Mark Hughes: Key factors behind Verstappen’s loss to Leclerc

Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc continued their showdown game with the DRS scout line from Bahrain, but this time it lasted over three rounds.

Verstappen eventually won the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, but the outcome was uncertain from the start of the race until very close to the end.

Verstappen’s assist on Leclerc came four laps from home, although we can’t tell how the race could have ended if poleman and early leader Sergio Perez hadn’t been sorely disadvantaged by the timing of a safety car just after his pit stop.

But even that timing was imposed on Red Bull by a super competitive Ferrari.

As the pitstop window opened, Leclerc pushed hard into the small cushion of the Red Bull. Perez hadn’t been able to get out of the undercut range, not without destroying the medium-compound C3 tires that nearly everyone started on.

Now those tires were just starting to surrender. So either Red Bull pitted Perez in anticipation of Leclerc doing the same – or lost position to the undercut.

Leclerc was always going to do the opposite of Perez. That’s why Checo pitted, Leclerc stayed out and seconds later Nicholas Latifi crashed his Williams at Turn 27, knocking out the safety car. Which gave everyone the chance to embark on a series of struggles to get to the end, with a pit stop loss of 11 seconds rather than Perez’s 21. Which dropped Perez to fourth (or third, depending on the interpretation).

While Perez voluntarily gave up third position to Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari when the race resumed and his evening stalled in an attempt to overtake it, his terrible luck turned this race into another Leclerc versus Verstappen duel. An epic. But with distinct phases.

Motor racing Formula 1 World Championship Saudi Arabian Grand Prix Race Day Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Between the lap 21 restart and the lap 36 VSC for the broken down cars of Fernando Alonso and Daniel Ricciardo, Leclerc resisted anything Verstappen could throw at him.

It was a beautifully prepared contest. The Ferrari, which used more wings than the Red Bull, was fast enough in sector one that Verstappen was never able to hit the required 1s at the final corner DRS detection line for the pit straight – or the other two lines at turns 17 and 22. .

The Red Bull was faster at the end of the straights, but just like in Bahrain, the Ferrari accelerated harder. Here, it was also faster in the seven corners which require braking.

The Red Bull was relatively quick on the lap, but the Ferrari was always able to keep it far enough behind in critical parts of the track. The F1-75 looked slightly better on rubber, although that might just be because Leclerc was racing in clear air again.

But Red Bull certainly had better tire usage than in Bahrain – and no brake temperature issues this time. So Verstappen continued, trying to pressure Leclerc with relentless pace.

But Leclerc was up to it. Even though in the first stint they had managed the pace a bit through the long, fast sweeps of turns 6-7, 10 and 22, just to give the tires a break, now they were on the harder C2 compound than they could push hard. , steadily moving away from the Sainz/Perez contest.

In turn, they pulled away from George Russell’s Mercedes, which was again about 0.7 seconds off a leading pace. At least George had qualified him in his rightful place, fifth. Lewis Hamilton, trying a combination of tire pressures that left him with “zero rear grip”, failed to make it out of Q1.

Motor racing Formula 1 World Championship Saudi Arabian Grand Prix Race Day Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

From 15th and starting – like Kevin Magnussen and Nico Hulkenberg – on hardtails, he progressed to run behind Russell and was doing comparable times on older 16-lap tyres. But in the confusion around VSC and yellow flags, even that progress was undone and he ended the day in a thoroughly disheartening 10th place.

The gap between Leclerc and Verstappen narrowed and sank depending on battery use and probably mental focus, as it was a long and intense duel, but Leclerc generally managed to keep it to around 1.5 seconds. .

Between laps 24 and 35, they traded the fastest laps of the race. It seemed that no matter how hard Verstappen pushed, Leclerc made sure the DRS gap remained stubbornly out of his reach. Barring drama or a late drop in tire performance in the final laps, Leclerc seemed to have everything under control.

Then Alonso’s Alpine – eighth just behind Magnussen’s Haas and fending off Valtteri Bottas’ Alfa Romeo, after emerging at the top of a sometimes brutal duel with team-mate Esteban Ocon – lost the wheel. A few seconds later, Ricciardo’s McLaren too. They each tried to hobble back to the pit lane, but were unsuccessful. The McLaren actually stopped on the pit-entrance road. Hence the VSC, with 14 laps to go.

It was the perfect opportunity for the three tough riders at the start—Hamilton, Magnussen and Hulkenberg—to stop for the mediums. Hamilton was first on the scene, having been ordered to enter but beware that the instruction could be overruled if the pitlane was declared closed (with the team recalling their mistake from Monza 2020).

In this ambiguity, Hamilton was thrown out by the double-wave yellows for Alonso’s slowdown. He didn’t want to overtake him and incur a penalty and so lost more than 5 seconds until it was obvious the Alpine was about to come to a stop.

Still unsure if the pit lane was open or closed and seeing Ricciardo stopped at the entrance, he continued. By the time the instruction to refuel was repeated, it was too late. Magnussen and Hulkenberg managed to enter before the pit lane closed.

During Hamilton’s extra lap, the pit lane was then in effect closed, delaying its stoppage until three laps later. He joined near the back, passed Alex Albon’s Williams and – after heavy resistance – Lance Stroll’s Aston Martin but could not catch Magnussen’s ninth-placed Haas. A bad day at the office.

But more important to race form was the effect of the three-lap VSC on the tire temperatures of the leading cars. They were very worn hard tires. When the tread wears out and they lose temperature in their core, they can be very reluctant to reach the optimal temperature again.

In this case, Verstappen and Perez were able to recover those temperatures faster than the Ferraris ahead of them. Maybe their lower downforce settings caused them to slide more, thus warming up the tread faster. But that meant Leclerc’s ability to keep Verstappen off his back had dissolved.

Although Leclerc initially got the drop on the Red Bull on the restart, with Verstappen getting an oversteer at Turn 1, two laps of better tire performance allowed Max straight into the DRS detection points. Now the cat-and-mouse game around the DRS detection lines began – and the race came to a head as Verstappen repeatedly attacked and Leclerc played smart, with the two leaders swapping positions three times in the last rounds.

Motor racing Formula 1 World Championship Saudi Arabian Grand Prix Race Day Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Verstappen got the DRS for the first time on lap 42 through the flat elbow near the end of the lap, sailing around the outside of Leclerc. But this is followed almost immediately – just before the final corner – by the DRS detection line for the pit straight. Leclerc stayed calm, made sure he was right behind on that line, got the DRS and slipped effortlessly down the straight.

Next time Verstappen dove inwards but was determined not to reach the DRS line first – much the same game he played here with Hamilton last year – and effectively locked himself in in its eagerness to stay behind. Leclerc, noticing this, took advantage of it by staying on the accelerator while Max was still braking. This reaction advantage meant that even with the DRS Verstappen could not get close enough on the pit straight.

It took a few laps for Verstappen to get back into DRS range, again using the DRS zone of Turn 24 just to line up rather than make the pass. This time he actually turned off his DRS and put the throttle on just to make sure he was late to the line. Add to that some oversteer from Leclerc on now ailing rear tyres, and Verstappen was finally successful, taking the lead definitively on the pit straight to start Lap 47.

Perez was never able to put the same pressure on Sainz as Verstappen on Leclerc, although he was clearly quicker.

Russell wasn’t really racing with anyone in fifth place, far from Ocon who used the Alpine’s considerable straight-line speed advantage to keep himself just out of reach of Lando Norris.

Pierre Gasly suffered from severe intestinal pain in the last laps and was very happy to see the checkered flag, eighth.

Bottas retired from 10th with an overheated Alfa and behind Hamilton, Stroll and Albon collided at Turn 1 battling for 11th which brought out a yellow flag which extinguished any vague chance Leclerc would have may have had to pass Verstappen on the last lap.

Motor racing Formula 1 World Championship Saudi Arabian Grand Prix Race Day Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Realistically, he didn’t look close enough to the straight anyway.

Even disappointed, Leclerc was still delighted with the intensity of the fight. “That’s how racing should always be,” as he said.

How, if not necessarily where…