JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Lewis Hamilton knows a thing or two about dominating in Formula One. From 2014 to 2020 he won over 50 percent of the races and secured six of the seven drivers’ championships on offer. At times his Mercedes car appeared unbeatable, but in all those years of supremacy he believes he never had a performance advantage as big as the one Red Bull holds right now.
« I’ve definitely never seen a car so fast, » Hamilton said after Sergio Perez and Max Verstappen completed Red Bull’s second one-two victory of the season in Saudi Arabia on Sunday.
« I think when we were fast, we weren’t that fast. That is the fastest car I have seen compared to the rest. »
Verstappen, who started 15th on the grid after a driveshaft failure in qualifying, rocketed past Hamilton for seventh place on lap 12 of the race and was up to second place behind teammate Perez by the midway point on lap 25.
« I don’t know how or why but he came past me at such a serious speed, » Hamilton added. « I didn’t bother to block because it was a massive speed difference.
« Of course, everyone wants to see all the teams closer, but that isn’t the way it is. »
There’s an argument Mercedes hit a similar level of supremacy when F1 switched to turbo-hybrid engines in 2014, but comparing dominance over different eras makes little difference to the reality Red Bull’s rivals are currently facing. By any metric you choose to measure car performance — be it straight-line speed, cornering speed or tyre management — Red Bull’s advantage at the first two races has looked insurmountable.
Full credit should go to Red Bull for the step it’s made over the winter (more on that later), but it’s also clear that its traditional rivals Mercedes and Ferrari have missed the mark with their latest car designs. Both teams hoped the switch from a rough track surface in Bahrain to a smoother one in Jeddah would help close the gap to the front, but the difference was either negligible or even extended on race day.
Mercedes could point to some small gains in the understanding of its car, especially on George Russell’s side, but Ferrari appeared to make a step backwards. Carlos Sainz, who finished sixth behind both Mercedes drivers, said Ferrari had already identified an issue with tyre degradation in Bahrain and the repeat in Saudi Arabia confirmed the problem, which was exacerbated by running for most of Sunday’s race in traffic.
« We are not where we want to be in terms of race pace, in terms of car in general, » he said. « The balance in dirty air, following… We just struggled a bit.
« If we already overheat the tyres in clear air imagine following. We just eat them alive and we need some clean air to produce some decent lap times.
« We know exactly our weaknesses, this is a positive and now obviously we cannot do magic to bring the developments early but I know the team is pushing flat out to get them and I know this will improve our race pace, for sure. »
Sainz said a fix was already on the way that could make a big difference, but that it would not be ready immediately.
« We know where it is, we identified already in Bahrain, » he said. « The thing is the car is doing exactly the same as in the windtunnel. We know where the weakness is in the windtunnel, where it is here, we know where to develop the car, we just need time because from the weakness we saw in Bahrain and we saw here, we cannot bring the upgrades as soon as tomorrow.
« I’m positive this team is capable of bringing them early in the season and this could change completely our season, so heads down and time to work hard. »
Meanwhile, Mercedes has committed to rethinking its entire car concept for next year. Major changes will not be possible this season due to certain elements of the chassis, such as the W14’s unique side-impact structures, being fixed in place, but that doesn’t mean upgrades won’t filter through.
« We’re looking at bigger departures because it’s evident that this car hasn’t given us the performance that we’d like, » Mercedes head of trackside engineering Andrew Shovlin explained. « Saying that, there are other areas of the car that we know that we can improve as well.
« It would be very misguided to believe that if we put a different sidepod on it all of that gap is going to vanish, the reality is that the vast majority of that gap is going to have to come from other performance areas. We’ve got a lot of projects at the moment to try and bring performance over the next five races. »
Then there’s Aston Martin — the big success story of the 2023 season alongside Red Bull. After a farcical back-and-forth in the stewards’ office late on Sunday night, Fernando Alonso was allowed to keep the third place trophy he lifted on the podium, marking his second top-three finish in as many races. Just as the switch from Bahrain to Jeddah confirmed Mercedes and Ferrari still had worked to do, it also reaffirmed Aston Martin’s position as a genuine top four team.
« I came to Jeddah with some question marks about our performance in Bahrain, » Alonso said. « It was very good – but we did our winter testing in Bahrain and race one in Bahrain, we didn’t test the new ’23 cars in any other circuit, so it was important to come to Jeddah and see if we kept being strong in the order.
« So to feel competitive again, obviously, is a huge relief for the team. And this is, again, an extra motivation for everyone in the factory to keep pushing – because the car seems to perform in any conditions. »
From second on the grid, Alonso overtook Perez at the start before the Red Bull reclaimed the lead on lap four. It’s clear the RB19 still has a significant advantage over the rest of the field – Alonso was over 20 seconds adrift by the chequered flag – but if any team is going to break Red Bull’s early-season hegemony, it currently looks like Aston Martin.
« We need some help from them but it will happen for them eventually when they cannot always finish first and second because one day it’s the pit stop, one day the gearbox, » Alonso said after Sunday’s race. « Max had the problem in qualifying so there’s going to be some circuits that maybe reliability or whatever could help us and hopefully those races we take the opportunity. »
Dominating isn’t easy…
For the last 15 laps of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, Red Bull was paranoid that a repeat of Verstappen’s qualifying failure could occur on one or both of its cars. The broken driveshaft that dumped Verstappen out of the second session of qualifying was fixed overnight, but the exact reason for its failure had not been fully understood when the lights went out at the start of Sunday’s race.
On lap 37 in Jeddah, Verstappen, who was in the process of closing down teammate Perez for the lead, reported a high-pitched whine from his car’s internals and an unusual feeling from the rear axle. A sickening sense of de ja vu suddenly washed over him.
« Once I got into P2, it was quite a decent gap [to Fernando Alonso in third] on a track where there’s not a lot of degradation, » Verstappen said. « So I tried to, of course, close the gap a bit.
« But then, at one point, I picked up again these vibrations on the driveshaft, on the rear. The team couldn’t see anything, but I’m fairly sure there was something odd going on with the balance since the vibration started to kick in. »
Both drivers were told by Red Bull to lower their pace to 1:33s per lap in response to the reliability concern, but telling two teammates to slow down while fighting one another for the lead is always likely to fall on deaf ears. Perez made clear that he would only back off once he knew Verstappen had done the same, but for several laps Verstappen was still setting times in the mid 1:32s.
It wasn’t the most thrilling duel between teammates in F1’s history, far from it, but in the context of Saturday’s failure, it added an element of jeopardy to an otherwise pedestrian contest. Red Bull team boss Christian Horner said he didn’t blame Perez for being wary of Verstappen behind.
« There’s always going to be that, when you’re the lead car, you always want to know that the tail car hit the [lap time] target first, » Red Bull team boss Christian Horner said after the race. « So that’s entirely normal.
« I think for us as a team, we were concerned about, that there was a reliability issue. How do we manage that? Once we saw there was no issue that we could see in the data, it was a question of letting them get on with it.
« And then basically both managing the last five laps. »
The pace of the two Red Bulls eventually dropped off when Verstappen realised there wasn’t enough laps left to realistically challenge for victory, and he allowed the gap between the two cars to grow to over five seconds. Second place from 15th on the grid represented a good evening of damage limitation, but there was still the matter of the fastest lap – and its single bonus point – to resolve.
With the two Red Bulls finishing one-two in the opposite order at the first race in Bahrain, the bonus point in Jeddah would decide which of the two drivers would lead the championship heading to round three in Australia. As they entered the final few laps, Perez provisionally held the fastest time — a 1:32.188 on lap 38 — and after the race said he believed the two drivers had been told to back off.
« They told me to keep a certain pace, » he explained after the race. « They told me I had the fastest lap and to keep the pace, a certain pace.
« So I thought the communication was the same to Max. We need to review because I got certainly the different information and I just couldn’t push it there. »
Verstappen’s interpretation of the situation was evidently different. When he asked his engineer about the fastest lap, he was told « we’re not worried about that », leading him to reply « but I am ». True to his word, on the final lap of the race he secured the bonus point with a 1:31.906 on 31-lap old tyres.
« With a few laps ago, I asked what the fastest lap was, » he said. « We were first of all free to race and of course we had a target lap time to the end.
« It’s a point on the line, it was the same also in Bahrain it got asked so especially when it’s just between the two cars, I think it’s quite normal that you asked for what the fastest lap is. »
Weighing in on the differing views of his two drivers, Horner seemed to side with Verstappen’s version of events.
« I think we came to the conclusion that, do you know what, it’s the last lap, if it [the driveshaft] is going to go, it’s going to go, » he said. « I think he’d already come to that conclusion himself.
« Both drivers had the info, Checo had the fastest lap at that point, he asked what it was, so it was obvious why he was asking.
He knew that Max was going to have a crack at it, and Checo gave it up after the first couple of turns — he was already a tenth and a half down — and then you saw him back out of it.
« Of course the team interest is to maximize the points, and at whatever point you feel you may have a reliability issue, then you obviously manage that. I think inevitably, as Max said on the radio, the point for the fastest lap meant a great deal to him, and there was no reason for us to not let either he or Checo had a crack at it. »
In lieu of a rival team producing a car capable of challenging Red Bull, the simmering battle between Perez and Verstappen could be one of the main sources of entertainment in F1 this year. Since joining Red Bull in 2021, Perez has struggled to match the prodigious performance of his younger teammate, but on Sunday he drove a measured race to keep Verstappen at bay.
That’s not to say Perez would have beat Verstappen over the weekend had the reigning champion had a clean qualifying session, but something seemed to click for Perez in Jeddah.
« I think at the moment, I’m pretty happy with the car, » he said after Sunday’s race. « I had a bit of a scrappy weekend leading up to qualifying – but I think effectively we managed to have a very good race car, more than quali, so yeah, at the moment I am feeling very comfortable with the car.
« I did enjoy the race, to be honest. I enjoyed it a lot, especially at the end, just pushing each other with the lap times, knowing that he went a tenth faster, a tenth slower, a tenth faster and it was all pretty intense and then we were told to maintain a certain pace. »
Above all, however, the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix was a showcase of what Red Bull has achieved over the off-season. The dominance is ominous for the team’s rivals, both in its size and considering Red Bull has had a reduction of its aerodynamic testing capability as punishment for breaching the budget cap in 2021.
« It’s testament to the team in Milton Keynes, they’ve done a wonderful job over the winter, » Horner said. « And it was so critical for us to come out of the blocks competitively.
« The wind tunnel reduction has applied since, last October, so for us, we couldn’t afford to miss the target with that limited run, because you’d never be able to engineer your way out of that with that handicap. So the team have done an amazing job.
« The RB19, it’s been the best start to a season that we’ve ever had, we’re only two races in, but to have had two one-two finishes and be one point off a maximum score, I don’t think we could have ever dreamed about that coming into the season. »