Saudi Arabian GP: Hamilton or Verstappen - which driver does Jeddah Street Circuit favour?

Do the ultra high speed changes of direction favour Verstappen’s Red Bull, which has front end grip problems, or Hamilton’s Mercedes which suffers at the rear?

After the simmering tensions of Qatar Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton take their enthralling title fight to Saudi Arabia’s sun-baked corniche.

But 20 Grands Prix in (each of which has generated seven million pages of set-up data per car) you’d think we’d have enough evidence to accurately calculate who will have the edge for the penultimate round of the Formula One world championship.

Such is this season that valid predictions remain as elusive as ever for the newest addition to the F1 calendar.

Do the ultra high speed changes of direction favour Verstappen’s Red Bull, which has front end grip problems, or Hamilton’s Mercedes which suffers at the rear?

Jeddah claims the distinction of being the fastest street track in F1, ripping alongside the Red Sea for great swathes of its 6.1km distance at over 300kph.

But it’s not the speed that will catch the drivers’ attention but the looming crash barriers.

Most modern F1 circuits have extensive run off areas which mean the penalty for over-reaching is rarely severe. It’s a concept that favours those of mediocre talent. Not so Jeddah.

The restrictions of the location require high-tech impact barriers, widely used in America’s Indycar series, lining the very edge of the track.

With the constant changes of direction, flicking left and right, at high speed through 27 snaking corners (another F1 record) the drivers will be only too aware of the high price they could pay for the slightest mistake.

Lookout Haas, particularly, where Nikita Mazepin’s billionaire father has just forked out around £200,000 for a new chassis because his son was unhappy with the performance of the old one.

But to add to the jeopardy in Jeddah a night time race means falling track temperatures and constantly changing grip levels, a ‘green’ track surface never raced on before, as well as the novelty of three DRS overtaking zones.

Hamilton, no lover of the computer simulator, has reportedly spent long hours doing just that to ensure no stone is left unturned for the new venue.

But tensions are sure to remain high after Qatar where Red Bull boss Christian Horner’s rising frustration resulted in a television rant at officialdom over a Verstappen grid penalty that earned him a punishment from the stewards.

Earlier he had insinuated Mercedes' recent speed came from pushing the boundaries of  F1’s wing flexing rules.

Mercedes insisted they had simply come to a better understanding of their car’s set-up.

And for all Red Bull’s words, crunching the data suggests Mercedes' recent speed is as much a factor of Milton Keynes' fading form as their own advances.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff says the accusations have awakened “the lion” and the “superhero” in his champion racer.

Max Verstappen of Red Bull Racing. Getty Images

Hamilton and Verstappen must marvel at how they got to this place separated by just eight points with two rounds remaining, when both have had the chance to be out of sight by now.

Hamilton led the championship for the first two months, winning three of the first four rounds.

Another year of Mercedes’ domination appeared on the cards but he won just one of the next 10 Grands Prix in one of the biggest performance dips of his career.

While the Dutchman will reflect he has led nearly three times as many laps as Hamilton, won nine races and at one stage had a 32-point advantage.

He professes not to dwell on 40 points thrown away at Silverstone and Hungary in accidents caused by his Mercedes rivals. With those on his tally this championship would have been his long ago.

Now it is his Mercedes arriving off the back of back-to-back wins.

Having taken the pain of a grid penalty in Brazil Hamilton has the benefit of a fresher, faster engine for these crucial last two races.

The engine, which romped to victory from the back of the field at Interlagos was labelled “spicy” by Wolff as he promised its return at this weekend’s high speed track.

Will it prove so effective? Mercedes’ V6 suffers a greater degree of fade in performance from race to race than its rival so it’s difficult to know what edge, if any, it will bring to Saudi Arabia.

Despite that there is a palpable feeling in the paddock the momentum is with Mercedes.

Verstappen, though, will have other ideas, as he faces the first chance to tie up this championship.

If he finishes in the top two he can get it done depending on where Hamilton finishes, otherwise it all goes to a showdown in Abu Dhabi on December 12.

Updated: December 1st 2021, 7:24 AM