ANALYSIS: Formula 1 Saudi Arabian GP
By Mat Coch
Tuesday 21st March, 2023 - 11:41am
Speedcafe.com Formula 1 Editor Mat Coch offers his analysis on the second round of 2023 and the key storylines out of the Saudi Arabian GP.
Sergio Perez and Red Bull might have won the race but reliability and penalties proved the key talking points.
Fernando Alonso finished third to Perez and Max Verstappen, only then he didn’t despite holding the third-placed trophy. Then, very soon after, he did once again.
It wasn’t a good look for the sport and highlighted some shortcomings in the current system that need to be ironed out.
The Alonso issue stemmed from the fact the Stewards’ understanding was not in line with an agreement among teams.
Teams have accepted that connecting the rear jack does not constitute ‘working on the car’.
Technically, that’s not what the regulations say.
The FIA employs a rotating panel of Stewards, selected from a comparatively small pool.
They’re typically well briefed but as they are not full-time on Formula 1 it is difficult to be across every nuance.
Previously, there were permanent Stewards in place.
However, that sparked claims of bias and favouritism and was replaced with the current rotating system.
But perhaps the issue here isn’t even the stewarding but rather the ambiguity of the agreement among teams.
Stewards officiate by the rulebook, which has a host of appendixes and comes in three parts; Sporting, Technical, and Financial.
On top of that are clarifications that may contradict the stated regulations. Underpinning it all is the International Sporting Code.
The Stewards’ role is to interpret and apply what is written, which is precisely what they did in Alonso’s case.
That is not to apologise or excuse the scenes on Sunday evening but goes some way to explaining the scenario.
The F1 Sporting Advisory Commission will discuss that issue ahead of the next round.
That should be fed into the F1 Commission and then the World Motor Sport Council should any regulations need adjustment.
Aside from that, the other hot topic was reliability.
A year into the sport’s current ruleset and one would expect reliability to be fairly settled.
There is a freeze on engine development, only there isn’t, really.
Manufacturers can tweak for ‘reliability’ and ‘cost savings’ reasons or, in F1 parlance, loopholes.
Ferrari worked on its PU over the European winter after a tough 2022.
Yet already Charles Leclerc has picked up a 10-place grid penalty and we’re only at Round 2.
Lando Norris ‘finished’ his Mercedes PU at the opening round in Bahrain.
Nyck de Vries needed a Honda power unit change in Free Practice 3 and so sat out the session in its entirety.
Reliability is not as settled as it was predicted to be and looks set to play a key role this season.
Red Bull rivalry
We can’t ignore Max Verstappen’s broken driveshaft either.
It’s obviously slightly different and didn’t come with a penalty aside from Verstappen being 15th on the grid. It probably cost him the race win, too.
Though he cut through the pack like a hot knife through butter, his progress once he climbed to second stalled.
Funnily enough, the Safety Car for Lance Stroll on Lap 18 had little impact on Verstappen’s race.
While it bunched the pack and allowed everyone to stop, he was already among the front runners.
Perhaps it saved a lap or two in his march towards the podium but he was already on course to overhaul George Russell and Fernando Alonso regardless.
His run to Fastest Lap on the final tour was fascinating and showed naivety on the part of Perez.
It’s well-established that Verstappen does not give gifts and is ultra-competitive. If there is a minor personal gain to be made, he will take it.
We need only look at Brazil last year for proof of that, and his statements about helping Perez win the Mexico City Grand Prix.
He was always going to have a crack for the bonus point which ensures he maintained the championship lead.
Perez should not have been surprised.
He is Verstappen’s closest rival for the title this year. He has to look out for himself above the team and deal with the fallout afterwards.
We’re two races in and Verstappen has the upper hand psychologically in that tussle.
Pecking order clarity
No analysis of the Saudi Arabian GP would be complete without looking at Alpine.
After Bahrain it wasn’t clear if the Enstone operation would be among the leaders or not.
Its performance in Jeddah suggests it’s somewhere among the midfield.
Red Bull is the clear class leader, followed by Aston Martin, Ferrari, and Mercedes – it’s nip and tuck it seems between the latter two.
Behind that quartet is the midfield with Alpine appearing the leading contender there.
Haas, McLaren, Alfa Romeo Sauber, and even Williams are all in that mix.
Scuderia AlphaTauri has shown itself to be the weakest link; team boss Franz Tost vented his frustrations on Friday.
The precise order will likely continue to change as we head to new circuits and teams bring new updates.
Imola in May looks to be when many teams will bring significant new parts to their cars.
Before then we have Australia in two weeks, and we can reasonably say Oscar Piastri has a shot at points in his home race.
After pre-season testing that didn’t look to be the case, but the McLaren MCL60 doesn’t look as bad as it initially did.
There is work to be done and the squad has gone backwards from last year, but it hasn’t slipped out of contention altogether.
Piastri, too, has also shown himself perfectly capable of mixing it in Formula 1.
The youngster is closer to Norris than Daniel Ricciardo was in recent years and has shown good maturity to build up across a weekend.
He hasn’t been showy or scrappy, he’s gone about the job in a methodical way and he’s coming on quickly because of it.
Qualifying on Saturday was proof of that – ninth was an exceptional performance.
Sure, Verstappen wasn’t there and nor was Norris, but Piastri was able to capitalise on that and get the best result he could for himself.
In Formula 1 most drivers are not in a position to win, at least routinely, so maximising what is on offer is the best they can hope for.
Piastri did that on Saturday.
Sunday unravelled somewhat, but that was a racing incident and will happen.
The important thing is he saw the flag, got a chance to battle, and banked a heap of knowledge that will serve him will in Albert Park and beyond.
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