Saudi Arabia GP: Max Verstappen's Bahrain dominance set to come under scrutiny

Winner of season's opening race has not become F1 champion for last six years

Red Bull Racing's Max Verstappen after winning the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix on March 5, 2023. AFP
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Sunday’s second round of the Formula One World Championship in Saudi Arabia will reveal more detail of this year’s promising new plot lines.

As anticipated after pre-season testing, champions Red Bull are pacesetters – but are the iconic brands of Ferrari or Aston Martin the chief pursuers?

Is the Maranello revolution being masterminded by new boss Fred Vasseur a launching pad to greater glory or yet another series of self-inflicted wounds as they shed key staff?

Pundits say Max Verstappen’s easy victory in Bahrain is evidence he is set to run away with his third successive title.

And Mercedes’ George Russell even predicted the Dutchman, who has won 10 of the last 12 GPs, could win all 23 this season.

But Red Bull design genius Adrian Newey was more cautious because of the unique characteristics of the opening round track. “It’s from a sample of one,” he said.

And history backs him up. Twelve months ago Charles Leclerc’s opening victory led to a widespread coronation, only to be followed by a string of disasters and an all-too predictable tailspin.

In fact the winner of the opening race has become champion just three times in the last 13 years, and not once in the last six.

Far from being a predictor of form, Bahrain victory has, in fact, usually been the kiss of death for title hopefuls.

Jeddah, too, is far from typical of the tracks to come. But sparks will surely fly at the most dangerous event of the year.

The Corniche night race will take place behind unparalleled security after last year’s rocket attack on a local oil depot almost led to a driver walkout and a cancelled GP.

Their biggest threat now comes from the snaking track itself, where speeds average 253 kph.

Verstappen wins in Saudi Arabia in 2022

There is precious little run off area and plenty of concrete as cars hurtle towards top speeds of 360 kph on a track where 83 per cent of the 6.1km distance is spent at full throttle.

The two hairpins at either end and two other corners are the only low speed sections along its entire length.

So lethal is the circuit that drivers requested five corners be moved back to improve sight lines and speeds on to the back straight cut.

Even for experienced F1 drivers setting a competitive lap time is a triumph of nerve as much as skill.

With three GPs in just 16 months the walls have claimed the best of them – Leclerc, Carlos Sainz, Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton and Russell included. Mick Schumacher’s giant 2022 accident probably set the clock ticking early on his F1 exit.

The 2021 race saw one of the best duels of modern times as Hamilton and Verstappen went wheel to wheel, leading to accusation, penalty and even a controversial crash between the duo as the title fight headed for its unforgettable conclusion in Abu Dhabi.

Two years on the Dutchman remains the force to beat while the Englishman, the winner that day, leads a team mired in controversy. After a disastrous qualifying outside Manama, Mercedes have done a design U-turn that has effectively torpedoed their title hopes for 2023.

Although Saudi’s fast sweeps will favour them more than Bahrain, the real fruits of that work will not be seen for around another two months.

Speculation continues to grow over Hamilton’s future at the Silver Arrows as his chances of landing that record eighth title at Mercedes recede.

Meanwhile the high-speed Saudi track is more likely to help move the red race machines closer to Verstappen.

Leclerc’s breakdown in Bahrain, his second electronics issue that weekend, sees his car labelled fast but fragile and pressure building, already, on new team boss, Vasseur.

Behind the scenes the feverish atmosphere at Maranello intensified still further as the fallout from 2022 continues. Three more integral figures have left and three more rumoured to be on their way out. Disruption continues with highly rated head of aero, David Sanchez, departing for a job with a UK rival.

While double champion Fernando Alonso refuses to yet believe in the sudden rise of his new team, Aston Martin, to F1’s second power.

“I have the same feeling from testing; like it’s too good to be true,” he admitted.

“And you're always expecting that something will take you a step back, and back to reality. But it seems real. I am curious to go to Jeddah and Australia. If we are strong in the next two races, I think we will have a very good 2023.”

All F1 fans must be keeping their fingers firmly crossed.

Updated: March 16, 2023, 3:58 AM