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6 things to watch at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

F1 heads to Jeddah for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, and here are six things to watch

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F1 Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia Photo by Peter J Fox/Getty Images

Week two of the 2023 Formula 1 season is upon us, as the grid heads to Saudi Arabia for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. What awaits the grid is the fastest street course on the calendar, as well as one of the longest: The Jeddah Corniche Circuit. Drivers will navigate this nearly four-mile course located just steps away from the Red Sea at average speeds approaching 160 miles per hour, making it one of the fastest tracks on the calendar, despite its 27 turns.

Given these speeds, the course layout, and the design of the Jeddah Corniche Circuit, this makes for a rather harrowing weekend for everyone involved. Of particular note is the chicane through Turns 22 and 23, a white-knuckling stretch of the track that has caused problems for many drivers.

We will dive into those issues and more as we break down the biggest storylines facing the F1 world ahead of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

Can Red Bull continue their dominance?

It is hard to imagine a better opening week to an F1 season than what we saw from Red Bull at the Bahrain Grand Prix. The team locked out the front row in qualifying, and Max Verstappen began his quest for a third-straight Drivers’ Championship with a run to an easy victory, followed by teammate Sergio Perez behind him in second place.

It was the most dominant season-opening performance by a team since 1998, when McLaren-Mercedes finished 1-2 at the Australian Grand Prix, with Mika Hakkinen in first followed by David Coulthard.

One common element to both the 1998 Australian Grand Prix and the 2023 Bahrain Grand Prix? Adrian Newey. Newey designed the McLaren MP4/13, which Hakkinen and Coulthard drove to glory back in 1998. Today Newey is the Chief Technical Officer at Red Bull, a position he has held since 2006.

However, after their dominant start in 1998, McLaren-Mercedes were able to outlast Ferrari atop the Constructors’ table, but Hakkinen needed to fend off a mid-season charge from Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher to secure his first Drivers’ Championship on the final weekend of the season.

Will we see a similar scenario this year, with the rest of the field chasing down Red Bull? Or will their opening-weekend dominance be the storyline of the entire year? Teams like Mercedes — more on them in a moment — are hoping that Bahrain was more of a one-off, and Jeddah is when the season begins in earnest.

Is Aston Martin for real?

While Red Bull’s dominance was a storyline coming out of Bahrain, the storyline after the season’s first weekend was the stellar start from Aston Martin. With Lance Stroll coming back from a pre-season training injury — and subsequent surgery — to finish sixth while teammate Fernando Alonso came across the line in third, Aston Martin heads to Saudi Arabia sitting second in the Constructors’.

Can that continue?

Other teams certainly think so. Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and George Russell sang Aston Martin’s praises following Bahrain, with Russell calling the team “the surprise package.” Over at Haas, Team Principal Guenther Steiner, in a statement released to the media including SB Nation ahead of the Saudi Arabia Grand Prix, stated that Aston Martin is now “tipped to be on top this year.”

Is this for real? Jeddah will go a long way toward sorting that out.

Can Ferrari and Mercedes rebound?

While Aston Martin was a positive surprise, things feel rather different at Ferrari and Mercedes.

Charles Leclerc was fighting for a podium in the closing laps of the Bahrain Grand Prix, but his race ended on Lap 40 due to an engine failure. The lack of reliability seems more ominous when you remember that Ferrari was forced to change his control electronics and energy store components before the race.

In the days since Bahrain, the clouds around Ferrari have darkened. Reports are circulating in Italian media that Leclerc requested a meeting with Ferrari chairman John Elkann regarding the difficult start to the season, and while new Team Principal Frederic Vasseur has stated that such meetings were “planned,” hopes for a quick turnaround for the Scuderia have diminished.

Then there is Mercedes.

Team Principal Toto Wolff referred to the Bahrain Grand Prix as one of the team’s “worst days” in racing. Russell seemed to indicate following his seventh-place finish that perhaps the 2023 season was already over for the Silver Arrows, and finding answers for 2024 might be the way forward. Hamilton conceded that the team was “fourth fastest,” and later lamented that Mercedes did not listen to him when designing their car for this season.

So, everything is going well it seems ...

Will either team be able to rebound this week? Can both? Or will they leave the doors open for another team to challenge Red Bull this season, perhaps Aston Martin?

Note: Shortly after this piece was published news broke that Leclerc is facing a ten-spot grid penalty after Ferrari changed his control electronics again. So ... not a great start!

Safety on — and off — the track

For a while last year, it seemed like the 2022 Saudi Arabia Grand Prix would not take place.

During the Friday practice session, there was an attack on an oil depo just six miles from the circuit. A large plume of black smoke could be seen from the track, and it was later confirmed that a missile had exploded at the North Jeddah Bulk Plant, and a rebel group claimed responsibility for the attack.

Naturally, drivers and teams were concerned for their safety, and for the safety of all involved. After a four-hour meeting of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association that lasted well into Saturday morning, it was finally agreed that the race would take place as scheduled.

That did not mean that the drivers were comfortable. After the race, Hamilton stated that he was just “happy the weekend is done,” and that “everyone’s safe.” He also stated that he was “just looking forward to getting out.” Valtteri Bottas stated that F1 “promised us to reconsider all the events for the future, including this one, to make sure that we go to the right places, that they can guarantee our safety 100% always when we go there.”

But, the grid is back at Jeddah a year later, with assurances about their safety for the week ahead. In addition, the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels entered into a truce last April, and while that did expire in October, both sides have largely adhered to the terms of the UN-brokered peace talks.

However, safety off the track is not the only concern this week. There is also safety on the track. As noted, Jeddah is known for its high speeds, but difficult sightlines, along with barriers that are very close to the track, add up to dangerous conditions. Last season Haas driver Mick Schumacher suffered a crash during qualifying that knocked him out of the Grand Prix, and the setup of the circuit has led many drivers to all Jeddah the most dangerous place on the schedule. “I love the adrenaline rush that a qualifying lap gives you around here,” said Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz Jr. last season. “But at the same time, you know that here, if you crash, it probably hurts a bit more than in any other place in the calendar because the walls are closer and the speed is higher.”

In the year since last season’s Grand Prix, changes have been made to Jeddah. The walls at Turns 8 and 10 — where Schumacher’s qualifying crash took place — have been altered to improve sight lines. The barriers around Turns 14 and 20 have been pushed back from the track, also in an effort to improve visibility. The chicane through Turns 21 and 23 has been altered as well, to cut down speeds through the final sector.

The safety of the drivers on the track, and of everyone around the track, is another story to follow this week.

Does Pierre Gasly have something up his sleeve for the field?

Were it not for the stunning performance from Aston Martin and their two drivers, the biggest story after Bahrain, aside from Red Bull’s dominant start, might have been Alpine’s Pierre Gasly. Despite seeing his lap time in the first qualifying session deleted, forcing him to start at the back of the field, Gasly climbed his way through the field, placing ninth.

It was a tremendous performance, particularly when you consider where he started. “I knew starting from the Bahrain city center it would be quite an eventful race so I had to stay calm,” joked Gasly after the race. “I knew we had race pace, yesterday [during qualifying] it didn’t come together so I had to make up for it today. I was so mad last night. All morning I was so focused, I had these points as my target.”

Was Gasly’s charge through the field a sign of things to come this season?

Does Williams also have something for the rest of the grid?

Prior to the start of the season, I put together some predictions for the 2023 F1 campaign. The Aston Martin prediction looks solid right now.

The Williams prediction? Not so much.

Alex Albon came across tenth, giving the team a point in the first race of the campaign. As for his teammate, rookie Logan Sargeant, the American finished 12, a lap down but first among the three rookies on the F1 grid this season.

During pre-season testing, Williams seemed to have a bit more pace than expected, and Albon admitted that “we’re not in a bad place” during a segment on FT1V.

Perhaps Williams is in a much, much better place than some of us thought.