Verstappen, Leclerc entertain but shadow hangs over Saudi GP

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Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc provided a great on-track spectacle at Sunday’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, but the headlines generated off track this week will rightly continue to hang over this event for a long while to come.

It was a strange F1 race weekend, with the 48 hours before the race dominated by a nearby missile attack on an oil depot 10km from the circuit. At one point, it looked like F1’s 20 drivers would refuse to take part in the event and after agreeing to race they have demanded F1 re-evaluate its decision to continue to race in the country long term.

It would be wrong to focus first on the grand prix given the events of the days leading up to it.

Saudi Grand Prix controversy to rumble on

The idea of the Saudi Arabian GP going ahead was not a certainty on Friday evening and the early hours of Saturday morning.

F1’s drivers met for over four hours to discuss the safety of the event. At one stage they were unified in wanting to boycott the event but were talked around by Formula One boss Stefano Domenicali, team bosses and Saudi governmental officials after assurances about safety were made.

Saudi officials said they would have cancelled the race for a genuine threat, which it did not feel the oil depot attack was, despite being a facility owned by F1 sponsor Aramco. Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the attack.

It’s clear the issue will not simply be left in Saudi Arabia when Formula One leaves the country in the next 24 hours. Drivers have already agreed to discuss the future of the race with F1 in the coming weeks and hopefully talks can be productive.

There is no doubt F1 and Saudi officials are determined the race, which signed a 15-year contract to be a grand prix host, to continue. Prince Abdulaziz, the Kingdom’s sports minister, said Saudi Arabia is willing to provide whatever assurances the teams and drivers want to ensure it stays part of F1’s calendar.

F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali said: “Of course there is tension, things to improve, we don’t want to be political on that, but I believe we are playing a very important role in the modernization of this country, we are focusing on making sure this is at the center of our agenda”.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff also said F1 can be a force for positive change in the Middle East.

From a racing perspective, the event delivered another dramatic race, but there are serious questions about the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix which F1 must address before the sport can return.

Verstappen and Leclerc entertain again

“Well done to Max, that was nice.”

That was the verdict of Charles Leclerc after finishing the grand prix just half a second behind Max Verstappen, following another epic duel for victory — their second in the space of eight days. Based on the last two races and the comparative pace of their two cars, Formula One fans ought to get used to the idea of Verstappen and Leclerc fighting for wins. It feels like it’s been a long time coming.

A widely shared video of a young Verstappen and Leclerc after a 2012 kart race responding to an incident — or “inchident”, as the young Monaco-born Leclerc says — went viral again this week, showing just how far back this great rivalry goes. The two drivers were tipped as future F1 superstars from the moment they arrived in the paddock.

The Jeddah battle was a reverse of what we saw in Bahrain, where Leclerc shrewdly let Verstappen pass him on the run down to Turn 1, knowing he could follow closely through Turns 2 and 3 and pass at Turn 4, with the help of DRS. Verstappen had learned his lesson this time and there was a clear reluctance in their own fight to pass each other at the final corner of the Saudi circuit, which comes before the long start-finish straight where DRS is available.

Four laps from the finish he resisted the urge to pass Leclerc on the final corner and won a drag race from there to Turn 1, taking a lead he would not relinquish.

It was the double-whammy of being a thrilling battle and another ringing endorsement of F1’s new cars, which were designed to allow closer following and better racing. The cars are two-for-two in achieving that so far this year.

Asked what the final laps were like, Verstappen said: “Qualifying laps! It was tough.”

He added: “I had a good feeling with the car and the tyres were holding on quite well through the high speed then had a few good opportunities, but Charles really played it smart in the last corner so it was not easy for me to actually get by, and of course then I had to line myself up again to have another go.

“Eventually I had a go and got ahead but once I got ahead it was like four laps flat out trying to stay ahead because Charles was consistently in my DRS. It was quite tough out there.”

Leclerc was disappointed to lose but was happy to reflect on how good the duel at the front had been.

“It’s obviously disappointing to lose the win so late in the race but it was a fun fight,” Leclerc said. “It was very difficult as we had two cars that were in a very different place, I was very strong in the first sector, all the corners, and basically much less strong in the straights.

“It was very tricky, I tried to have the DRS in the last corner, it worked twice but didn’t the last time. Then we had the yellow flag, the one where I could have had a chance to be alongside into turn 1, I had no DRS there, a bit of a shame, but it’s part of the game. We’ll try again next race.”

While great to see the good natured battle develop, it is wrong to just assume these two will race cleanly all year. Verstappen barged Leclerc out of the way to win the Austrian Grand Prix in 2019 and his championship battle with Lewis Hamilton last year started out with similar good vibes only to descend into tension and involve three on-track collisions and a handful of other contentious moments.

If Verstappen and Leclerc are closely matched as we get deeper into the season, expect them to be far less polite with each other in their wheel to wheel encounters — that’s just the nature of motor racing.

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