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Blast from the past: 2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Written by Jacob Awcock, Edited by Sean McKean

Formula One ventured out to the west coast of Saudi Arabia for the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, held at the seaside town of Jeddah, and it proved to be a controversial circuit of choice. 

Max Verstappen entered the race with an eight- point lead over championship rival Lewis Hamilton, but a plethora of mistakes from Verstappen would result in this lead being removed, resulting in both drivers heading into the final race of the season, in Abu Dhabi, equal on points. 

With Red Bull struggling, Mercedes pounced and extended their lead in the championship to 25 points following Sergio Perez’s elimination early on. Yet the race would be overshadowed by safety concerns regarding the circuit's tight and twisty nature featuring blind bends at high speeds resulting in many drivers complaining to the overloaded FIA.

Qualifying was certainly dramatic, with Lewis Hamilton claiming pole position ahead of his teammate Valtteri Bottas with third belonging to Max Verstappen,  who was left to rue his first mistake of the weekend by, crashing at the final corner and ruining what had seemed to be a magnificent lap around Jeddah. 

Charles Leclerc managed an impressive fourth place while Sergio Perez rounded out the top five. It would be crucial for Perez to move himself up the order and fast so as not to damage Red Bull’s team's title hopes.

As the lights blinked out for the first ever Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, it was an even start for the front three.; Verstappen pulled up alongside the Mercedes of Bottas but couldn't get past and the front three and maintained position into turn 1. 

Further back Sergio Perez was battling with Charles Leclerc, and in his eagerness to pass the scarlet- red Ferrari, he nearly steamed into the back of his teammate. Perez locked up his wheels, allowing Leclerc to go around the outside of the Mexican, and maintain fourth place.

The turns 21 and, 22 complex of corners had already claimed a victim earlier in the week through Charles Leclerc, and it was about to claim another. 

Approaching the corner in eighth gear at 255 km/h, Mick Schumacher lost the rear of his Haas and went slamming into the barriers. The barrier had done its job, but it didn't prevent the large-scale damage to the Haas car, scattering debris everywhere. 

Having completed just ten laps of racing, the safety car came out, and Mercedes pounced on the opportunity to put fresh tyres on both their drivers cars. 

But Verstappen was less than happy with Bottas, as the Finn appeared to drive excessively slow to allow Hamilton to pull away and make the double- stack (pit both cars on the same lap) possible. Verstappen, animated as always, made his feelings apparent to his team, but the FIA took no action. 

However, they did take action regarding the crash for Schumacher. A lap after the Mercedes pair had pitted it became apparent to the FIA that the damage to the barrier was extensive and would need a lot of time to replace. 

So the yellow flag changed to a red flag, neutralising the race. This played beautifully into Red Bull’s hands, as you can change tires without losing position under a red flag. This meant Verstappen had inherited the race lead since the Mercedes pair had already pit.

As the race restarted and the lights blinked out for a second time, Hamilton got a mighty start and pulled alongside Verstappen. With the inside line, Hamilton looked the favourite to be leading out of turn one, but Verstappen had other ideas: The Dutchman shot round the outside, catching Bottas unaware who nearly hit the back of him. 

But Max had too much speed and he cut the corner, bouncing over the kerbs and re-joining in a dangerous manner, forcing Hamilton to take evasive action and consequently lose a place to Ocon as well. 

Further back, Leclerc and Perez — who had been battling away prior to the red flag — came to blows, this time with devastating consequences. As the drivers exited turn 2, Perez found himself sandwiched between Leclerc and Gasly. 

The Mexican tried to come across, thinking he was ahead of Leclerc but soon found out he wasn't, tagging him into a spin, sending him out of the race with terminal damage. 

As the rest of the field reacted to this, George Russell slammed on his brakes to avoid contact but caught Nikita Mazepin off guard. The Russian shot into the back of the Williams, sending the Brit into the air and eliminating them both on the spot. 

For the second time in the race, the red flag was shown, neutralising the race and bringing everyone back to the pits. Christian Horner knew that this would have dramatic implications in the constructors battle, with one of his drivers out of the race while their main rivals had both cars running.

During the red flag it was deemed that Verstappen had left the track, gained an advantage and rejoined in a dangerous manner. In a broadcasted conversation with the Red Bull team, race control dropped Max down behind Hamilton, meaning Esteban Ocon would be first for the restart, followed by Hamilton then Verstappen. 

As the lights blinked out for the third time, Ocon got away well, though Hamilton did too and pulled alongside.

As the pair began to turn into the first turn, an opportunistic lunge from Verstappen paid dividends, diving down the inside forcing Hamilton to take evasive action and make contact with Ocon who cut the corner but conceded the lead to Verstappen. 

Ocon – now separating Hamilton from and Verstappen – sat in second, and the Mercedes would have to clear the Alpine fast so as not to damage their chances of winning the race. As the lead pack shot down the main straight, Hamilton managed to dispatch Ocon with ease and began to close the gap to Verstappen.

After 18 laps, Hamilton was right up Verstappen’s gearbox and he was looking to make the move. Weaving across the main straight, Verstappen tried to defend from the Mercedes, who had much better straight line speed, but with DRS (drag reduction system) and a slipstream, Hamilton moved to the outside to try and complete the move. 

The first lunge by Hamilton into turn one; Image credits: Getty Images, DeFodi Images

But yet again, Verstappen proved unwilling to concede the position and chose to force Hamilton wide and cut the corner. Having gained a significant advantage over the Brit, Red Bull decided to give the position to Lewis so as not to receive a penalty.

As the pair went down the back straight, however, Verstappen slowed while Hamilton was tucked up behind him.; Lewis realiszed this too late, and as he tried to pull out from behind he slammed into the rear of the Red Bull, damaging his front wing in the process. 

Toto Wolff threw his headset onto the desk while the rest of the Mercedes garage watched in horror as Verstappen shot away while Hamilton tried to catch up to him with a damaged front wing. 

Hamilton and Mercedes felt that Verstappen had brake tested him while Red Bull argued that it was merely a misunderstanding between both drivers. Either way, there were ten laps left, and if the damage to Hamilton’s front wing proved to be significant, he may struggle to pass the Red Bull and retake the lead. 

Yet again the pair that had been in conflict all season came to blows; Image Credits: Lars Baron/Getty Images

Fast forward two laps, and Red Bull made the decision to retry the attempt to give the position back to the Mercedes. 

Verstappen was told to be strategic with it, and strategic he was. Slowing down on the back straight allowed Hamilton past but it also meant Verstappen could lunge down the inside of the final corner and reclaim the lead of the race, having forced Hamilton off-line and preventing him getting a good amount of speed on the corner exit.  

The next lap, though, Lewis was more aware of Verstappen’s intentions and, at the same corner, he dived down the inside and forced Max wide, preventing him from getting more speed onto the main straight. It had taken 43 of the 50 laps for Lewis to secure the move but he looked set to secure what would prove to be a crucial win.

Hamilton crossed the line to win in Saudi Arabia with a seven- second gap over second placed Verstappen. Bottas crucially pipped Ocon at on the line by a tenth of a second to claim the final podium position, allowing Mercedes to extend their constructors championship lead to 25 points over Red Bull. 

Daniel Ricciardo managed to claim an impressive fifth place, having started the race in thirteenth place but was able to capitalise on the red flags. Pierre Gasly claimed sixth ahead of the two Ferraris followed by the Alfa Romeo of Antonio Giovinazzi and Lando Norris in the McLaren rounding out the top ten. 

It was all smiles down at Mercedes: they now would go into the final race in Abu Dhabi equal on points with Max Verstappen and with a 25 point lead in the constructors championship, all eyes would be on the season finale to see who would claim the championship.


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