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Perez can get payback for 2022 as Verstappen and Leclerc join the midfield melee · RaceFans

For three hours, 23 minutes and 33 seconds of green flag running across three practice sessions and a full phase of qualifying in Jeddah, Max Verstappen looked as imperious as he ever has at the wheel of a Formula 1 car.

But in the blink of an eye as Verstappen exited turn 12 in Q2, all that work he had done to go quickest across all four timed sessions up to that point was suddenly at risk of amounting to nothing.

And so, what appeared to be one of the most easily predictable races of recent times is now harder to call than it had been before the start of qualifying. From the first row to the last, there is genuine intrigue across the grid heading into the second Sunday of the season.

Perez’s to lose?

For the second Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in a row, Sergio Perez has the honour of leading the field off the line from pole position. Last year, he made excellent use of that advantage to leap out into the front and lead the first 14 laps of the race – only for a poorly-timed Safety Car to drop him down to fourth where he remained for the rest of the evening.

At that time Red Bull were locked in a tight battle with Ferrari, who were their genuine equals in performance. But while Charles Leclerc did get within two tenths of Perez’s pole time, he will not line up alongside him on the front row – Fernando Alonso will. With Alonso being almost half a second slower than Perez in qualifying and an average of around two tenths of a second slower than Perez’s long run pace on Friday, Perez is confident about his chances in the race.

“I think we certainly have a good race car,” Perez said. “It’s where probably we are a little bit better than the competition. Our car, our race pace, was very strong on Friday, so we’ll see.”

Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin, Jeddah Corniche Circuit, 2023
Alonso joins Perez on the front row

For Alonso, equalling his best starting position since coming out of retirement, a front-row start makes the prospects of a second consecutive podium to start the season a serious possibility. However, the Aston Martin driver does not believe the AMR23 has quite enough performance yet to allow him to dream of the top step of the podium just yet.

“I don’t think so,” Alonso admitted. “I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but if we see the pace the whole weekend in free practice – if we see the Bahrain race – we have to be honest with ourselves and know that Red Bull is a little bit ahead of everyone. So that’s not the target tomorrow, to fight for the win with Checo.”

With second to sixth in Q3 covered by just over half a second, Alonso will have intense competition over his position should Perez end up slipping away out front during the race. But his biggest competition may come from George Russell’s Mercedes, who will start directly behind him in third. After a disappointing race in Bahrain, Russell admitted his qualifying performance exceeded Mercedes’ expectations, while team principal Toto Wolff was unusually bullish about his team’s prospects in the race.

“I think pace-wise tomorrow we are with the Aston Martins and the Ferraris,” Wolff said. “At least that is per the long runs yesterday, so we should be able to play around in the race.

“I think, fuel-corrected, it was us, then Ferrari, then Aston Martin, then Alpine. But that was all within two tenths. So I think everything is possible tomorrow.”

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How high can Verstappen and Leclerc rise?

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Jeddah Corniche Circuit, 2023
Leclerc unexpectedly lines up ahead of Verstappen

Just 12 months ago, Verstappen and Leclerc engaged in one of the best head-to-head battles the pair ever fought over victory in Saudi Arabia. But a repeat of that scenario appears unlikely this year, with Leclerc starting from 12th and Verstappen three places behind in 15th.

Red Bull’s clear advantage over the rest of the field leads many of Verstappen’s rivals easily expecting him to scythe his way up the order through the race, with Alonso having “no doubt” Verstappen has enough speed to secure a top three finish. The world champion himself does not rule out a top three, but does not expect a repeat of his Hungaroring and Spa heroics of last year, where he won after starting outside the top 10.

“I think a win is tricky from that position but I will try to score as many points as possible,” Verstappen said. “It will be hard to get to the front, but we won’t give up.

“Anything is possible at this track, we have seen some crazy things here, but we have to be realistic. It will be tough but we have good pace so, for sure, we will move forward.”

Last year, the formidable speed of the Ferrari would have meant Leclerc also retained a genuine chance of a podium starting down in 12th. However, he feels he does not enjoy that same advantage over the cars ahead to allow him to reach the podium.

“I think for Carlos [Sainz Jnr], it’s definitely possible. He’s starting a bit further up,” Leclerc said. “On my side, realistically, I think it’s going to be a bit more difficult.

“Especially once I arrive around the top cars – because there, the race pace is very similar to everybody. However, our race pace looks better than Bahrain, so I think we’ll be a bit better on that.”

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Expect the unexpected

Projecting the outcome of a grand prix at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit is never easy as this is anything but a typical track. With more corners than any other circuit on the calendar and barriers lining the track – even if some have been moved back for 2023 – the risk of a spontaneous Safety Car or even a red flag turning the race on its head at a moment’s notice is almost as high as anywhere else on the calendar.

George Russell, Mercedes, Jeddah Corniche Circuit, 2023
Third on the grid gives Russell a shot at the podium

“We saw last year with Checo, how luck and the Safety Car can play a big factor here,” observed Alonso after qualifying.

That reality is one teams will be sensitive to when plotting their strategies for the race. Last year, teams avoided the soft tyre completely during the race and there is a possibility some will do so again on Sunday.

Pirelli expect a one-stop strategy to be the best approach to take once more, starting on the mediums and then pitting between laps 18-25 to switch to hards for the second stint. While Leclerc showed how much benefit there is from having fresh soft tyres for the launch off the line, Jeddah’s surface makes it one of the grippiest grids on the calendar, slightly nullifying that advantage this time around.

Generally lower degradation compared to Bahrain could help Ferrari, who struggled with their tyre wear in the first race relative to their rivals. Meanwhile Mercedes have claimed they have set up both Russell and Hamilton’s cars in an effort to be kinder to their tyres than they were in Bahrain.

But the nature of a high-speed, compact street circuit means not every eventuality can be planned for. And with teams so tightly packed behind the Red Bulls this season, that only increases the risk of drivers tripping over each other and forcing teams to be reactive with their strategies.

There’s also the chance unreliability having an impact on the race, with so many sections of the track offering no place to pull off safely if a driver suffers a failure, almost guaranteed to result in the race being neutralised if it happens.

But after his team mate was hit by a sudden problem on Saturday, the pole winner can only hope he does not lose a chance to potentially lead the championship for the first time in his career on Sunday.

“There’s always reliability concerns, especially around this place,” Perez said. “It is so easy to damage the cars and at the end of the day, there will always be reliability concerns. But hopefully not tomorrow.”

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Qualifying times in full

Position Number Driver Team Q1 time Q2 time (vs Q1) Q3 time (vs Q2)
1 11 Sergio Perez Red Bull 1’29.244 1’28.635 (-0.609s) 1’28.265 (-0.370s)
2 14 Fernando Alonso Aston Martin-Mercedes 1’29.298 1’28.757 (-0.541s) 1’28.730 (-0.027s)
3 63 George Russell Mercedes 1’29.592 1’29.132 (-0.460s) 1’28.857 (-0.275s)
4 55 Carlos Sainz Jnr Ferrari 1’29.411 1’28.957 (-0.454s) 1’28.931 (-0.026s)
5 18 Lance Stroll Aston Martin-Mercedes 1’29.335 1’28.962 (-0.373s) 1’28.945 (-0.017s)
6 31 Esteban Ocon Alpine-Renault 1’29.707 1’29.255 (-0.452s) 1’29.078 (-0.177s)
7 44 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1’29.689 1’29.374 (-0.315s) 1’29.223 (-0.151s)
8 81 Oscar Piastri McLaren-Mercedes 1’29.706 1’29.378 (-0.328s) 1’29.243 (-0.135s)
9 10 Pierre Gasly Alpine-Renault 1’29.890 1’29.411 (-0.479s) 1’29.357 (-0.054s)
10 27 Nico Hulkenberg Haas-Ferrari 1’29.547 1’29.451 (-0.096s)
11 24 Zhou Guanyu Alfa Romeo-Ferrari 1’29.654 1’29.461 (-0.193s) Missed by 0.050s
12 16 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 1’29.376 1’28.903 (-0.473s) Missed by -0.508s
13 20 Kevin Magnussen Haas-Ferrari 1’29.744 1’29.517 (-0.227s) Missed by 0.106s
14 77 Valtteri Bottas Alfa Romeo-Ferrari 1’29.929 1’29.668 (-0.261s) Missed by 0.257s
15 1 Max Verstappen Red Bull 1’28.761 1’49.953 (+21.192s) Missed by 20.542s
16 22 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri-Red Bull 1’29.939 Missed by 0.010s
17 23 Alexander Albon Williams-Mercedes 1’29.994 Missed by 0.065s
18 21 Nyck de Vries AlphaTauri-Red Bull 1’30.244 Missed by 0.315s
19 4 Lando Norris McLaren-Mercedes 1’30.447 Missed by 0.518s
20 2 Logan Sargeant Williams-Mercedes 2’08.510 Missed by 38.581s

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Sector times

Speed trap

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Over to you

Can Verstappen still win from the eighth row? Can Alonso take the fight to Perez?

Share your views on the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in the comments.

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