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F1: Inaugural Saudi Arabia Grand Prix delivers thrills, spills and need for pills.

Publication: 
Bryan Edwards
chiefofficersnet

Formula One fans across Asia and Australasia had a sleepless night watching the race that could have been the season climax but instead provided a last-minute equalizer that pushes Abu Dhabi to be the penalty-shoot out to decide a season of dogged determination, spectacular long-shots and own goals.

It's a fair bet that pretty much everyone involved in Formula One is in for a week of sleepless nights as the teams travel ten hours across the Middle East and unpack on Thursday ready for the Friday start.

And it all started when the teams arrived in Saudi Arabia and got a first proper look at the new Jeddah track.

Max Verstappen has been in F1 for so long, with such a high reputation, that it seems ridiculous that he's not already had several bites at the World Championship cherry. But this season has been different and he's been running ahead of Lewis Hamilton for a significant part of 2021.

At the end of the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, the two enter the final race of the season in a near-unique position: they are equal on points, both helped by the recent addition of one extra point for fastest time of the day.

The season has been both enlivened and marred by incidents most of which, to my mind at least, have been Verstappen's fault. Both have had broadly the same number of penalties applied over the season. Verstappen and Red Bull are bitter that they suffered penalties in the Saudi race but, as I view the footage from both inside and outside the cars, Verstappen was lucky to have got away so lightly. A five second penalty, applied at the end of the race, shows that race direction, in the form of Michael Masi, has - despite obvious confusion - been trying to keep the competition alive whilst still applying some form of sanction. More on that later.

The Jeddah track is huge: second only to Spa-Francorchamps in length. It is second only to Monza in terms of average speed. And all of this is on what is termed a "street circuit" but which seems to be a definition relating to the presence of walls rather than the use of the track by ordinary traffic. Not that it's had time to be used by ordinary traffic: on Thursday evening, construction of barriers, kerbs and other aspects were still under way and the track was ultra-dusty. By early afternoon on Friday, when FP1 started, it there was no hint of any of that. It has novel features: a metal flat-top kerb is one and a sharp drop off the back of other kerbs which discourages running over the kerb is widely used.

There is another feature which is less welcome: there are, simply, too many blind corners approached at very high speed. The risk of one car rear-ending another is high and happened surprisingly rarely. The reason for that is that, as Mercedes found out to its 25,000 euro cost, the teams are essentially required to adopt the American system of spotters who talk to the drivers non-stop. Hamilton slowed after a hot lap in practice and Mazepin almost ran into the back of him: the FIA said his team should have warned him. In the race, Mazepin did run into the back of Russell. But also in the race, there was a dispute between the FIA and Mercedes over the team communicating with its driver after Hamilton ran into the back of Verstappen.

The track more or less polices, by kerb design and walls, track limits. But there are still places where cutting corners is possible. These look like run-off areas at the start of the corner but by the apex, they are straight lines through the first part of a chicane, for example.

It was at one of these that trouble started: on the straight approaching a chicane, Hamilton overtook Verstappen and was clear and free. As he took the apex of the first part of the chicane, the racing line goes towards the apex of the second part. Hamilton took it, Verstappen tried to outbreak him, missed, took the short-cut and forced his way ahead of Hamilton who had to stamp on the brakes to avoid a collision. Aside from the unsafe return to the track, Verstappen regained the place that Hamilton had taken on the straight. To compound the issue, Hamilton's need to brake let Ocon through to take P2. Where, then, should Verstappen go back to if ordered to take back the place?

It is here that we find out just how hard Masi is working to try to keep the spectacle alive. The race had already had a long safety car period that was replaced by a red flag following Schumacher's depositing of his car into the barrier at Turn 23: that had given Verstappen a 25 second advantage over Hamilton although, because Hamilton stopped under yellows the nett loss would have been more like 17 or 18 seconds. Even so, it was Red Bull's sticking to the original strategy of keeping the first set of tyres until later in the race that put him into P1 with both Mercedes behind him. Under the red flag, tyre changes are free and to not take advantage of that would be foolhardy.

The restart was chaotic and a second red flag ensued, this time much more promptly than before.

Each time, the race was started as a standing start. I understand the principles but with every race of the weekend - and some practice sessions - showing that Turns 1-3 result in contact, sometimes heavy, with emotions in turmoil, my head was insisting that a rolling start would have been a good idea. More by luck than judgement it seems, there were no serious incidents on the second restart - i.e. the third start of the day. By this time, we were an hour and fifteen minutes into the race and only 15 laps had been completed, only one of them under racing conditions.

Practice and Qualifying had demonstrated something very serious: no one can see round corners, either ahead of them or behind them and with solid walls or barriers above car height, the drivers are - as in parts of Singapore and Monaco, driving in a roofless tunnel. But in Jeddah, the tunnels have sharp blind corners, one after another. It's a fantastic driver's track - if there is no one else driving on it. But there are also long straights or para-straights where there is long visibility, DRS and heavy braking zones.

All of this contributed to what happened next. There was a long conversation between Masi and Red Bull and a similar conversion between Masi and Mercedes. Masi offered Red Bull that he would "settle" the case if Verstappen dropped back to second. He offered Mercedes to settle if Verstappen dropped behind Hamilton. Those two things were not the same because Ocon was in second place and Hamilton in third. So to drop the Red Bull behind the Mercedes, was to put Verstappen in third. Red Bull accepted, of course, Mercedes questioned it. Mas then had to explain to Red Bull that he meant drop behind Hamilton. Red Bull were understandably miffed but the FIA giveth and the FIA taketh away. That, however, related only to cutting the corner: no mention had been made of the unsafe return to the track.

That all happened during the red flag period and after the start which, in practical terms, rendered moot the debate over how many places. But it wasn't over. For the restart, the cars shuffled: Ocan 1, Hamilton 2, Verstappen 3. In the first corner, three abreast, it sorted itself out with Verstappen 1, Hamilton 2, Ocon 3.

Then Verstappen made a similar error and was told to give that place back to Hamilton. Just to clarify, same problem, same instruction, second time.

It having been settled that Verstappen had to give the place to Hamilton, he tried to time the move so that he would be within one second of Hamilton as they passed a DRS timing point so that he could retake the lead. He backed off, dramatically, fortunately in a relatively straight part of the track so Hamilton could see him. Verstappen parked the Red Bull in the middle of the track. There was space to his left but Hamilton, having had no notification that Verstappen was giving the place back, had no context for the rapid closing speed. As he decided to go left, Verstappen moved left and accelerated. Later, he said that he left space, for a reason he did not understand Hamilton slowed down and did not overtake so he moved to the racing line and shot off. That's not implausible but it's not an excuse. Hamilton clipped Verstappen's rear left tyre, damaged the right end-plate on his own front wing and for the second time this season that type of damage appeared to improve performance in race conditions.

Verstappen took the view that he tried to give the place back, Hamilton appeared to not want it and so he raced on. Ordered to give it back, and with Hamilton being aware of what was going on, he did so, cleanly - and then seconds later used the DRS to retake Hamilton, a move that generated open approval in the Mercedes garage. It was fast, clean and clever.

It is here that the question of communications comes up again. Masi said he told Mercedes that Verstappen was letting Hamilton through in good time; Mercedes said that they got the message just as Hamilton came up to the rapidly slowing Verstappen and didn't know why the car was where it was at the speed it was doing. Hamilton says he got the message after the collision. Verstappen said "I was letting him overtake; he didn't want to overtake." For me, the incident showed driver fatigue: Hamilton said "I didn't know what was going on." That says a lot: was he being cautious or was he being indecisive? Later, Verstappen was told in no uncertain terms to let Hamilton through and Hamilton was told clearly what was happening and that's when Verstappen's brilliant re-take happened.

From then on it was game on: Hamilton was flying, Verstappen was brilliant - almost as brilliant as his hold-your-breath last lap in qualifying which, even Hamilton fans lamented, ended up in the wall on what is possibly the easiest corner on the track - the wide, open last corner that starts the run to the line.

Then Hamilton made one of those incisive cuts that he is so good at, making a corner into a straight. As soon as he was in front of Verstappen - literally within half a lap - Verstappen's pace deteriorated. Hamilton just streaked ahead. Three or four laps later we would be told that Verstappen's rear tyres had gone off. His second place was safe - 25 seconds ahead of Ocon. Minds swirled on the pit wall: if he stopped for a fresh set of tyres, he would probably get the fastest lap, at that time easily in Hamilton's hands with the extra point that goes with it. If he could get that, then he would go into the last race with a two point advantage.

But the stewards had been chewing something over. Honestly, at the end of the race we didn't know what they were deciding on, but with just a few laps to go we knew what they had decided. Verstappen was to take a five second penalty. That meant that the option for a stop and a last minute dash for FTD was out of the question: he would have come out behind Ocon and, perhaps, behind Bottas in the second Mercedes. Red Bull the team, already without Perez after a crash after the first restart, needed every point for team purposes and, of course, to come fourth would, even with FTD mean 11 points deficit to Hamilton and, crucially, starting Abu Dhabi three points behind.

Verstappen and Horner sulked. Bottas who grabbed third by just one tenth of a second and Hamilton who, still in recovery from CoVid-19 a year ago, sat behind a fence trying to compose himself before the interviews - he failed. He stumbled over his words, had trouble answering questions and made simple statements anxious to escape. On the podium, the celebrations were short, there was no photo-op for the top three and the constructor's representative and Verstappen walked off quickly - although it is far from clear whether than was sulking or because he, too, was suffering the effects of a very long, very tough race in very hot and humid conditions: he had been trying to rehydrate from as soon as he got out of the car.

After the race, Verstappen was given a further ten second penalty for causing the collision when he "brake tested" Hamilton resulting in Hamilton's colliding with his rear left wheel but his margin over Bottas was such that he retained second place. The unsafe return to the track seems to not be under investigation. But we do know know that the five second penalty was for the same incident: leaving the track and gaining an advantage. That seems strange as he had - albeit messily - given the place back.

Was the race a success? From a safety perspective absolutely not. From an entertainment perspective - kind of. The design of the trace and barriers and placing of the cameras means that it is impossible to keep up with who is where: there are far too few long shots from which anything can be seen to be developing. Aerial shots make it look as if we are watching Scalextric. So in the phase where everyone is bunched up, there is more puzzlement than involvement from the TV watcher's point of view. Also, the director had the attention span of a gnat so that we did not get time to watch what was happening at a particular corner either because, where possible he panned or, otherwise, just switched to a different shot. The result is that we never saw most of the field throughout the entire race unless the FIA interjected some of its own on-board footage by way of replay. But the strategy was fantastic, the driving of the top two, when we were able to see it, was stunning (and what we saw of others was far from shabby). There were lots of passing manoeuvres but we never got to see them.

But was it exciting? Oh, yes.

There might be several people in need of sedatives if they expect to get to sleep after that.

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