potentially serious incident that was predicted in some quarters did not materialise.
Limited to Mick Schumacher’s heavy smash side-on into the barriers and Yuki Tsunoda sliding out mid-race, what transpired instead, saw the circuit become a racer’s race track, allowing overtaking but also providing a generous dose of speed for F1 adrenaline junkies.
Jeddah’s banked Turn 13 was a spectacular showpiece, but after practice had underlined serious anxieties that the fastest street circuit’s run-ins were too tight, the expected return to Jeddah – likely next spring – could see certain safety features introduced, perhaps with the track itself slightly widened.
F1 bosses’ hopes of their newest venue becoming one of the marquee stops on the calendar will not have been disappointed. Indeed, seeing the drama that unfolded on the visit to Jeddah would have left many in the background with a more than a wry grin.
But when F1 returns to Saudi Arabia, we may see a very different circuit. On which hopefully though, is not too dissimilar to a track that hosted a race which quite simply, had it all.
The 2021 Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix takes place this weekend at Yas Marina Circuit.
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