Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc entertain but Saudi Arabia GP is in the shadows

Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc made for a great on-track spectacle at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix on Sunday, but the headlines generated off the track this week will rightly linger over the event for a long time to come.

It was an odd F1 race weekend, with the 48 hours leading up to the race dominated by a rocket attack on an oil depot just 10km from the circuit. At one point, it appeared that F1’s 20 drivers would refuse to take part in the event and, having agreed to race, urged F1 to reconfirm its decision to continue racing in the country in the long term drive, reevaluate.

Given what had happened in the days before, it would be wrong to focus on the Grand Prix first.

The Saudi Arabian Grand Prix controversy is set to continue

That the Saudi Arabian GP would take place as planned was not certain on Friday evening and in the early hours of Saturday morning.

F1 drivers met for over four hours to discuss event safety. At one point they agreed to boycott the event but were talked around by Formula 1 CEO Stefano Domenicali, team bosses and Saudi government officials after assurances were given about safety.

Saudi officials said they called off the race because of a real threat, which they say the attack on the oil depot was not, despite it being a facility owned by F1 sponsor Aramco. The Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility for the attack.

It is clear that the issue will not simply remain in Saudi Arabia when Formula 1 leaves the country in the next 24 hours. Drivers have already agreed to discuss the future of racing with F1 in the coming weeks and hopefully the talks can be productive.

There is no doubt that F1 and Saudi officials are determined to continue racing, for which Saudi Arabia has signed a 15-year deal to host the Grand Prix. Prince Abdulaziz, the kingdom’s sports minister, said Saudi Arabia is ready to give any assurances teams and drivers want to ensure it remains part of the F1 calendar.

Domenicali said: “Of course there are tensions, things that need to be improved, we don’t want to be political on this, but I believe we have a very important role to play in the modernization of this country, we are focused on making sure that’s the case is at the heart of our agenda.”

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff also said Formula 1 could be a force for positive change in the Middle East.

From a racing perspective, the event delivered another dramatic race but there are serious questions about the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix that F1 must address before the sport can return.

Verstappen and Leclerc entertain again

“Well done to Max, that was nice.”

That was Charles Leclerc’s verdict after he finished the Grand Prix just half a second behind Max Verstappen after another epic duel for victory – his second in eight days. Given the past two races and the comparable pace of their two cars, Formula 1 fans should get used to the idea of ​​Verstappen and Leclerc fighting for victories. It feels like it took a long time.

A popular video by a young Verstappen and Leclerc after a 2012 kart race, incident response – or “incidence” as the young Monaco-born Leclerc puts it – went viral again this week, showing just how far back this great rivalry goes. The two drivers were billed as future F1 superstars from the moment they arrived in the paddock.

The Jeddah battle was a reversal of what we saw in Bahrain, where Leclerc skillfully let Verstappen pass on the way down to Turn 1, knowing that with the help of DRS he could follow closely into Turns 2 and 3 and into passed turn 4. Verstappen had learned his lesson this time and there was a clear reluctance in their own struggle to get past each other in the final corner of the Saudi circuit, which lies ahead of the long start-finish straight where DRS is available.

With four laps to go he resisted the urge to pass Leclerc at the final corner and won a drag race from there to Turn 1, taking a lead he didn’t want to give up.

It was a double whammy of an exciting battle and another ringing endorsement of F1’s new cars, designed to offer closer pursuit and better racing. The cars are two for two when it comes to achieving that so far this year.

When asked how the last few laps were, Verstappen said: “Qualifying laps! It was hard.”

He added: “I had a good feeling with the car and the tires kept up quite well at the high speed, then I had a couple of good opportunities but Charles played really smart in the last corner so it wasn’t for me just get through, and of course I had to queue up again to try again.

“Eventually I tried and progressed but as I progressed it was like four laps trying to stay in front because Charles was consistent in my DRS. It was pretty tough out there.”

Leclerc was disappointed with the defeat but fondly recalled how good the duel at the top had been.

“Obviously it’s disappointing to lose the win so late in the race, but it was a fun fight,” said Leclerc. “It was very difficult because we had two cars that were in very different places. I was very strong in the first sector, in all the corners and basically a lot less strong on the straights.

“It was very difficult, I tried to have the DRS in the last corner, it worked twice but not the last time. Then we had the yellow flag, the one where I would have had a chance to be alongside me in Turn 1, I didn’t have DRS there, too bad but that’s part of the game. We’ll try again at the next race.”

While it’s nice to see the good-natured fight unfold, it’s wrong to assume these two will ride clean all year long. Verstappen pushed Leclerc out of the way to win the 2019 Austrian Grand Prix, and his championship battle with Lewis Hamilton last year began in similarly good spirits, only to be caught in tension and three on-track collisions and a handful of other controversial ones to include moments.

If Verstappen and Leclerc have been close throughout the season, you should expect them to be far less polite to one another in their face-to-face encounters – that’s the nature of motorsport. Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc entertain but Saudi Arabia GP is in the shadows

Joel McCord

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