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Graham Read
Formula 1 Correspondent
7:40 PM 9th March 2024
sports

Red Bull’s Saudi 1-2, But Bearman Stars On Debut

 
The second round of this season’s Formula 1 World Championship was held in Saudi Arabia today, and, following Red Bull’s resounding 1-2 finish in Bahrain a week ago, Max Verstappen and Sergio Pérez repeated the result. However, 18-year-old Brit Oliver “Ollie” Bearman starred for Ferrari on his Formula 1 debut, finishing seventh and winning the official Driver Of The Day award in front of the packed grandstands and an estimated worldwide viewing audience of 81 million.

Max Verstappen prepares to go win a further Grand Prix
Max Verstappen prepares to go win a further Grand Prix
The Grand Prix was held on a Saturday to avoid conflicting with the start of Ramadan tomorrow before we revert to normal Sunday service with effect from the next round in Australia in a fortnight’s time.

Meanwhile, the ongoing off-track saga centred on Red Bull team principal and CEO Christian Horner shows no sign of relenting and is still an unedifying spectacle, from which none of those involved are likely to emerge unscathed and with their reputations intact. It has led to endless front page headlines around the world and particularly in the tabloid media, with an excess of salacious tittle tattle about the alleged flirtatious WhatsApp messages between Horner and a female colleague, which still have to be verified, helping no doubt to sell newspapers and attract online page hits. It’s already clear, though, that the full story on this front is seemingly very much yet to be revealed and that the attempts to discredit and oust Horner may just be part of a far bigger picture about control of the team and the future relationship between the Red Bull GmbH fizzy drinks parent company and its technology-driven subsidiary. It’s also long been clear that Horner’s success and general popularity have caused a degree of envy amongst others.

The reigning champion is again performing superbly for Red Bull, but I am sure Wolff would love to steal Verstappen from his nemesis, Horner, to team up with George Russell next year.
Verstappen has always had a good relationship with Horner, but the situation between the triple champion’s father, Jos, himself a former, if far lesser, F1 driver, and Horner has often been more fractious, reaching a head in Bahrain a week ago. Following last Saturday’s dominant victory for Verstappen, his father had publicly and very unsubtlely called for Horner to leave the Milton Keynes-based outfit in order to stop it, in his words, “being torn apart." However, the team issued an official response, refuting such allegations and emphasising its strength and unity despite the current storm still surrounding Horner. Crucially, the Thai majority shareholder in global Red Bull, Chalerm Yoovidhya, is a backer of Horner, whereas the company’s senior management at its HQ in Austria may be less enamoured with him, creating something of a power struggle.

The disgruntled Jos Verstappen’s comments led to speculation as to whether he might be seeking to negotiate a move for his son to Mercedes with effect from next season to replace the Ferrari-bound Sir Lewis Hamilton. Such rumours were only enhanced by the sight in the Bahrain F1 paddock of the Dutchman and the Mercedes part owner and team principal, Toto Wolff, deep in conversation. However, it has to be remembered that Verstappen has a high-value contract with Red Bull until the end of 2028, although there seem to be at least two exit clauses that could potentially be triggered.

In Saudi Arabia, he initially stressed that he is very happy at Red Bull and sees no reason to leave, adding that he is also still very grateful for all the team has done for him to progress in his career. It goes without saying that his current employer would understandably be very reluctant to part with his services. So, the very grounded and likeable Max finds himself caught in a battle with Horner on one side and his father on the other. Sir Lewis Hamilton suggested in Jeddah that it is perhaps time for Max to be in control of his own future destiny, just as Lewis ultimately opted to reject his own father’s guidance, but the Red Bull team leader indicated he could not see himself racing in F1 without his father supporting him.

Saudi Arabia’s new Qiddiya circuit is an exciting prospect
Saudi Arabia’s new Qiddiya circuit is an exciting prospect
With Red Bull still on a roll and Mercedes yet to become competitive again after two disappointing seasons, it arguably makes no sense to move to the latter, but never say never in the world of Formula 1. Earlier in Max’s career, Wolff had tried to sign him as a Mercedes junior driver but lost out at the time to Red Bull, and of course, he is currently the hottest property on the F1 grid. Wolff has indicated that he is in no hurry to sign a replacement for Hamilton, as he already has a long list of willing candidates, and the Austrian is no doubt happy to await any further developments about the possible availability of Max. The reigning champion is again performing superbly for Red Bull, but I am sure Wolff would love to steal Verstappen from his nemesis, Horner, to team up with George Russell next year.

2024 Formula 1 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

1 Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 1hr20m43.273s
2 Sergio Pérez (Red Bull) +13.643s
3 Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +18.639s
4 Oscar Piastri (McLaren) +32.007s
5 Fernando Alonso (Aston Martin) +35.759s
6 George Russell (Mercedes) +39.936s
7 Oliver Bearman (Ferrari) +42.679s
8 Lando Norris (McLaren) +45.708s
9 Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +47.391s
10 Nico Hülkenberg (Haas) +1m16.996s
11 Alex Albon (Williams) +1m28.354s
12 Kevin Magnussen (Haas) 1m45.737s
13 Esteban Ocon (Alpine) Lapped
14 Yuki Tsunoda (RB) Lapped
15 Logan Sargeant (Williams) Lapped
16 Daniel Ricciardo (RB) Lapped
17 Valtteri Bottas (Sauber) Lapped
18 Zhou Guanyu (Sauber) Lapped
19 Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) Retired
20 Pierre Gasly (Alpine) Retired
At a time when off-track issues seem to dominate, the FIA governing body’s president, Mohammed Ben Sulayem, is also under investigation for allegedly attempting to interfere with the result of the 2023 Saudi Arabian GP by seeking to have a 10-second penalty for Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso overturned. He is also facing claims that he allegedly sought for the Las Vegas street circuit to not be certified fit for F1 racing ahead of last November’s round in Nevada. Oh, for the days to return when all the leading F1 news is again predominantly about on-track racing-related stories!

On a far more positive note, last Tuesday Saudi Arabia formally announced its new Qiddiya circuit, which will include a dramatic opening corner as well as other features that will make it a truly world-class venue for drivers, teams, and fans. The country joined the Formula 1 calendar back in 2021, and its Grand Prix has to date been held on a fast street track on the coast at Jeddah, the venue for today’s race. The plan has always been to move to a purpose-built facility 30 miles from Riyadh, the Saudi capital city, but it is expected that the country’s Grand Prix will continue to be held at its current location until 2027. In other good news emanating from the Saudi Arabian F1 paddock, the German automotive giant, Audi, is set to complete its full acquisition of the existing Sauber F1 team well ahead of the originally intended 2026 date, with Andreas Seidl announced as the CEO of the Audi entry.

The circuit has a justifiable reputation for being dangerous as it is lined by concrete barriers with blind corners, and there is a real risk for drivers at full speed catching those less so
With all the off-track distractions, on Thursday everyone was looking forward to the two opening free practice sessions, but the talking point that has rocked the sport forced itself back into the headlines again when it became clear that Red Bull had suspended the female team member who had made the accusations against Horner, which had then been dismissed following a lengthy investigation by an independent KC barrister. During the same day’s team principals official press conference, Horner stressed that enough was enough and that, having been cleared of any wrongdoing by the 150-page KC’s report, it was now time for his wife and family, not to mention himself and his team, not to have to endure any further suffering, and to simply focus on going racing. There are as yet unsubstantiated suggestions within the F1 media world that Horner’s female accuser had been suspended because of dishonesty and inaccuracies in her allegations, but we will have to wait for the exact position on this front to become clearer.

Ollie Bearman was so impressive for Ferrari
Ollie Bearman was so impressive for Ferrari
Moving on, let’s focus instead on flying F1 cars on-track, as it has, after all, been a Grand Prix weekend. Following first practice, it was Verstappen who topped the timesheets ahead of Alonso, the other Red Bull driven by Pérez, and the Mercedes of Russell. Out of the car, the veteran Alonso, whose Aston contract expires at the end of this season, had been busy explaining how he feels he is on the wish lists for next year of both Red Bull and Mercedes, which he may well be if Pérez’s early form again falters. Second practice began a little later than the scheduled 20.00 local time to allow some drain cover bolts in the pitlane to be checked, and, at the conclusion of the hour-long session, which included some hot laps on the quickest, soft compound tyres as well as slower race simulation ones on more durable rubber, it was Alonso who led the way, followed by the best of the rest, Russell, Verstappen, and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc. The circuit has a justifiable reputation for being dangerous as it is lined by concrete barriers with blind corners, and there is a real risk for drivers at full speed catching those less so. Following second practice, Hamilton received a warning, and his team was fined 15,000 euros after Williams’ Logan Sargeant had to take evasive action to avoid a high-speed, serious accident with the slow Mercedes car, which was loitering on the racing line.

Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, who’d impressed with a podium finish in Bahrain last weekend, had been excused from media duties on Wednesday due to feeling unwell, but he still managed to drive during both Thursday practice sessions, even finishing seventh in the second one. However, yesterday he was diagnosed as suffering from appendicitis, with the unfortunate Spaniard needing surgery. On the plus side, as the old saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining, and Sainz’s illness meant that Ferrari drafted reserve driver Oliver 'Ollie' Bearman, who was already in Jeddah and had been on track preparing for the Formula 2 round with his Prema team. Instead of getting ready to start today’s F2 feature race from pole position, he found himself suddenly taking over Sainz’s F1 car from yesterday’s third practice session onwards.

... further good news reached the circuit when it was announced that Sainz had already had successful surgery for his appendicitis.
Such opportunities are simply a welcome gift for racing drivers with aspirations to compete at the Formula 1 level, and Bearman acquitted himself well in final practice, posting the tenth fastest time, just one place behind the struggling Hamilton. The session had had to be truncated with red flags after Sauber’s Zhou Guanyu had lost control at Turn 7 and suffered a hefty 160-mph impact with the barriers. Fortunately, the Chinese driver escaped unscathed, but his car and the barriers didn't, and both needed repairing. Verstappen went fastest ahead of Leclerc, Pérez, and Russell, setting things up nicely for the subsequent qualifying hour, which began at 20.00 local time.

Come qualifying, Verstappen again proved that he is the gift that just keeps on giving as he added a further pole position to his ever-expanding CV, with Leclerc earning the right to line up on the front row with him on the as-always staggered grid for today’s race and with Pérez and Alonso just to their rear. Bearman, now Ferrari’s youngest ever F1 driver and set to become the youngest Briton to race in the sport, just missed out on making it through to the final part of the qualifying process after setting the 11th fastest time. Bearman is obviously a familiar face within the racing community but probably little known in the wider world, and thus his sudden promotion to race for Ferrari generated plenty of news stories, with Horner no doubt grateful that he was being dropped down the order for now at least. Meanwhile, further good news reached the circuit when it was announced that Sainz had already had successful surgery for his appendicitis.

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc qualified second and finished third
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc qualified second and finished third
However, there was then a further dramatic turn of events yesterday evening when Red Bull’s long-time Austrian motorsport advisor, the 80-year-old Dr. Helmut Marko, revealed that he too may be suspended and face potential disciplinary action after this weekend’s Grand Prix in relation to the possibility that he may have been involved in recent leaks attempting to discredit Horner in a dirty war involving anonymous emails. This follows extensive work by Red Bull and F1’s own IT experts behind the scenes as they sought to identify the source of the emails. Marko and Verstappen have long been verycclose,e and the driver wants his mentor as well as his father to continue by his side in the Red Bull set-up. Crucially, one of the clauses in Verstappen’s current Red Bull contract may well state that, should Marko leave, voluntarily or otherwise, he can too, and he has made it clear that any loss of Marko would make himrreconsiderderw his own desire to stay with the team. Over in the Mercedes camp, Wolff was not slow to suggest that he would happily take both Verstappen and Marko onboard if they became available! Still, as the race neared, Marko claimed that his future with Red Bull had been assured after discussions at a local hotel with global CEO Oliver Mintzlaff.

Turning back to today’s Grand Prix, which this weekend should really have been all about but for the constant intrusion of other issues, the 20 cars started their formation lap at 20.00 local time, and it was Verstappen who made the best race start and led the field into the opening series of corners, leaving Leclerc to fend off Pérez for second. This only lasted to lap four, though, when the positions were reversed at Turn 1. Three tours later, Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll had a hefty race-ending shunt into the barriers at Turn 22, forcing the Safety Car to make an appearance. This triggered immediate pit stops for most drivers to switch to hard tyres, with just four not doing so. These included McLaren’s Lando Norris and Hamilton, which left them running first and third when racing resumed at the start of lap 10.EEventually,y the pair headed down the pit lane on laps 37 and 38 and rejoined in eighth and ninthpositions,s behind seventh-placed Bearman. Ahead of the latter, Verstappen and Pérez led the way, with Leclerc claiming the final podium position and McLaren’s Oscar Piastri, Alonso, and Russell completing the top six drivers to reach the chequered flag. Everyone was thrilled, though, to see young Bearman hold on to seventh place, showing sufficient pace to resist any threat from Norris and Hamilton behind him. For once, the extra point for the fastest lap of the race didn’t go to Verstappen, but to Leclerc.

Oh, for the days to return when all the leading F1 news is again predominantly about on-track racing-related stories!
So, next up comes a long-haul trip to Melbourne, Australia, where two weeks from tomorrow the battle for this year’s Drivers’ and Constructors’ titles will continue. Let’s hope that the off-track fight involving Horner and numerous others has reduced in intensity and preferably disappeared by then, even if that is a big ask.



2024 Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship

1 Max Verstappen 51
2 Sergio Pérez 36
3 Charles Leclerc 28


2024 Formula 1 Constructors’ Championship

1 Red Bull 87
2 Ferrari 49
3 McLaren 28