BEHIND THE HEADLINES – Saudi Arabia – Transitions

Behind The Headlines Features

The second round of the season gave us another look at what this season was promising to deliver, closer and faster racing. Watching both the race in Sakhir and Jeddah the biggest thing I took away was the ability of Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen to go at each other lap after lap on a street circuit was encouraging as it proves these regulations are delivering.

This battle feels like a changing of the guard which I feel has been brewing for a few years, somewhat thawed in 2020-21 by the difficulties that Ferrari had with whatever they were doing with their engines. Ferrari had taken a gamble on this year’s regulation change which I feel we repeat all the time were designed to create closer and more exciting racing, appears to be delivered.

The Verstappen-Leclerc rivalry is something we can probably trace back to karting, from clips I’ve seen in recent weeks on Sky Sports, the sport always about every ten years goes through what can be described as a ‘transition’ between generations Prost-Senna to Schumacher-Hill to Schumacher-Alonso to Alonso-Hamilton to Hamilton-Rosberg to Hamilton-Vettel to Hamilton-Verstappen, so maybe we are in that transition now?

Looking at the battle in Jeddah in the closing stages, I thought “if we are going to get this all year this will be great,” as an impartial observer and for me as a writer, I think this is good for the sport. It will boil over at some point and how do the drivers respond?

However, in the back of my mind, I can’t get rid of the ‘trauma of Ferrari,’ over the last decade that the challenge of the team for the title has pattered out in the second half of the season. The Italian manufacturer having their best start to a season since the all-conquering 2004 season, so will after fourteen years will they deliver?

Looking at the battle throughout the race, both drivers were clever but clean in the fight. That will not last all year making it a question of when things between them most likely that things will boil over at some point. We need not to forget that this rivalry and the talent has been known for a decade.

Leclerc finished the race in second and teammate Carlos Sainz third, making this one of the team’s strongest starts to a season. I think last year we maybe saw hints of that strength that they have with these two drivers in the transition to a new rivalry in the sport.

The use of DRS though in that battle will raise questions about whether with these regulations it has become too powerful? Could this potentially see later in the season or even next year see zones shortened, reduced to single zones or even got rid of? I think getting rid of DRS would be a hugely difficult battle politically for the teams and F1.

But we don’t know the full role of DRS, we can conclude that these 2022 cars have made following easier, coupled with these regulation changes made it too powerful. Also the tyres, they are longer lasting but with any tyre, there will be a point where they go over the edge, we will as will the season, how will that affect the championship?

Safety Concerns

Is Jeddah safe, this topic I’m going to look at in two parts the accidents on track and the attack by Houthis rebels on Friday. As fans and drivers, we all enjoy high speed challenging circuits where you can overtake, while Sunday’s race wasn’t as dramatic as December there was concern after Mick Schumacher’s accident.

The crash which saw damage to all four corners impacted, and the gearbox falling off when it was lifted away by marshals, Haas was well aware that the damage bill would be high. Subsequent investigation of the car in the Haas garage confirmed that almost nothing escaped intact.

Team boss Gunther Steiner said: “The chassis itself doesn’t seem to be broken. The side infrastructure yes, but you can change them.”

Jeddah we know is one of this new generation of street circuits high speed and designed to be good for racing, but that risk will always be the concern of the drivers. F1 is dangerous and we all accept that, there will never be zero risk

Watching from home these talks unfold it was strange, we know the GPDA is about and has always been about safety, while improvements were made for this season, there will possibly need to be a review and more changes made. But we know decades of improvements have made the sport safer, it ‘has always been dangerous and will be dangerous.’

I think Jeddah needs to be looked at in terms of safety, we can always make the sport safer.

Russell leads

George Russell could have had one of the biggest and most important weekends, both on and off track of his career. As the only director of the GPDA on track he was tasked with the driver’s response to the strike on the Armco depo, at times on Friday night into Saturday there was a feeling that we were almost in a Melbourne 2020 situation.

We don’t know fully what happened or what was said in that meeting, but we understand that something changed their mind from boycotting the race to going ahead. The geo-politics of this is interesting and we can’t ignore the war as well as other issues around social and societal, we have been awakened to this  because of the pandemic.

In the days after the race, Stefano Domenicali insists the sport is not “blind” to concerns about Saudi Arabia’s place on the calendar but feels its presence can help the country. I think that the sport faces a big dilemma as we need to find a way of being a world championship and tackling the issues which matter, every country has problems

There have also been called of hypocrisy by going ahead with the race in Jeddah because of Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen while cancelling Sochi following the war in Ukraine. Domenicali argued “We are talking about sport, we are of course in contact with all the authorities and with all the embassies, with all the right governing bodies. And of course, we will follow that and we will never be in a situation that can jeopardise the safety of our people.”

Thinking about Russell, I want to hear from him about how he handled the politics of the weekend and yet continued as ‘Mr Saturday’, against Lewis Hamilton. I think it further unlined that Mercedes could be in the early phase of looking to the post-Hamilton era, which will be coming in the next five years.

But we will need to see how this storyline at Mercedes develops over the coming season and years…

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