Declan Quigley: ‘Leclerc and Verstappen are showing impressive understanding of the strategic possibilities’
Two races, two late race, drama-filled denouements.
The new 2022 rules package has shaken things up the established order and lo and behold the leading two teams are separated by no more than thousandths of a second per sector.
The ground effect rules may have cut a significant gap between the top two teams and the other eight squads but that was ever so and Red Bull and Ferrari are now so evenly matched that, for the time being, we are set to be served more of these extraordinary 300kmh games of strategy.
Between DRS and the almost inevitable appearances of safety cars, virtual and otherwise, current era Formula One is a series that favours the following car, assuming it is capable of producing similar lap times.
It’s a recipe that seems certain to give us more of these last ten-lap specials which, this week, have produced smiles for Red Bull and Max Verstappen to replace the frowns of just a week ago.
From the moment the perennially unfortunate Sergio Perez vaulted from first to fourth courtesy of Nicolas Latifi’s latest retirement-inducing safety car intervention, Red Bull focused on presenting Max Verstappen with an opportunity to challenge for the lead in the closing laps.
Charles Leclerc took over from Perez and the race slipped into that ‘put the kettle on’ middle phase when you could be forgiven for thinking Leclerc and Ferrari seemed to be comfortably controlling the pace on their way to a second win in seven days.
Not a bit of it. Red Bull was coaxing and cajoling their ever-grumpy world champion into managing his tyre wear to ensure his machine was primed for any opportunity which would present itself. Another race of attrition meant that was always likely and the Dutchman stalked his Monegasque rival to the restart with nine laps to go.
There then ensued the now familiar ‘after you claude’ DRS strategy with Leclerc trying to force his rival into a pass in the first DRS sector in order to have the overtaking aid at the more important second one on the main straight. It was reminiscent of karting, or even Formula Ford, in the chess-like projection of moves further down the track.
The game theorists in F1 will be training their drivers to think like grandmasters and already Leclerc and Verstappen are showing impressive understanding of the strategic possibilities. With three laps to go, the strain was telling on Leclerc’s tyres and his apparent pace advantage had clearly evaporated.
Verstappen timed his run to perfection and Ferrari had to make do with second. Leclerc nonetheless consolidates his championship lead and one suspects that he has his sights firmly set on the championship long game.
Carlos Sainz in third was within touching distance of his teammate all weekend but never quite on terms. He needs a good race soon to stop the creeping feeling that Ferrari is Leclerc’s team.
Perez in fourth did nothing wrong and after nailing that long-awaited pole position with his lap of a lifetime on Saturday, he surely deserved better. How often lately has the safety car penalised the leader?
George Russell showed what’s possible in the Mercedes which is probably the leader of ‘Class B’ while Lewis Hamilton rescued something from a painful weekend with the final point. Estaban Ocon fended off a trademark Lando Norris late-race charge and the Frenchman’s early race battle with Alpine team-mate Fernando Alonso was worth a Drive to Survive special all of its own.
On to Australia and pretty much everyone, not least Mick Schumacher will be thrilled to get out of Saudi Arabia unscathed…