And all the predictions were wrong.
Going into Qualifying for the 2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, most of the questions were about just how big Max Verstappen’s pole position advantage was going to be.
His dominance throughout practice made it seem an inevitability that the #1 Red Bull would take P1 for the race and leave the others to fight over P2 in the race.
But a driveshaft failure in Q2 put pay to that, with Verstappen down in 15th as Sergio Perez took a comfortable pole to make it two from two for the Milton Keynes squad to start the season.
With Perez taking the expected pole position – let’s start with our first loser, Max Verstappen.
Loser – Max Verstappen
In the break between qualifying and the race, the RacingNews365 team were trying to find the last time a driver had topped all three practice sessions, all three qualifying segments and then recorded a Grand Chelem in the race.
Eventually we came across Lewis Hamilton at the 2015 Italian Grand Prix for a weekend of utter dominance – which was where Verstappen’s weekend looked to be heading.
A comfortable Q1 lap was a nice warm-up, but the driveshaft broke on his Q2 flyer, when he was about 0.3s up in Sector 1.
Had he continued, pole would have been likely his – the 22nd of his career, equalling one F.Alonso.
Instead, it is P15 and Verstappen will be firmly in the danger-zone at the start with the cars bunched up through that tight first chicane.
Should he get through that, anything is possible given the race pace shown in practice – and with George Russell tipping him for a recovery drive akin to Spa 2022, you’d be a brave person to bet against the man who has won 15 of the last 20 Grands Prix.
What does Verstappen say?
“Starting around that spot [in Saudi Arabia] is normally a bit of chaos on the first lap. It’s not like some places, you can’t just like run off the track to avoid things because there is a wall. It’s definitely I think a little bit more tricky than a lap one in Spa, for example.”
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Loser – Lewis Hamilton
Qualifying eighth, starting seventh when your teammate is up in third and nearly four-tenths slower is not a good look for any driver – especially a seven-time World Champion.
Hamilton always looked to have a significant pace disadvantage to George Russell who dragged the Mercedes into a position it arguably did not merit.
No matter if the car is not to your liking, a driver of Hamilton’s skill and calibre should be able to drive any car under him, not just the one he wants.
What was previously a watertight environment suddenly has cracks in it as boss Toto Wolff has openly admitted Hamilton would need to leave if Mercedes can’t deliver him the car to challenge for that eighth world title.
When have such comments ever been made? It is really hard to escape the notion that the Mercedes era is firmly over and this is a team in major transition.
What does he say?
“I just don’t feel connected to this car. No matter what I do, no matter what I change, I can’t get confidence. I’m just at a bit of a loss with it.”
Winner – Fernando Alonso
There were suggestions that the Aston Martin would not be as competitive in Saudi Arabia with the track demanding different things from the car than Bahrain.
Alonso smashed that notion with third place on the road and second place on the grid after Charles Leclerc’s grid penalty.
He was trading times with the Red Bulls in practice – before Verstappen got his skates on – and is in prime position to capitalise on race day.
The Aston is faster than the Ferrari and Mercedes cars, and with the faster Red Bull driver set to be involved in the chaos of Turn 1 down in the midfield, it is a prime opportunity for him to chase Perez down. Give him a sniff, and he’ll be there.
What does he say?
“We have to be honest with ourselves and know that Red Bull is a little bit ahead, but Formula 1 is not exact mathematics, so you know, anything can happen…”
Loser – Lando Norris
It was a rookie error which cost Lando Norris a Q2 spot on an improved weekend for McLaren.
Clipping the front-left against the inside wall at the final Turn 27 was a mistake that might have been acceptable if this was his first visit to the track, but it is a poor bit of driving.
Instead of challenging for a likely spot in the top 10, he is 19th on the grid and actually slowest of everyone who set a time.
In a midfield battle as tight as this one, mistakes like this cannot happen.
What does he say?
“Hopefully I can make up for the mistake and we can try and fight our way forward.”
Winner – Oscar Piastri
On the flip side, Oscar Piastri shone in the sister MCL60, and will line up eighth – sharing the fourth row with Hamilton.
McLaren were quietly impressed with Piastri in Bahrain despite an electronics problem ending his race early and he’s continued this form into Jeddah, slowly chipping away and maximising his performance when it counted.
In FP3 – the only session which the two McLaren drivers can be judged against one another – Norris was only 0.008s quicker than the Australian.
For a driver to be as close as that to the highly-rated Norris in his second Grand Prix weekend is an exciting prospect for all involved.
What does Piastri say?
“I’m super happy to be in the top ten and it was a good experience to do all three quali sessions. Now we’ll work hard to make the most of this position and bring home a positive result in the race tomorrow.”
Loser – Williams
This was a track Williams expected that a Q3 appearance might have been possible if everything went just right.
Instead, both cars were dumped in Q1 with one forced to go to the stewards to get permission to race.
Alex Albon was only 17th fastest as he could not use the low-downforce, slippery nature of the car to his advantage.
Unfortunately for the team, Logan Sargeant’s time in Q1 was deleted for exceeding track limits at Turn 27.
As it turns out, it was actually because he crossed the pit-entry commit line with the front-left, costing him a time which would have been good enough to secure passage to Q2.
On his two later attempts, rookie mistakes crept in and he failed to set a time within 107% of Verstappen’s Q1 benchmark.
Permission was sought and has been granted, but this smells of a missed opportunity for the team which has been quietly impressive this season.
What did Sergeant say?
“There was no performance gain so it is frustrating, but I still had two more laps to deliver, and I didn’t.”