Here we are, two races into our 2023 Formula 1 season now done and dusted, a clearer picture of what to expect this campaign is starting to emerge.
Needless to say, Red Bull are soaring solitary at heights currently unattainable by other teams, and while Aston Martin seem to be the only team delivering respectable performances, Mercedes are still astray in the abyss their narrow sidepods threw them in, while Ferrari continue to dig themselves into a pit that gets deeper race by race.
On the other hand, Alpine showed up to the party in Saudi Arabia after their “so and so” debut in Bahrain, with both Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly scoring points on the second time of asking.
Going back to Red Bull, they didn’t bother to hide their superiority in Jeddah, Max Verstappen topped all practice sessions, and was clearly set for pole in qualifying, but that was before his driveshaft broke, or got broken as the Dutchman was a bit rough with his RB19 over the kerbs. Regardless, the outcome was the same.
Enter Sergio Perez, who proved he enjoys driving around the Jeddah Corniche Circuit, grabbing pole position and running away with it on Sunday, securing his fifth F1 career win, after a second career pole.
But the Big Question is, can Checo sustain this level of performance all season? Let’s contemplate it in this takeaway from the 2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.
Perez shines occasionally in Verstappen’s team as he did in Jeddah
I will start this by stating that I really respect Sergio Perez, and his survival in F1 this long, and was one of those hoping for the Red Bull move that transpired after Racing Point/Aston Martin dropped him ahead of 2021.
He is a decent racer, a tyre whisperer and always delivered unexpected results in inferior F1 machinery, and has been the closest teammate Max Verstappen has had in Red Bull for some time now.
On some occasions, Perez delivers better weekends than Verstappen, maybe because he ups his game or because he enjoys a certain circuit more than another, or simply because his double F1 Champion teammate simply has a rare off-weekend.
And he is the keyword, “Rare”. Recently, it is rare to see Max having a below-par weekend, it happens, he is human after all, but in general, he is operating at a seriously high level these days, and even if Checo beats him at a certain race on merit – I mean when both are on it but #11 is better than #1 – it remains a scarce occasion.
And I believe Jeddah was simply one of those scarce moments when Perez was better than Max, as while the latter made quick work of the whole grid from 15th, once he was behind his teammate, the gap stubbornly refused to go below 4s or so.
Whenever Verstappen came closer, Perez simply had the answer and pulled ahead, and knew he was in good position to prevent Red Bull from playing any games with strategy. The radio communication said as much.
So good was Perez that Verstappen knew it, and started digging into the endless list of excuses F1 drivers have, complaining about his driveshaft causing problems again as well as vibrations. He then would go faster, only for Perez to go even faster. Busted!
But sadly, talent and age mean that Red Bull is Max’s team and will remain so in the foreseeable future, unless he shows up in Melbourne and suddenly forgets how to drive.
I am sure Perez will have some more strong weekends this season, but in the end, he cannot sustain that level all season long strong, while Verstappen can, and that is why Red Bull will make sure he’s happy all the time.
FIA’s first big fumble of 2023
The way in which the stewards in Jeddah administered Fernando Alonso’s penalty was a complete and utter joke and it’s becoming frustrating to see these kinds of fumbles from F1’s governing body and even more frustrating to talk and comment on them, but sadly we cannot but weigh in.
Now I have read and listened to many explanations on what happened with Alonso’s penalty all over the place, and while they might make sense or reflect what actually happened, it only shows that the system is too complicated even for those who built it, as taking over 35 laps to decide a penalty is a farce, and the same applies for changing the race result hours after the chequered flag.
But here’s what I feel actually happened. During the race, Mercedes radioed George Russell and told him to push and stay within five seconds of Alonso because he might be getting a penalty, this way he can capitalize on it.
That was before anything was mentioned about any penalty and no one knew why the Aston Martin driver would be getting a penalty and what Mercedes where on about.
So most probably, Mercedes complained to the stewards about Alonso’s penalty-serving pitstop (a five-second penalty for missing his starting grid position) as we know teams watch their rivals diligently during races to catch any mishap which would benefit them.
This explains Mercedes’ radio to Russell, and the trigger-happy stewards slapped Alonso with a penalty before Aston Martin objected and got their way, restoring their driver’s 100th podium.
Whatever went on in between, and how the decision was made is irrelevant as the outcome was another FIA embarrassment, with the document they issued to explain their stewards’ U-Turn a piece of legal literature only lawyers would enjoy reading.
Oh, and that Safety Car that wasn’t needed….
Another FIA mishap during the race was the Safety Car deployed when Lance Stroll’s Aston Martin broke down near a recovery exit, which clearly was not needed.
On Twitter, Tiff Needell said that the GPS showed the stricken Aston Martin was still on track, and based on that the Race Director sent out the Safety Car, and he rightfully added that a mere look at the feed from hundreds of cameras at the track would’ve given out the true position of Stroll’s car, confirming that there was no need for the Safety Car.
Needless to say, we got deprived of some proper driving and overtakes by Verstappen through the field as he benefitted from the Safety Car and ended up behind Perez, while Ferrari’s race was over as they pitted just before that.
It’s not fair to blame Ferrari’s misfortune on the Safety Car as they did not do themselves any favors still chasing that elusive setup Fred Vasseur blamed for their Bahrain woes, as the SF-23’s appetite for tyres wasn’t any less in Jeddah, while Charles Leclerc 10-place grid penalty also meant the team was starting their second race weekend this season on the back foot.
Quick hits from Jeddah
Another tough race for Mercedes, but at least the team and their drivers can now look forward to Imola, when they are planning launch what should effectively be a B-Spec W14, but to put things in perspective, they actually beat the Ferraris.
Fernando Alonso was back to his politicking best, slamming the FIA after the race for the penalty, that is before it was reversed. He will definitely entertain us on and off track this season.
Lando Norris denied McLaren were in crisis after Bahrain, but his uncharacteristic error in Q1 in Jeddah showed he is not in a happy place, and the fact Oscar Piastri beat him in qualifying and the race where he scored points will not make Norris’ mindset any better, nor the announcement that McLaren’s tech boss James Key has been given his marching orders on Thursday. There is a crisis at McLaren, with Zak Brown uncharacteristically silent these days, and the only positive thing for Norris now is the fat paycheck he gets from Woking.