Can Sergio Perez Capitalize
Sergio Perez was handed a massive gift on a warm Saturday evening in the Middle East when teammate Max Verstappen had a mechanical failure in Q2. As a result, the defending world champion would qualify his No. 1 Red Bull entry in 15th.
Also, another gift came this last week when it was announced Charles Leclerc, despite qualifying his No. 16 Ferrari in second, had a 10-spot grid penalty and will drop to 12th at the start of the second race of the 2023 Formula One season too. That essentially leaves Perez on an island of his own hoping to capitalize on a potential win up ahead in Sunday’s STC Saudi Arabian Grand Prix (12:55 p.m. ET, ESPN).
If Perez could win Sundays Grand Prix, then he would leave the second race of the season in the lead of the points standings for the first time of his career.
Most would consider the Red Bulls the clear-cut favorites here this weekend anyways. Verstappen was quickest by a wide margin in all three practice sessions. Perez was second, third and second respectively himself in them.
In saying that, while he’s happy to be on pole, he’s also somewhat wary of potential issues that could arise on his No. 11 car too.
“I mean, it’s a shame, you know. Max has been really strong the whole weekend,” Perez notes. “So hopefully tomorrow we can have both cars up there, as you never know, with these cars, you know, reliability issues can hit you at any time.
“There’s always reliability concerns, especially around this place. It is so easy to make damage to the cars and at the end of the day, there will always be reliability concerns. But hopefully not tomorrow.”
Still, this is one of Perez’ favorite tracks. Rightfully so too. He was on the pole here last year and is again this weekend too.
“When you have a good car that you can push around this place, you really feel the F1 cars coming alive,” he says. “And getting a clean, good lap, you know when you nail it. And yeah, that Q3 run one was quite a good jump. I had a good jump from all my previous laps. And that meant that I was able to get the pole, because my second lap, I didn’t manage to get it. I just had a front lock going into Turn 1. That has been really tricky. Turn 1 and Turn 2, always starting the lap into 1 and 2, it was so easy just to lose two tenths straightaway there, especially with the low downforce that we’re running. And just nailing that combination of corners will require a lot of temperature on our tires as well, so yeah, just in general, just getting that lap, nailing that lap, was really nice.”
The thing is, he didn’t win from the pole here a year ago and none of the four street course races were in fact won from the top start by spot. Furthermore, just one of the four street races a year ago did the pole winner even finish on the podium too.
Alonso Focusing More Behind Than Ahead
Fernando Alonso is back up front again. The Spaniard was in the top three in all three practice sessions this weekend and also as a result of LeClerc’s grid penalty, he’ll roll off from the front row too. In saying that, he knows though that his odds of winning still aren’t real high.
Alonso hasn’t won a race in nine years (2013) and a team like Aston Martin has never won. In fact, over the last 183 F1 races, 98% of them (179-for-183) were won via the “Big 3” of Red Bull, Mercedes or Ferrari. Those three teams won all 22 races a season ago too.
So, Alonso is being realistic entering Sunday’s race and has his sights after scoring his 100th career podium instead of his 33rd career win.
“I don’t know. I think we are not in that position yet. I think on pure pace, I think Red Bull is in another league,” Alonso admits. “And I think we have to concentrate more on the teams behind.
“I don’t want to sound pessimistic but if we see the pace the whole weekend in free practice, we see the Bahrain race, we have to be honest with ourselves and know that Red Bull is a little bit ahead of everyone. So that’s not, let’s say, the target tomorrow, you know, to fight for the win with Checo.”
Alonso singles out the Mercedes duo of George Russell (starts 3rd) and Lewis Hamilton (starts 7th) as well as the pair of Ferrari’s in Carlos Sainz Jr. (starts 4th) and Leclerc (starts 12th) instead. He feels like they’ll each have race pace and that in turn, he has to hold them back to not risk losing out on a podium.
“So Ferrari will be very strong. Mercedes, they are strong, and also Alpine, they are fast here,” Alonso continued. “So I think our race is just behind us. But we saw today, Max probably was in his league today in qualifying and he could not complete the qualifying with a mechanical issue apparently, so we will try to take the opportunity for sure.”
Alonso knows that they have a fast race car and if attrition strikes or even a mechanical failure by Perez occurs, then he’s hopeful he can be the next in line to capitalize. Still, it’s not the goal, however.
“Yeah, we are confident,” he says. “I think that the gap or let’s say the long run yesterday was affected a little bit by traffic but the car felt very strong. Still, I think the strongest point on the car is the long run pace and how we treat the tires, so I’m looking forward to it.
“As I said before, Formula 1 is not exact mathematics, you know, anything can happen and today no one of us will put Verstappen P15, you know, but these things happen sometimes. So, for us, the most important thing is to score points. We are starting both cars in the top five. We try to finish both cars in the top five and keep accumulating points for the Constructors’ Championship. That’s the main goal for Aston Martin this year.
“You know, when we launched the car on the 13th of February, I remember very well a conversation with Mike Krack, with Lance, with the senior management of the team, setting the goals for this year, and the goals were not fighting Red Bull for the win tomorrow. So let’s keep it simple. Let’s keep the feet on the ground, and don’t make any mistakes, you know. Even if we are competitive we cannot leave these kinds of weekends that they are so good for us with no points, you know, that would be our biggest mistake. So whatever is available tomorrow, I’m sure we will take.”
Max Verstappen’s Fight Forward
Max Verstappen has been in a league of his own this weekend and until adversity struck in qualifying, he was on a path to a pole. Now, he has a lot of work to do in coming from midpack (starts 15th). He feels like a win isn’t out of the cards still, but it’s also very unlikely too.
All four of the street course races a season ago were won by a top four starter. That’s why Verstappen is hopeful of a podium finish instead of being on the top step. The thing is, none of the podiums on these street courses last season were also celebrated by a driver that came from a starting spot outside the top 5 too.
Saudi Arabia: 4th, 2nd 3rd
Miami: 3rd, 1st, 2nd
Monaco: 3rd, 2nd, 4th
Baku: 3nd, 2nd, 5th
That’s why this is going to be an interesting battle to see how far Verstappen can come forward. The other factor is that this race had just 1 caution last year and there’s really only two hard braking zones there in order to maximize passing.
“I think Max (Verstappen) will come eventually in the race, you know,” Alonso admitted. “They have this advantage. I don’t know which race it was last year that he started last, so he changed the power unit and still finished P2 or even won the race. So, I think tomorrow, there is no doubt that he will be in the podium, probably, minimum.”
Lewis Hamilton is dejected. He starts 7th. His teammate George Russell feels like they’re more in the range of a win than Hamilton is. Which is why I’m curious how they look on Sunday.
Toto Wolff made a bizarre comment this weekend that if they can’t give Hamilton race winning cars, then he’s free to end his career elsewhere and race for a team that can give it to him. Hamilton says he’s not quitting while this team is down, but he’s also losing more and more confidence each time he steps foot in his No. 44 Mercedes.
Russell meanwhile feels otherwise. He’s confident in his abilities and while he knows a race win isn’t likely coming on Sunday, could a podium?
There’s no doubt about it, there’s a lot of drama surrounding the Ferrari camp. With how last season ended and some changes made internally, there has been speculation about more members of the Prancing Horse’s leaving as well.
That’s why I’m curious on how much they can improve this weekend.
Sainz starts fourth and Leclerc in 12th. How much can they climb?
They’re fourth in the constructors and if Red Bull gets a win and Verstappen gets into the top 5, they will continue to pull further ahead. We know the Aston Martin’s have great starting spots and a great potential for dual top 5’s as well. Then you have the Mercedes duo battling for the back end of the top 5 and some other stories to the backend of the top 10, where does this leave Ferrari?
If Leclerc has troubles moving forward and if something should happen to Sainz on track or even in pit lane, Ferrari could slip further back and risk some loud noise heading to Australia.