Five key questions ahead of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

The second race of the Formula One season takes place in Saudi Arabia this weekend, and it promises to reveal more details about the competitive order in 2023. Red Bull dominated the season-opener in Bahrain, but that does not mean it will be the case in Jeddah, where different track characteristics could shake up the order. Ahead of the second round of the 2023 season, here’s a look at some of the big questions ahead of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

Is Red Bull’s advantage as big as it seems?

There is a strong argument that Max Verstappen’s performance in Bahrain actually underplay His real advantage over the rest of the field. The defending champion cruised to victory with a 39-second lead over his nearest non-Red Bull rival – the Aston Martin of Fernando Alonso – and there’s no doubt he could have gone even faster if under pressure .

The counter point for anyone expecting a more competitive race in Saudi Arabia is that the Bahrain International Circuit played to the RB19’s strengths and exposed the weaknesses of its main rivals, Ferrari and Mercedes. Red Bull’s two traditional rivals struggled with tire management during the race in Bahrain, one of the most extreme circuits for tire degradation past on the calendar.

Saudi Arabia, whose track surface is very smooth and fast, flowing corners present a different type of challenge, which could help Red Bull close the gap to the entire field. What’s more, GPS data from Bahrain indicated that Ferrari held a top speed advantage over Red Bull, which should translate into greater performance relative to the RB19 in Jeddah.

Given the size of Red Bull’s advantage in Bahrain, it still seems silly to bet against Verstappen and teammate Sergio Pérez this weekend, but there are real reasons to believe the gap on the field could narrow.

Can Aston Martin challenge for the win?

Fernando Alonso grabbed headlines in Bahrain with his stunning drive to the podium for Aston Martin. The result wasn’t a complete shock to anyone following pre-season testing, but it was still a remarkable result in the context of Aston Martin’s seventh-place finish in the 2022 constructors’ standings. The question now is whether this can be replicated, or perhaps improved, in a different circuit.

Like Red Bull’s advantage, one of Aston Martin’s key strengths in Bahrain was its superior tire management. In qualifying, the Aston Martin was the third fastest car (only 0.004s faster than the Mercedes and 0.336s slower than the fastest Ferrari) but progress through the field became easier in the later stages of the race as Ferrari and Mercedes made trouble. faced.

That may not happen in Jeddah, but there is no reason to believe that Aston Martin will suddenly be out of the podium hunt. The win still seems like a stretch, but don’t rule out some drama in Jeddah. The street circuit is known for its big crashes and safety cars, which could present an opportunity to win the race for none other than Verstappen – who better than Fernando Alonso to capitalize on other drivers’ misfortune.

Will McLaren improve?

McLaren’s first race of 2023 couldn’t have gotten any worse, so the simple answer to that question is yes. A reliability issue saw Oscar Piastre retire after just 15 laps and Lando Norris took the last of the finishers after making six pit stops to increase the pneumatic pressure on his car. There were flashes of promising performance for Norris between pit stops, but this was hardly fair compared to his rivals as new tires were fitted to the car.

McLaren has been open about its missed performance targets over the winter and will not have any major updates to its car until the fourth round of the season in Azerbaijan. Until then, the team will continue to try to make the best of a bad situation, relying on heroic performances from its two drivers.

What next for Mercedes?

After just one qualifying session of the new season, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff has admitted his team’s car concept needs a serious rethink in order to be competitive. That said, Wolff appeared to concede defeat before the first race and questioned how the team got it so wrong as well as what it would do next.

After finishing the race in fifth, Lewis Hamilton revealed that Mercedes engineers did not listen to him about the direction of development over the winter, adding that “accountability” was needed within the team. In an open letter to her fans, Mercedes has since made it clear that she does not hold any one person responsible for the problems she has faced, while admitting that it will take a long time to set things right. It will take

A planned upgrade is due to reach the car at Imola in mid-May, which is expected to replace the team’s SidePod concept, but Wolff’s comments indicated that more fundamental changes are needed in the way the car generates downforce. Is. Saudi Arabia is unlikely to be a happy hunting ground for the team, as GPS data shows it losing the majority of its lap times to Red Bull in the high-speed corners.

What’s happening at Ferrari?

Unlike Wolff, Ferrari boss Fred Vasser defended the competitiveness of his team’s car in Bahrain, although his comments were cast in a slightly different light by the surprise departure of Ferrari’s head of vehicle concept Davide Sanchez the following week. According to reports in the Italian media there has been a culture clash between some of the team’s senior engineers and Ferrari CEO Benedetto Vigna, which eventually brought about the departure of former team principal Mattia Binotto at the end of last year.

While Ferrari always faces the pressure of Italy when it doesn’t win, it looks like Vasseur’s face is tougher than ever. He has consistently said that the result of the first race will not dictate the direction of the entire season, but it is difficult to see how anything other than a win in Saudi Arabia will help steady the ship.

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