F1 Saudi Arabian GP takeaways: Verstappen’s a class above, Haas takes advantage

3 9 24 Saudi GP Takeaways

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There was always that one person in school. Everyone knew they were getting an A+ in every class, working harder than everyone else and quietly running away with the race to write a valedictorian speech.

They stood up after 10 minutes on test days, handed in their perfect exam, and went home early.

You know that person. We all know that person. Max Verstappen is that person in Formula One right now. The reigning champion secured his ninth-consecutive F1 victory on Saturday with a clinical (leisurely?) stroll to the top of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix podium.

An early safety car brought out by a Lance Stroll crash didn’t threaten his win. Red Bull gave him hard tires, which he managed perfectly over the final 40-plus laps. Having to pass Charles Leclerc and Lando Norris for the lead at various points didn’t threaten his win. Even his teammate, Sergio Pérez, finished far back down the road in P2, 13.6 seconds behind.

Verstappen won his 57th career grand prix and notched his 100th podium in 188 race starts.

“That’s 88 missed podiums,” Verstappen remarked after the race. That mentality is hardly surprising from the guy dominating F1 so thoroughly.

Let’s run through the rest of our takeaways from the second race of F1’s 2024 season.

Bearman breaks out

Giancarlo Baghetti took the checkered flag in the 1961 French GP. He was 27, it was his world championship debut, and he drove a red Scuderia Ferrari.

Ollie Bearman’s debut didn’t end so triumphantly, but the 18-year-old did impress everyone in Jeddah, stepping in after Carlos Sainz underwent a successful appendectomy on Friday. Bearman became the first F1 driver to debut with Ferrari since 1972 and scored six points with a P7 finish. (Fun note: Bearman is now P10 in the F1 driver’s championship. He hasn’t scored a point yet in F2!)

It didn’t all come easily for Bearman this weekend. His overcaution on slow laps, trying to stay out of the way, bordered on excessive and bothered a few drivers. During the race, he took a lot of time trying to get by Nico Hülkenberg around Lap 20. (“Mate, he’s so slow,” Bearman complained over the radio.) I have to think Sainz would have gotten around the Haas driver sooner.

But he held off two stalwarts, Lando Norris and Lewis Hamilton, in the race’s final laps. There was a window of about fifteen laps where one slip-up from the reserve driver would have led to the veterans overtaking him. It didn’t happen. Bearman ran clean, quick and focused.

Meanwhile, up the road, Charles Leclerc secured Ferrari’s second podium in the season’s first two races.

“If I look back the last six, seven months, we are the team that have improved the most,” Leclerc said. “And we are slowly closing the gap. So, the gap is still quite big. But if we keep working like that, I’m sure it’s a matter of time before we put the Red Bull under a bit more pressure.”

McLaren’s weak straight-line speed

It was an odd day for McLaren. Oscar Piastri came home in P4 and Lando Norris in P8, but you get the feeling they left results on the table in Jeddah. Here’s a good example: On Lap 34, Oscar Piastri tried to get around Hamilton for P5. But the car had to work so hard down the straight to pull alongside that Piastri locked up, braking into the first turn and allowing Hamilton to retake the place.

That illustrated McLaren’s critical weakness in Jeddah: Not enough top speed and a tough time getting through the final corner, a crucial spot on the track to set up overtakes into Turn 1.

“It was a frustrating 20 laps behind Lewis, but, yeah, I think in the end, that was the most we could have done,” Piastri said.

Compounding the team’s issues on Saturday was the gamble it took with Norris’ strategy. When the leaders pitted during the early safety car for hards, McLaren left Norris out for a long run on mediums, hoping for a late safety car. It didn’t come. Norris had to pit late for softs and ended up defending Hamilton in P8, unable to overtake Bearman ahead before the checkered flag. Piastri isn’t optimistic about McLaren’s chances in Melbourne, a track with slow corners that doesn’t usually play to the team’s strengths.

“It’s the same — the same as last year,” Norris said of McLaren’s race pace. “Mercedes, Red Bull, and Ferrari are quite a long way ahead.”

Kevin Magnussen’s day as victim and hero

What a topsy-turvy evening for the Haas driver. Magnussen’s race became irrelevant early on, thanks to a pair of penalties. The first was for causing a collision with Alex Albon on Lap 10 — Magnussen seemed to misjudge where Albon was alongside him into Turn 1 and squeezed the Williams into the wall. Even Albon called it a “racing incident,” but the FIA stewards issued a severe 10-second penalty to the Haas driver. Magnussen was hit with another 10-second penalty for leaving the track and gaining an advantage while battling Yuki Tsunoda. (That also seemed harsh, based on the replays I saw.)

Despite the 20-second penalty, the Danish driver continued to fend off the cars around him in P12 as if he were still in the fight. That let teammate Nico Hülkenberg build a gap in P10, securing critical points for Haas ahead of Albon’s Williams and making the most of a terribly dealt hand.

“I didn’t see it, but I was told that he was really sticking out his neck for me and for the team, you know, holding everybody up,” Hülkenberg said. “I’ll return the favor for sure later.”

“It was a great race from Haas,” Albon said. “I have to say, strategy-wise, they played it perfectly. I told Nico he better give Kevin 50 percent of his bonus money for P10 because (Magnussen) definitely played the team game there.

“And it was frustrating. It’s weird, the Haas has turned into a bit of a Williams. It’s a bit of a rocket ship down the straights.”

A mixed day for Mercedes

Mercedes, too, struggled at high speeds on Saturday, a weakness that effectively nullifies opportunities to overtake at a place like Jeddah.

Despite having a similar race pace to McLaren and Aston Martin, it couldn’t surpass its rivals. George Russell pushed but finished three seconds behind Fernando Alonso in the fight for P5. And since Hamilton followed the same late pit strategy as Lando Norris, his only real fight in the latter stages of the race was with the McLaren driver and Bearman ahead. He ultimately ran out of time to get past either.

Mercedes finishes the first two weeks of the season in fourth place in the constructors’ championship, with many lingering questions about its new car’s lack of downforce. Team CEO Toto Wolff said the team’s missing downforce isn’t down to the car’s smaller rear wing design.

“We’re missing downforce beyond the steps that you would have with a bigger rear wing … There’s something which we don’t understand,” Wolff said. “We are quick everywhere else pretty much. We have a smaller rear wing, we are compensating what we are losing through the corners, but it’s just a high-speed variant where we are losing all the lap time.”

Notebook dump

Another week, another low for Alpine, which became the first team to suffer a retirement when Pierre Gasly’s gearbox failed on the first lap. The surviving car didn’t look great, either: Esteban Ocon finished a lap down in P13, unable to fend anyone off at high speed with that much-maligned power unit.

Lance Stroll’s tires were plaguing him, but his crash and retirement came from clipping the inside wall of Turn 22. That’s a mental mistake, something the Jeddah circuit routinely punishes. “When Lance had his DNF,” Albon said, “everyone on a backfield team licked their lips, like, ‘It’s time to score some points.’”

I laughed at Stroll’s response when his engineer asked if he could bring the car back in. “No? I’m in the f—— wall.”

Norris was lucky not to get a penalty for a jump start when the lights went down. His car clearly lurched forward a half-second too soon.

Aston Martin came millimeters away from a double-DNF when Alonso kissed the wall on Lap 37.

It was a forgettable race for Williams (whose car was too draggy), Stake (uncompetitive, slow pit stops again), and RB (Tsunoda’s pace fell off, and Ricciardo’s only interesting moment came when he spun late).

Fast track. Sleepy race.

(Lead image of Max Verstappen, Nico Hülkenberg and Lando Norris: GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP, Mark Thompson, Clive Rose/Getty Images)

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