Following the missile attacks during free practice and a possible mass exodus of all drivers, qualifying kicked off with Sergio Perez firing off a missile of a different kind; scoring his first pole position after 216 races.
Charles Leclerc looked set to score a second in a row after another strong performance from the Ferrari outfit but it wasn't meant to be with the Mexican keeping the red wave honest during the closing stages of an exciting Q3.
A lot of rule changes have been geared towards increasing the safety of cars over the previous years and we never expected these changes to already be tested when Mick Schumacher lost it after clipping the curb at turn nine in Q2. A lot of hearts sunk at the visuals and after being airlifted, he came out on race day looking like nothing happened. Mick looks hungry and with a car that is now relatively competitive, the young German is eager to step out of the shadow of his father.
The other big talking point was Lewis Hamilton’s dismal qualifying session. Look, we always knew that this year was going to be the biggest challenge for Lewis. Circumventing the disappointment from Abu Dhabi, the new car, and the ‘changing of the guard’. Let me explain to those that aren’t aware. Reading between the lines, the plan was likely set for Lewis to win his 8th Championship and then hand over the keys to Mercedes dominance to George but along came the Netflix undercover agent, Michael Masi, who made it exciting for everyone. Things have changed somewhat and now instead of the biggest challenge for Lewis, it’s appearing rather grim as the seven-time World Champion not only failed to make it past Q1 but got beaten, fair and square, by Russell. Toto Wolff dismissed it as a “setup change gone wrong”.
If in Bahrain, Mercedes received the get out of jail free card, this race proved a fair reflection and the healthy wake-up call they could secretly thank the stars for later. One good thing going for Mercedes is the fact that both cars are at least finishing the race while showing some decent race pace. The same can't be said for others. Alonso had the drive of his life fighting hard, firstly with his teammate, much to the surprise of viewers, having the door shut going into turn one and then returning the favour to Ocon coming out of turn two. Great pink on pink action. The Alpine’s showing solid pace which could put them into a position to challenge the best-of-the-rest competition following Ferrari and Red Bull (Mercedes sit in purgatory over this).
Ferrari sold Red Bull a dummy with a pit strategy of the undercut variety, faking a planned stop before Leclerc carried on straight with apparently no plan to pit. This forced Red Bull’s hand who, in hindsight, pitted Perez too early. A masterclass move. Checo got dealt a further shanking when the safety car was deployed following an incident involving Nicholas Latifi on the last corner. The French have a term for this…'Deja Vu'. Could the Canadian be another Netflix agent perhaps? Checo’s problems went from bad to worse when a safety car infringement led to a penalty for getting in front of Carlos Sainz unfairly, forcing the Mexican to give the position back to Sainz.
Alpha Tauri needs to go back to the Haynes manual for hybrid cars because something just isn’t working. Yuki’s car did not even make the start of the race after replacing power units before the race. Attrition seems the big issue for the era so far with Ricciardo, Alonso and Tsunoda not making the end of the race.
The racing seems to be getting closer and closer. The last eight laps proved that with Leclerc and Verstappen, swapping the lead like beach ball at a Tiesto concert. Your final top three with Verstappen first, followed by Leclerc and then Carlos Sainz. Perez finished 4th and George Russell ended the race in 5th.
Despite the racing delivering on the intention of closer action, there’s just one criticism in that we’re just not seeing most of the action. The F1 TV production is letting the team down and I suspect a full overhaul of the way things are going to be handled going forward. Sticking to the production value topic, Netflix’s “Drive to Survive” has been accused of taking their creative license too far causing drama where there isn’t with F1 now planning on having a chat with them about it. But hey, Liberty Media might be in those talks, and you know…drama equals ratings and ratings equals money. I suspect a slight slap on the wrist and a message of “Stop it, stop it…I like it”
On to the topic of Jeddah and whether it should continue… Danger has always been part of motorsport. It’s a high-stakes high-rewards game. Anyone that participates in it will know all too well. Street circuits have always been part of the racing culture and the more runoff room you give, the more chances drivers will take. The changes at Eau Rouge at Spa proved that but removing Jeddah because it’s a street circuit is the incorrect decision. Removing it due to the humanitarian issues and threat to life is the right decision but hey, money talks.
I suspect both the McLaren and Mercedes management meetings this morning included some borrowed phrases from Gunther Steiner’s playbook and plenty of shameful stares down to the ground and the odd tear. But sometimes in life, you need to break it down to build it back up. Both teams have the right resources to come back.
The next race is another street circuit, this time returning to Melbourne for the Australian Grand Prix in two weeks on Sunday 10th April.
Words: Brent Van Der Schyff