Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc entertain, but shadow hangs over Saudi Arabia GP

Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc put on a great show on track at Sunday’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, but the headlines generated off the track this week will rightly continue to weigh on this event for a long time to come.

It was a bizarre F1 race weekend, with the 48 hours leading up to the race dominated by a missile attack on an oil depot just 10km from the circuit. At one point it looked like all 20 F1 drivers would refuse to take part in the event, and after agreeing to race they asked F1 to re-evaluate its decision to continue racing in the country long-term.

It would be wrong to focus on the grand prize first given the events of the days leading up to it.

The controversy over the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix rages

Whether the Saudi Arabian GP will go as planned was not a certainty on Friday night and into the early hours of Saturday morning.

F1 drivers met for more than four hours to discuss event security. At one point they were united in their desire to boycott the event, but Formula 1 CEO Stefano Domenicali, team bosses and Saudi government officials argued with them after security assurances were issued. been given.

Saudi officials said they would have canceled the race for a real threat, which they did not believe the attack on the oil depot was, despite it being a facility owned by the F1 sponsor Aramco. Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility for the attack.

It is clear that the problem will not simply be left to Saudi Arabia when Formula 1 leaves the country in the next 24 hours. The drivers have already agreed to discuss the future of racing with F1 in the coming weeks, and I hope the discussions can be productive.

There is no doubt that F1 and Saudi officials are determined that the race, for which Saudi Arabia has signed a 15-year contract to host the Grand Prix, continues. Prince Abdulaziz, the kingdom’s sports minister, said Saudi Arabia was ready to provide any assurances teams and drivers wanted to ensure it remained on the F1 calendar.

Domenicali said: “Of course there are tensions, things to improve, we don’t want to be political about it, but I think we play a very important role in the modernization of this country, we are focused on make sure it’s at the center of our agenda.”

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff also said F1 could be a force for positive change in the Middle East.

From a racing perspective, the event delivered another dramatic race, but there are serious questions about the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix that F1 must address before the sport can return.

Verstappen and Leclerc have fun again

“Thumbs up to Max, that was nice.”

That’s Charles Leclerc’s verdict after finishing the Grand Prix just half a second behind Max Verstappen, following another epic duel for victory – their second in the space of eight days. Based on the last two races and the comparative pace of their two cars, Formula 1 fans should get used to the idea of ​​Verstappen and Leclerc battling it out for wins. I feel like it’s been a long time.

A widely shared video of a young Verstappen and Leclerc after a kart race in 2012 in response to an incident – or “incident”, as the young Monaco-born Leclerc puts it – has gone viral again this week, showing how far this great rivalry goes back . Both drivers were tipped as future F1 superstars as soon as they arrived in the paddock.

The Battle of Jeddah was the reverse of what we saw in Bahrain, where Leclerc shrewdly let Verstappen pass him on the descent to Turn 1, knowing he could follow Turns 2 and 3 closely and move on to the turn 4, with the help of the DRS. Verstappen had learned his lesson this time and there was a distinct reluctance in their own fight to overtake on the final corner of the Saudi circuit, which precedes the long start-finish straight where DRS is available.

With four laps to go, he resisted the urge to pass Leclerc on the final corner and won a drag race from there to Turn 1, taking a lead he wouldn’t give up.

It was the double whammy of being an exciting battle and another resounding endorsement of new F1 cars, which have been designed to allow closer tracking and better racing. The cars are two for two to achieve this so far this year.

When asked what the final laps were like, Verstappen replied: “The qualifying laps! It was tough.”

He added: “I had a good feeling with the car and the tires held up quite well at high speeds, then I had some good opportunities, but Charles really played smart in the last corner so it wasn’t easy. for me to really pass, and of course I had to line up again to get another try.

“Eventually I tried and got ahead but once I got ahead it was like four laps flat out trying to stay ahead because Charles was constantly in my DRS. It was quite difficult there.”

Leclerc was disappointed to lose but was happy to reflect on the quality of the duel up front.

“It’s obviously disappointing to lose the win so late in the race, but it was a fun fight,” Leclerc said. “It was very difficult because we had two cars which were in very different places. I was very strong in the first sector, in all the corners, and fundamentally much less strong on the straights.

“It was very tricky, I tried to have the DRS in the last corner, it worked twice but not the last time. Then we had the yellow flag, the one where I could have had a chance to be next in turn 1, I had no DRS there, a bit of a shame, but that’s part of the game. We’ll try again the next race.”

While it’s great to see the battle of good humor develop, it’s wrong to just assume these two will run clean all year. Verstappen chased Leclerc out of the way to win the Austrian Grand Prix in 2019, and his championship battle with Lewis Hamilton last year started with similar good vibes only to descend into tension and involve three on-track collisions and a handful of other controversial moments. .

While Verstappen and Leclerc are closely linked as we progress through the season, expect them to be much less polite to each other in their wheel-to-wheel encounters – that’s just the nature of motor racing.