Saudi Arabia Grand Prix: 5 Things to Know Going Into the Race

There are two races left in the closely contested 2021 Formula 1 season. The teams, drivers, and entire series head west from Qatar, across the Arabian peninsula to Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia, for the next round in the championship. 

The Jeddah Corniche Circuit is brand new and billed as the fastest street circuit in the world. Sitting right on the coast of the Red Sea, it’s a picturesque location in a controversial country and part of Formula 1’s larger plan to add more street circuits in glamorous locations. 

Formula 1 will race under the lights for another nighttime event, and these are the five storylines to follow.

Max vs. Lewis, the championship battle is down to the wire

Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing RB16B Honda leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes W12 during the F1 Grand Prix of Brazil on November 14, 2021 | Mark Thompson/Getty Images

In 2008, Lewis Hamilton won his first world championship with a last corner overtake on the final lap of the season’s final race. He beat Ferrari’s Felipe Massa by one point to take a dramatic championship win.

The 2021 season feels a lot like the 2008 season, with Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton neck and neck entering the season’s final two races. Verstappen currently has an 8 point advantage over Hamilton, but that is not enough to clinch the title just yet.

In dominant style, Hamilton has won the past two Grands Prix at Sao Paulo and Qatar. He has looked nearly unbeatable, and the Mercedes GP F1 car has shown considerably more speed than the Red Bull. Many have speculated that this was due to a clever rear wing on the Mercedes, but the reality might be a bit more troubling for Verstappen.

Hamilton and Mercedes have dominated the last two Grands Prix because they are good, very good. Hamilton finds motivation in the challenge of beating Max Verstappen. A motivated Hamilton can overcome a poor-performing car, which will be a worry for Verstappen.

Once again, Hamilton needs to win this race because if he doesn’t, Max Verstappen will. Hamilton can’t win the championship in Saudi Arabia, but he can close the points gap to set up a championship decider in Abu Dhabi. 

On the other hand, Verstappen can win the championship in Saudi Arabia, but he will have to win, and Hamilton has to finish in the sixth or lower positions. An unlikely scenario gives the performances of the last two races. 

The Jeddah Corniche circuit theoretically favors the Mercedes F1 car, so the odds would have Hamilton winning the race. If Verstappen can finish in the second spot, the season’s final race will be a flat-out sprint to the championship.

A new track and new challenges

The Racing Course during previews ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia at Jeddah Corniche Circuit on December 2, 2021 | Hasan Bratic/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia’s first Grand Prix track, the Jeddah Corniche Circuit, is brand new. So new that it will still be under construction when Formula 1 cars head out of the pits during Friday practice. The track surface itself will be complete, but the surrounding infrastructure and some buildings will be unfinished on race day. 

No one has driven this track before, so neither the teams nor the drivers will know what the cars need to go fast there. The circuit layout should favor the cars with high straight-line speed, which would hand the advantage to Mercedes. 

The one question that remains is how the newly laid track surface will cope with Formula 1 cars. Since being applied, there hasn’t been much time for the tarmac to cure, and the forces that a modern F1 car can generate could put a lot of strain on the asphalt. The engineers in charge of building the circuit would have accounted for this, but new tarmac is always fragile and could come apart, which would require an emergency repair. 

Wind and sand blowing onto the track could be another issue at the circuit. A sandy surface will quickly reduce grip turning the race track into an ice skating rink. 

One thing is for sure, the challenge of going to a new racetrack should make for exciting racing. 

Can Red Bull claw back performance against a dominant Mercedes team?

Winner Valtteri Bottas of Finland and Mercedes GP talks with second place finisher Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing during the Sprint ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Italy at Autodromo di Monza on September 11, 2021 | Dan Istitene/Getty Images

The Mercedes F1 car has looked incredibly strong in the past two races. Lewis Hamilton blitzed the field in Brazil and made winning in Qatar look easy. Red Bull won’t be sitting around twiddling their thumbs; they are on the verge of winning the drivers’ championship and have a shot at the constructors’ championship as well. 

There are rumors that Honda has found some extra performance in the engine, but expect most of their improvements to come from chassis and aerodynamic tweaks. 

For Red Bull as a team, they need both cars to perform well in Saudi Arabia. Sergio Perez is necessary as a wingman for Max Verstappen, and will have to quickly get into the mix and cause problems for the two Mercedes cars. Perez has not been a strong qualifier this season, but it will be essential for him to do well on Saturday to help the team on Sunday. 

Perez cannot afford to start in the middle of the grid and race toward the front. He needs to start the Grand Prix in a strong position so he and Verstappen can build a gap over Hamilton and Bottas. 

Valtteri Bottas is a qualifying powerhouse, and Perez will find him tough to beat. If the two Mercedes cars can outscore the Red Bulls, it puts them much closer to winning the constructors’ championship. 

McLaren desperately need a strong weekend

Lando Norris of Great Britain driving the (4) McLaren F1 Team MCL35M Mercedes makes a pitstop during the F1 Grand Prix of Qatar on November 21, 2021 | Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Ferrari is walking away with third place in the constructors’ championship. A string of bad luck and mechanical failures have seen McLaren drop to 39.5 points behind the Italian team. That points gap is almost too big to overcome with only two races left, but a DNF by either of the two Ferraris would put McLaren right back in the fight. 

The key for McLaren will be Daniel Ricciardo. If he’s comfortable with the car and can find the right set-up, he has an excellent chance of outsourcing the Ferraris of Charles LeClerc, and Carlos Sainz Jr. Lando Norris is having his best season ever and will be the man to beat. He is now almost expected to outqualify and outrace the Ferraris, but he can’t do everything himself and needs Ricciardo to have a good points finish. 

Even if McLaren can’t catch Ferrari in the championship race, they will want to finish the season with the best results possible. Carrying that momentum into the off-season will provide a lot of motivation for the Woking-based team as they continue to become more competitive against the front runners. 

A few drivers could steal a win from the championship contenders

Third-placed Fernando Alonso of Spain and Alpine F1 Team celebrates on the podium during the F1 Grand Prix of Qatar on November 21, 2021 | Clive Mason/Getty Images

Unpredictability always makes racing fun, and a few drivers on the grid could sneak through to victory in Saudi Arabia. Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton are far enough ahead of the field that no other driver can win the championship, but several drivers could complicate the points with a win on Sunday.

Fernando Alonso is reestablishing himself as a contender. His epic battle with Hamilton in Hungary and a mighty third-place finish in Qatar prove that the Spaniard is still one of the best in the business. 

Riding high from Qatar, Alonso could be in with a shot to take a surprise victory. His racecraft and defensive driving are impeccable, and if Alpine can get a handle on their split-personality racecar, Alonso could be right at the front of the field. 

Another driver worth mentioning is AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly. He’s driving better than ever and has come on strong in the last few races. The Honda-powered AlphaTauri car has been quick, and when the car is fast, and the race strategy is right, Gasly has looked like a real threat for wins. 

Lando Norris is on the hunt for his first win in Formula 1. He’s been on the podium multiple times this year but lost out on a maiden victory to his teammate, Daniel Ricciardo. Norris is always in with a shot, and Saudi Arabia could be a track that suits him. 

As the Formula 1 season draws to a close, the action and intensity are picking up. A combination of a brand new track and a tight championship race could set the stage for fantastic racing on the Jeddah circuit. 

Related: Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah Grand Prix Circuit Might Be Incomplete Come Race Day