The teams, the cars, and the drivers are at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit for the inaugural Saudi Arabia Grand Prix. This is the second to last race of the Formula 1 season and the championship battles could not be tighter.
Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes GP are on a hot streak but a fired-up Red Bull squad will give Max Verstappen all the tools he needs to try and win the race. Friday Practice is underway, and Verstappen is on maximum attack. Ride along with the flying Dutchman for an onboard lap of a circuit no one has seen before.
High speed, high stakes, high reward
There is no question that the new Jeddah Corniche Circuit is fast, in fact, it’s one of the fastest road racing tracks in the world. Organizers anticipate that the Formula 1 cars will average around 160 mph on a lap that features long straights and many high-speed corners. This puts Jeddah on par with tracks like Monza in Italy.
One of the main challenges facing drivers are the sightlines. This characteristic is visible in Verstappen’s onboard lap. Because Jeddah Corniche is a street circuit, the track is lined with high concrete barriers. This blocks the line of sight for drivers entering a turn, making it effectively a blind corner. Drivers will have to rely on building their circuit knowledge as they won’t be able to see the length and radius of the corner as they are driving through it.
Trust is the name of the game in Saudi Arabia, and drivers will need to trust their cars and their skills to drive flat-out on a track with so many blind corners.
For the drivers brave enough to push hard, the rewards could be immense. Because the track is so fast, and the speeds so high, any mistake or hesitation will be amplified in terms of lap time. A few drivers on the grid struggle with high-speed corners and high-speed tracks, but for the racers who can get comfortable quickly, they could find themselves in a strong position for Sunday’s race.
As practice gets underway, no one has a significant advantage
Lewis Hamilton just edged Max Verstappen in Free Practice 1 by the slimmest of margins, with Valtteri Bottas running just behind. As it is the first time out for all the drivers and the teams, there is still a lot to learn. Expect laps times to tumble over the course of the weekend.
There are two more practice sessions before qualifying on Saturday. While somewhat representative of actual pace, the practice sessions are used by drivers and teams to run through a specific set of scenarios and plans ahead of qualifying and the race.
It can be challenging to determine who will be fastest just by looking at the practice session lap times, but it does give a glimpse at who is getting up to speed the quickest. The teams will often run the cars with heavy fuel loads to simulate the race conditions. That has the effect of slowing the cars down, masking their ultimate performance.
Who will master the track, and who will struggle?
As has been the case all season, Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton lead on lap time. They are both excellent everywhere and should not struggle to get up to speed in Saudi Arabia. The drivers that should do well on a circuit like Jeddah are Fernando Alonso, Pierre Gasly, Lando Norris, Daniel Ricciardo, and Valtteri Bottas. They all excel on fast, flowing, and high-speed race tracks.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel has always struggled with high-speed corners. If he is uncomfortable with the way his Aston Martin F1 car is handling this will exaggerate his problems. AlphaTauri rookie Yuki Tsunoda is another that could have issues over the weekend. He does not have a problem with driving high-speed tracks but is prone to over-driving and trying too hard in the run-up to the race. This characteristic has often seen the Japanese driver end up in the barriers, ruining his chances for a strong session. Tsunoda will need to resist the urge to go too fast too quickly and be patient if he wants to finish in the points on Sunday.
If the first glimpses of the circuit are accurate, then Sunday’s race will be full of excitement. High speeds, challenging racing, and championships on the line could make the Saudi Arabia Grand Prix one of the year’s best races.