Parc Ferme: Desert Heat, Sucker Punch and other Saudi stories

JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA - MARCH 27: A general view over the grid preparations showing Pole position qualifier Sergio Perez of Mexico and Oracle Red Bull Racing preparing to start the race during the F1 Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit on March 27, 2022 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Apart from the snoozy mid-race laps, the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix went on to score a credible seven out of ten on my Formula 1 ‘drama-momitor’ last Sunday.

While the unplanned pyrotechnic display arranged by some external state actors during Free Practice initially grabbed everyone’s attention, the on-track action managed to supplant it. What had started in Bahrain continued into the Grand Prix in Jeddah a week later.

With Messrs. Leclerc and Verstappen providing us with riveting demonstrations on how to pass with DRS and make it stick. Max now appears to understand how the process works. Probably after some serious stimulus-response training administered by the good doctor in the intervening period.

However, none of this would have been particularly relevant of course if Sergio Perez had not been robbed of what was shaping up to be a certain race win.

Was it all down to rotten luck for Checo?

JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA - MARCH 27: Sergio Perez of Mexico and Red Bull Racing leads into the first corner during the F1 Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit on March 27, 2022 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Peter Fox/Getty Images)

Not entirely. Yes, the Safety Car’s emergence after he’d pitted for a tire change was a significant factor, but the game was already in play when Red Bull seemed to react to Ferrari’s “Box to Overtake” radio transmission to Leclerc.  Was this a “sucker punch”? I think it was.

Or that was my immediate thought after Leclerc cruised past the Pit Lane entrance. The track was open in front of the Monegasque, and with Ferrari seeming to have the better tire wear performance, Leclerc was certainly capable of putting in a “big one” while Perez got re-shod.

From there onwards it was all downhill for the Mexican who could only spectate as his race weekend flushed itself down the toilet. It required the exceptional race driving talents of Max Verstappen to rescue the team’s dignity after their earlier “schoolboy error”.

Leclerc is no slouch, but when it comes down to the final laps, my chips are on Verstappen

verstappen leclerc finish saudi grand prix

It’s not the dog in the fight, but the fight in the dog. There is only one driver that can go head-to-head with the young Dutchman in these sudden-death situations and that’s Lewis Hamilton (on the same tires of course).

All the rest are grass, and the newly crowned World Champion is the lawnmower. Leclerc put up a good fight initially but once Max relegated him to 2nd place he seemed to have more Eye of the “Cocker Spaniel” about him than “Tiger”. Enabling Christian Horner to retain a smile at the post-race interview and Max to get points on the board and chalk up his first victory of 2022.

As everyone celebrated this on-track action as the future world of F1, the new 2022 regulations were once again credited as the source.

Whilst they have no doubt contributed, it’s is an older regulation, i.e. DRS, that is delivering the goodies. Meanwhile, the trumpeted ability to follow in (relative) closer proximity has yet to demonstrate an independent overtaking event.

Apart from the visual changes, there’s a shakeup in the pecking order of F1 teams

JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA - MARCH 27: A general view over the grid preparations showing Pole position qualifier Sergio Perez of Mexico and Oracle Red Bull Racing preparing to start the race during the F1 Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit on March 27, 2022 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Unsurprisingly, the latter seems to correlate with those who stopped developing their chassis last season to focus their financial investment on this year’s car.

The exception of course is Red Bull, but then they have Adrian Newey “the chassis whisperer” pencilling their designs. Dusted down and brought out of semi-retirement from drawing boats, he is now highly visible again in the Red Bull Pit Box. There are currently still only two cars at the front of the grid, just like last year so no change there.

For sure the last two Grand Prix’s have had more of a spark about them, but I think it is a bit early to declare the war has been won after two battles.

The current state of overtaking in F1 is reflected by Ferraris’ “box to overtake” radio transmission mentioned earlier and the fact that “early braking” has replaced “late braking” as a primary technique to pass another driver.

Not quite what we all had in mind, but at least it’s happening. I suspect we will see additional DRS zones added at more circuits going forward. (Sean Stevens is a Motorsport Consultant)

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