The Saudi Arabian Grand Prix produced another remarkable tangle between Red Bull and Ferrari, with Mercedes yet to show they can compete this season. Is Lewis Hamilton yesterday’s man?
Many were expecting the Mercedes team to come back streamlined, chastened and improved after getting away with their troubles last weekend.
The collapse of the Red Bull cars at the race’s finale had gifted them a podium place, and showed that with Hamilton’s persistence they could stay in touch while they put together an improved car.
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But if anything, Hamilton’s prospects appear even bleaker than last weekend. A diabolical showing in Saturday’s qualifying meant he ended up starting in 15th place, and he could only scrap to 10th, aided by the struggles of those ahead of him rather than any meaningful boost in his Mercedes.
His teammate George Russell took fifth place, a step up of a single position. The team improved upon their lot, but not to any degree that suggests meaningful progress for their next setup.
The Melbourne Grand Prix is a fortnight away, and while it is the traditional season-opener, it appears unlikely that Mercedes will be able to kickstart their campaign there.
There was however a breakthrough for Red Bull. Their first pole position, with Sergio Perez, their first win of the season, with Max Verstappen, and their first race finishes for the campaign for both their drivers. The questions of a return to their previous reputation for a lack of reliability can be put to the back of their mind for now, especially given the cars weathered the intense heat of the track even in the evening, and perhaps their problems with a fuel pump have now been resolved.
Their sister cars at AlphaTauri also appeared to have banished that particular problem, even if Yuki Tsunoda did not start due to another fault.
After the race, Verstappen talked of playing ‘the long game’ and as he pushed and prodded Charles Leclerc, pulling him across the track and swapping positions, his temper never looked likely to boil over. Just as last week when he seemed to be prepared to drive within himself to play percentages, he seems to have relaxed into his career now he has proved himself as champion. The move from Ayrton Senna to Alain Prost might not be the glamorous move, but it is the sensible one if he wishes to build a legacy and find a more sustainable level of intensity.
In second today, but still leading the overall championship, Leclerc now appears to be the man to prove the antagonist to Verstappen’s protagonist. The champion has his title to defend, and one of the best cars to do it in. He has straight line speed, the Ferraris have the advantage in the corners. Enjoyably, Leclerc has little interest in spoiling for passive aggression or active aggression, he loves to race.
This is a driver who has built his career in the pack, used to attacking and defending. Now he has to do that with just one or two rivals at any one time, he might consider himself the ideal opponent to test Verstappen. While Hamilton and the new champion shunted and competed at the top, it was in many ways a phoney war with each driver often having the demonstrable upper hand. So far this season, there has only been fortune, yellow and red flags to separate the two 24-year-olds.
For now, the rivalry appears productive and respectful, with the two acquainted and having no track record in F1 to build a mutual antipathy. If Hamilton really does fade from consideration for this season’s championship - and it certainly appears this is more than just possible - then we can look forward to the disintegration of a friendship and the creation of a new ill-tempered battle to decide supremacy.
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