“Oh my god, I really enjoyed that race.”
Runner-up Charles Leclerc’s words out of the car said everything you need to know about the quality of the racing between him and Max Verstappen for victory at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.
The battle at the front came alive after a cagey first 40 laps. Verstappen had been keeping his tyres alive for a late assault, but Leclerc had been doing an excellent job of massaging the gap open in the twisty first sector as a buffer for the straights, where the Ferrari was less competitive.
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But a late virtual safety car for a spate of car failures disrupted the rhythm. Leclerc couldn’t keep his tyres as warm as Verstappen, and when the race resumed the Dutchman suddenly had his moment to strike.
THE BATTLE, LAP BY LAP
The virtual safety car period ends; Leclerc leads Verstappen by 1.2 seconds. The Dutchman closes dramatically in the final sector, where his car’s straight-line speed has dominated Ferrari all weekend, and in the final corner the gap is reduced to half a second.
The gap drops to 0.1 seconds as Leclerc hits the brakes for the first turn, but the Monegasque opens the gap through the first and second sectors to around 0.75 seconds. As they start the third sector Verstappen powers alongside Leclerc, sweeping around his outside — but then he crosses the DRS detection line first and then moves to cover the inside line on entry, compromising his exit. Leclerc is right on his tail at the start of the front straight.
Leclerc takes the lead with DRS and rebuilds his advantage, but Verstappen has the pace again in the final sector. They go side by side approaching the braking zone for the final corner when both go hard on the anchors to avoid crossing the DRS detection point first. Leclerc reacts and gets on the power early, breaking Verstappen’s momentum and opening the gap.
Laps 44 and 45
Verstappen inches closer to Leclerc after falling back at the end of lap 43, rebuilding his momentum.
Verstappen gains on Leclerc in the final sector but this time lifts off the throttle before the corner so that he doesn’t draw alongside the Ferrari. Leclerc sweeps from wide onto the apex just ahead of his rival and has an oversteer wobble on the brakes. Verstappen is on the power early to capitalise on the mistake.
Verstappen flaps open his DRS and passes Leclerc into the first turn.
ARE THE NEW RULES WORKING?
There are two key takeaways from this extended final battle for victory, but let’s start with the most important: the role the new regulations played in getting us an outcome.
For 2022 the technical rules were completely rewritten to help cars race more closely.
Recent generations of rules focused on making cars faster by allowing for more downforce generated principally from the bodywork. The side-effect was that all cars created a lot of wake in the air as they travelled. Worse still, the intricate bodywork, designed to work optimally in the wind tunnel, was very sensitive to this wake.
It meant cars couldn’t follow one another closely without losing downforce, and that meant cars would slide more through corners and spin their wheels more readily, both slowing them down and overheating the temperature-sensitive tyres.
So not only could drivers not follow very closely without losing performance, but after a lap or two of trying, the tyres would degrade and they wouldn’t be able to challenge again.
The new rules seek to address the creation of and sensitivity to wake. The old cars would lose around 50 per cent of their downforce at one car length behind; these new cars aim to reduce that to 18 per cent.
“The balance of the car is much more predictable compared to last year’s car, where it was very difficult to understand whether you will lose the front or the rear,” Leclerc said. “This helps us to have the confidence to actually push behind someone and to be a bit closer.”
Part of what made Verstappen and Leclerc’s multiple laps of battling noteworthy was that Verstappen kept coming back for more. There were no moments spent trying to cool his tyres to avoid catastrophic degradation; lap after lap he kept coming. Only mistakes, like his misjudgment at the end of lap 43, suspended the action.
And he managed to do that without a significant performance advantage, which is what has typically created overtaking opportunities in F1. In this way it’s different even from the exciting battles we got between Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton last year, which were often based on the two meeting on track with two very different strategies. It was a thrill to see whether they could pull off their tactics, but if they did, the passes were often routine.
“It seems like once you get quite close, when you get within half a second, you actually can have a good exit,” Verstappen said, noting the improvement. “And I think that makes it a lot more tricky to actually do the pass … [and] to plan your pass.”
In other words, the fight was about tactics, not machinery. It was simply a matter of racing technique that got the job done.
“Again, it‘s hard racing, but fair,” Leclerc said. “Every race should be like this.”
There are still questions about the softer compounds — “The hard tyre was capable of following closer, the other compounds, and this depends on the track, just fall apart,” noted Verstappen — but this can be addressed through compound selection and development for next year.
But the step forward is clear. Closer racing is back in Formula 1.
SMART TRICKS, BUT IS THE DRS TOO POWERFUL?
Tactics and the DRS are the second key component of the battle to win this race, and for the second week in a row it was fascinating to watch the drivers choose their attacks and defences lap by lap.
Leclerc outwitted Verstappen in Bahrain. There he was also slower in a straight line, but three times he let Verstappen through at the first corner to gain the DRS advantage into turn four to take back the lead.
In Saudi Arabia Verstappen’s advances were more nuanced, and all three times he pulled alongside Leclerc came with a different strategy, forcing a different defence.
“I had a few good opportunities, but Charles really played it smart in the last corner, so it was not easy for me to actually get by,” Verstappen said.
“It wasn’t easy playing smart tricks in the last corner, but eventually I managed to get ahead.
“But once I got ahead it was four laps flat out trying to stay ahead because Charles was consistently in my DRS. It was quite tough out there.”
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DRS is the recurring theme here, and motorsport purists will baulk at the idea that a long-running battle over access to the drag reduction system can constitute a genuine race.
The DRS was introduced to combat the difficulty of overtaking, and while there has long been an artificiality about it, at many tracks it has been the only way to generate a pass.
And for now that’s still the case.
“I think we are still too sensitive for that,” Verstappen said. “Of course some tracks are easier to pass than others, but for me at the moment, if DRS wouldn‘t be there, I would have been second today.”
The sport is never going back to the days of limited aero, so maybe DRS will always feature in some form.
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But clearly it’s too effective when calibrated for last year’s cars. In 2022 F1 can reduce its reliance on the system so that it does just enough to bring two cars side by side rather than swapping their positions, re-emphasising the importance of the sort of tactical racing we saw at the end of this weekend’s race.