The first-ever visit to Saudi Arabia for the FIA Formula One World Championship had everything someone could currently expect from modern Grand Prix racing but turned up to eleven. First, a new race in a country with a questionable record on human rights. Second, a new narrow, high-speed street circuit was constructed for the race in a city near the coast. Third, FIA race officiating is far past questionable from race control to the marshal posts. Finally, the dramatic moments allow everyone to forget briefly about all of the flaws.
Qualifying for the race concluded with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen lapping the Jeddah Corniche Circuit at a breathtaking pace. Verstappen almost secured pole with a performance for the ages until he pushed wide on the final corner’s exit right into the wall. He had to settle with lining up third on the starting grid behind Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.
It didn’t seem certain that Hamilton would maintain his qualifying position as he was under investigation for not slowing for yellow flags during practice. However, officials found that a marshal had mistakenly shown the yellow flag. Across the entire weekend, track status was unusually slow to happen. The delays were probably due to several factors, from the inexperienced marshals to the late completion of the circuit’s construction.
Mercedes held firm control of the race lead at the start, with Hamilton first and Bottas second. The race took a turn to the ridiculous after the safety car was deployed on lap 10. Mick Schumacher lost control of his Haas in turn 22 and crashed hard. After the car was recovered, race control threw the red flag to repair barriers damaged in the crash. It’s not entirely clear why the marshals didn’t effectively communicate to race control how badly damaged the barriers were so the red flag could be thrown immediately.
The race was restarted on lap 15 with a standing start. Verstappen overtook Hamilton for the lead but left the track and parked his car on the apex to do so. On the run to turn 3, there was a massive incident behind the leaders. Red Bull’s Sergio Perez squeezed Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc into the wall and collected himself. Haas’ Nikita Mazepin plowed in the rear of Williams’ George Russell as Russell checked up to avoid crashing. The red flag was thrown again.
After Red Bull negotiated with race control, the steward accepted a plea deal where Max Verstappen would line up third for the restart behind Ocon and Hamilton. Yes, Alpine’s Esteban Ocon over Hamilton at turn one after the Mercedes driver scuffled with Verstappen. When the race restarted on lap 17, Verstappen went three abreast with Hamilton and Ocon into the first corner and overtook them.
Hamilton eventually got by Ocon and slowly reeled in Verstappen. On lap 37, Hamilton attempted to take the lead but had to back out of the maneuver into turn 1. As he backed out, Verstappen darted across the runoff area. Race control informed Verstappen to yield the position. On the straight to the final corner, Verstappen drastically slowed his Red Bull. Hamilton, directly behind the Red Bull, strangely slowed as well. He didn’t try to pass Verstappen and collided into his car. Based on current knowledge, race control told Mercedes that Verstappen would surrender the position but far too late for the team to tell Hamilton.
Verstappen and Hamilton continued on in their positions. Verstappen briefly gave up the lead and immediately took it back when asked to yield again. He was asked for a third time to surrender the lead. Hamilton nearly ran the Red Bull driver into wall in the final corner as he finally assumed the race lead. Concurrently, the stewards awarded Verstappen a five-second penalty.
Lewis Hamilton would go on to win the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix ahead of Verstappen. Valtteri Bottas beat Esteban Ocon for the final podium position across the line. At the time of publication, there are still ongoing investigations that could affect the race result. But as it stands, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen are tied atop the World Drivers’ Championship standings with one race left.
Formula One will return next weekend in Abu Dhabi.