Verstappen rivals wary, if anyone can win from 15th he can

JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA - MARCH 17: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands and Oracle Red Bull Racing prepares to drive in the garage during practice ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia at Jeddah Corniche Circuit on March 17, 2023 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Max Verstappen will start the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in 15th place but none of his rivals were ruling out the Formula 1 championship leader fighting for victory on Sunday.

Red Bull’s F1 double world champion was sidelined by a sudden driveshaft failure in qualifying on Saturday after dominating every practice session.

Teammate Sergio Perez will start from the top slot instead, for the second year in a row in Jeddah, but mindful that a safety car interlude wrecked his chances in 2022 when Verstappen won. The Dutch driver started fourth that time.

“I think, there is no doubt that he will be on the podium, probably, minimum,” said Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso, who starts on the front row.

“Like Fernando says, so many things can happen in a race, you know, but I do expect him to come back,” agreed Verstappen’s teammate Perez, who said he would focus on his own race rather than the ‘lion behind’.

Mercedes driver George Russell, who qualified third on a circuit where overtaking is relatively easy, expected to see Verstappen in his mirrors: “When you’ve got a car that quick you can kind of do whatever you want.”

Wolff: Maybe they’ve done it on purpose to win from all the way back

He had also predicted, after the Bahrain season opener, that Red Bull could win every race this season, and said after Saturday’s qualy in Jeddah: “We saw what Max did last year from 15th in Spa and he’s got a faster race car this year.”

Verstappen won in Belgium last year from 14th on the grid, after being one of eight drivers to take engine penalties, while Perez started second.

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, who will start 12th after qualifying second but with a 10 place grid drop, said Red Bull were on another planet.

Former Mercedes driver and 2016 world champion Nico Rosberg also chipped in on Sky Sports television: “(From) 15th seems like a bit too much to ask. But with that lucky safety car, it could be possible,” he said.

Fellow pundit and 1996 champion Damon Hill agreed: “Max has got the car to do it provided it’s reliable. He’s got the car and the speed to be able to carve his way through the pack, he’s just got to stay out of trouble.”

After qualifying, Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff quipped: “Maybe they’ve done it on purpose to win from all the way back.”

Red Bull boss Christian Horner preferred to praise Perez’s pole lap: “It’s a great opportunity for Checo (Perez), important to convert that (pole). We’re going to have two different races going on in the grand prix on Sunday.” (Reporting by Alan Baldwin)