Max Verstappen aims to strike back as Lewis Hamilton struggles to match Saudi Arabian Grand Prix changes

Mercedes aren’t expecting quick fixes as Formula One returns to the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, leaving the most significant alterations at the fastest street circuit on the racing calendar to the track itself and setting up a potential battle of nerves between Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc .

The Jeddah Corniche Circuit has undergone some significant changes since last season’s inaugural race after listening to driver feedback. The track attracted plenty of attention, with its blind corners and narrow walls leaving little margin for error, but it proved to be a hit with those in the cockpit. It was a challenge, a circuit that needed to be tamed.

Last season, Verstappen was set for one of the most impressive qualifying laps of the season after finding what was close to the perfect racing line, only to overcook it at the final corner and crash into the wall.

When the defending champion returned to the same spot on his opening lap of practice on Friday, Verstappen, as if to make a point, ran slightly wide. The corner has now been widened, though, and Verstappen cruised around before continuing down the road.

After feedback that the track was “lacking from a safety perspective”, several other corners have been pushed back to improve visibility, following a chaotic race last season that saw two red flag stoppages. Still, it has managed to retain its pure pace. The high-speed corners bend and twist but flow into each other, forcing the drivers to race on the edge and thread their way through.

Any Mercedes adjustments were always unlikely to be as noticeable, following their struggles adapting to the new regulations. “There will hardly be any difference,” Lewis Hamilton admitted early on Friday, owing mainly to the short turnaround between last weekend’s season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix in what is a quick back-to-back.

Indeed, it took around 15 minutes for Hamilton to report that “bouncing” remained an issue, as Mercedes continued to grapple with the air flow under the W13. It leaves Hamilton and George Russell once again facing the prospect of trailing in the wake of Ferrari and Red Bull, particularly on the straights.

On a circuit as fast as Saudi Arabia, it means we are unlikely to see a repeat of Verstappen and Hamilton’s frantic duel at last season’s race, when the animosity between the pair reached a peak in a chaotic on-track collision. Certainly, throwing the most competitive and unpredictable title race in a generation into Jeddah’s path was a recipe for such drama.

The question this weekend is whether Mercedes will be able to close the gap enough to be able to see the Red Bull, let alone be brake tested by them, and on the early evidence it suggests Hamilton’s biggest impact on the race weekend will be continuing to be F1’s leading voice on the human rights issues in Saudi Arabia.

Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes have so far been unable to close the gap to Ferrari and Red Bull

(AFP via Getty Images)

Red Bull are confident they have resolved the issues that caused the double retirement in Bahrain and the team seem to be generally encouraged their performance remained relatively close to Ferrari’s after the Scuderia got ahead of the game in terms of designing this year’s car under the overhauled new regulations.

There would have still been considerable frustration that following the fuel flow issue that caused Verstappen to lose his second-placed finish, but it could be like showing Red Bull a red flag, with Leclerc, Carlos Sainz and Ferrari set to be in the firing line .

The resurgent Ferrari, whose return to the top at last weekend’s season-opener may have set the tone for the early stages of the campaign, have filled any concerns that the lack of fight between Red Bull and Mercedes would leave an open space at the top .

There appears to be little to separate the Red Bulls and Ferraris following Friday’s practice, although bumps for both Leclerc and Sainz late in the session will leave mechanics with some last-minute repairs.

It’s a natural hazard around the Corniche Circuit, which could see pole position come down to which driver between Verstappen and Leclerc is prepared to go closest to the line, even if the margins are slightly wider than last year.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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