Qualifying: Charles Leclerc P2, Carlos Sainz P5 at Jeddah
“We are quite confident about the outcome of the issue in Bahrain but we didn’t want to take any risks. We can use the first engine a bit later in the season but it was just important to have a clean weekend. We always have a concern about everything but not especially about the engine. It is tight. Not with the Red Bull, because they are in front clearly. But from P3 to P7 it is very, very tight. Let’s see. I am not too pessimistic.” – these were the words of Ferrari team principal Fred Vasseur before the start of the qualifying session for the 2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix at the Jeddah Corniche circuit.
Q1 was therefore under way and Nyck de Vries was the first out on track. However things were not going smoothly for the rookie: he didn’t get out in P3 due to a car issue and now spun his AlphaTauri early in Q1, as Williams’ Logan Sargeant set the pace with a 1:29.721 – only to then have that time expunged after exceeding track limits.
We then saw the first flying laps from the Ferrari cars, and it was not very encouraging: Charles Leclerc slotted into second behind the Haas of Nico Hulkenberg, while Carlos Sainz was last of all: “I really think they’re having to nurse something along at Ferrari,” Martin Brundle pointed out.
Max Verstappen put in an absolute stormer of a lap to put himself in front with a 1:28.761. His teammate Sergio Perez was second but was half a second behind, with Nico Hulkenberg impressing so far as he put himself third and just over a second off the pace. Both Haas cars were in the top four early on with Hulkenberg swiftly followed by his team-mate Magnussen. But Lewis Hamilton then moved into fourth.
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Aside from the Red Bull’s at the top, this was proving just about as unpredictable as we expected: Ferrari and Mercedes improved to fill the second two rows, but Fernando Alonso was yet to set a time after spinning on his flying lap. We were seeing error after error here at this, which suggested conditions were seriously challenging out there. The latest come from Williams’ Logan Sargeant, who brought out yellow flags following a big spin, after which he stopped just inches from the barrier.
After all the concerns about Ferrari’s pace, Charles Leclerc showed the car had some zip by going third, six tenths adrift of Max Verstappen. Fernando Alonso slotted in to fourth spot with Aston Martin team-mate Stroll in 10th. Ferrari man Carlos Sainz’s 1:29.411 lifts him into the top 10 as Alonso and Stroll move third and fourth in their Aston Martins behind the untouchable Red Bulls.
Yuki Tsunoda (Alpha Tauri), Alex Albon (Williams), Nyck de Vries (Alpha Tauri), Lando Norris (McLaren) and Logan Sargeant (Williams) were out in Q1.
Q2 was a go and the Aston Martin cars led us out for the next 15 minutes until five more will be eliminated. Fernando Alonso went fastest, and half a second quicker than he went in Q1, with a 1:28.757. Charles Leclerc was second, three tenths adrift. Max Verstappen had what he described as a “big moment” as he momentarily lost control of his car but corrected it to survive. However, it looked like he had a bigger problem. He was going slowly out on track and said over team radio that there was a problem with his engine. Sergio Perez was now second, one tenth behind Fernando Alonso, while Max Verstappen was out of qualifying! The reigning world champion was out of the car as this GP weekend took a huge twist.
Nico Hulkenberg (Haas), Zhou Guanyu (Alfa Romeo), Kevin Magnussen (Haas), Valtteri Bottas (Alfa Romeo) and Max Verstappen (Red Bull) were out in Q2.
And what a Q3 we had ahead of us! With Max Verstappen out, there were plenty of teams who fancied their chances for some of those front spots on the grid at Jeddah circuit. Alonso, Ocon and Gasly were our early top three – before Charles Leclerc went a tenth quicker than Fernando Alonso. Remember, wherever Charles Leclerc finishes, the Monegasque will start ten places lower than that due to a grid penalty.
However, a few moments later Sergio Perez went quickest by almost half a second! It wouldn’t be Max Verstappen but we looked highly likely to have a Red Bull starting from first spot on the grid. George Russell was third at this stage, with Mercedes team-mate Hamilton fifth. That pair sandwiching Fernando Alonso in his Aston Martin.
Fernando Alonso was last on pole position at the 2012 German Grand Prix. He was in a Ferrari back then but was now trying to take his Aston Martin to the summit. He can’t quite manage it but is on the front row with Perez as things stood. A time of 1:28:265 saw Sergio Perez take pole with a time more than a tenth quicker than Scuderia Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc. Carlos Sainz was fifth, behind Alonso and George Russell. Due to the grid penalty Charles will start 12th.