c/o twitter.com/MercedesAMGF1

c/o twitter.com/MercedesAMGF1

The penultimate race of the 2021 Formula One (F1) season arrived with the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix (GP), held from Friday, Dec. 3 to Sunday, Dec. 5. The race saw the drivers take to the 27-corner Jeddah Corniche Circuit, built on the streets of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to race on what was expected to be the fastest street track in the F1 calendar.

In the championship battle that has gripped the entire season, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen went into the weekend separated by just eight points after Hamilton’s win at the Qatar GP. As in Qatar, Hamilton sported his helmet with the LGBTQ+ flag design in a statement against Saudi Arabia’s ongoing human rights violations. In an already controversial new addition to the list of F1 circuits, the red-flag- and safety-car-filled race also faced drama from steward decisions, which made the Saudi Arabia GP one of the most discussed weekends of the 2021 season. 

Free Practice

As the drivers took to the circuit for the first time on Friday to begin the first Free Practice (FP) session, they had to quickly adjust to the high-speed track and the multiple blind corners. Hamilton finished the session at the top of the timing sheets, followed by Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas in P2 and P3. Pierre Gasly once again put on a strong showing for Alpha Tauri in P4, as did Antonio Giovinazzi in his second-to-last race for Alfa Romeo. Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc took the flag in P6 and P7 for Ferrari, demonstrating the Italian team’s speed ahead of McLaren, as Daniel Ricciardo finished the session in P8.

In the only nighttime practice session, FP2 saw the drivers facing cooler temperatures and floodlights instead of sunlight. Many faced lockups into the first corner, though the biggest moment of FP2 came just minutes before the end of the session. Leclerc went into the wall at Turn 22, bringing out a red flag and ending the second practice session. The final timing sheets saw Hamilton once again leading the rest of the grid, finishing with the fastest time, with his teammate just behind him in P2. Gasly showed off a quick time again to take a P3 finish ahead of Verstappen, while the Alpines also looked surprisingly fast, with Alonso and teammate Esteban Ocon taking P4 and P5 respectively. 

On Saturday, FP3 saw a switch in leadership when Verstappen set the fastest time, leaving Hamilton in P2. After disappointing finishes in the first two practice sessions, Sergio Pérez was able to get his Red Bull much higher up the timing sheets in FP3, and he ended the session in P3. Yuki Tsunoda and Gasly found themselves in P4 and P5 respectively for Alpha Tauri, demonstrating the team’s quick pace, while Bottas ended the last practice session in P6 ahead of Leclerc and Sainz for Ferrari, as Ocon and Norris rounded out the top ten finishers. 


As the drivers laid down their first laps for the first qualifying period (Q1) on Saturday evening and began to head out again to set their final times, they soon found that the track improvement was immense, and times fell with each additional lap. Both Mercedes and Red Bull drivers easily made it through to Q2, though Bottas told the pit wall that he was facing engine issues towards the end of the session, raising concerns for Mercedes ahead of the next part of qualifying. Although Nicholas Latifi was knocked out in P16, the biggest surprise in Q1 came from the elimination of both Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll in a disappointing result for Aston Martin. Behind them, Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin made up the final row of the grid in P19 and P20. 

Q2 saw Hamilton struggling for grip behind Verstappen, but both cars made it through to Q3 without much trouble. Sainz found himself facing the most issues after brushing the wall two times, damaging his rear wing. The Ferrari driver ended the session as the surprise knockout of Q2, with Daniel Ricciardo, Kimi Räikkönen, Alonso, and George Russell as the other four cars knocked out. 

The tension could not have been greater in the final portion of qualifying as Verstappen led the timing sheets after the first round of timed laps, but was knocked down to P3 after Hamilton and Bottas finished their final runs and took the flag. Though Verstappen set off for his final timed run and seemed to be on an excellent lap, setting the fastest first and second sectors of all the drivers, he hit the wall into the final corner in a shock to the Red Bull pit wall and was unable to knock Hamilton off of the provisional pole. 

With Leclerc in P4 and Pérez in P5, Q3 did not bring the best results for Red Bull, but Mercedes was immensely pleased with Hamilton and Bottas’ front-row lockout for Sunday’s race. Alpha Tauri was also starting well, with Gasly in P6 and Tsunoda in P8 for the start of the race, and with Lando Norris in between them in P7. Ocon and Antonio Giovinazzi took the final positions in the top ten for the start of the race. 


As the lights went out on Sunday night for the 50-lap race, both Mercedes drivers got away from their grid spots well, with Verstappen unable to draw close at the start. Leclerc managed to keep P4 ahead of Pérez. The frontrunners stayed in this order until Schumacher hit the wall at the Turn 21-22 combination in a similar incident to Leclerc’s crash in FP2. The safety car emerged as the marshals attempted to clear Schumacher’s car from the track. 

Under the safety car, Mercedes chose to pit both of their cars to go from the medium tires onto the hards for the end of the race. The double-stack gave Verstappen the lead of the race, as Pérez also pitted for Red Bull, though Mercedes expected that Verstappen would have to pit again later so that Hamilton and Bottas would be able to regain track position. 

However, all strategies were upended when the stewards brought out a red flag on Lap 14 to repair the barrier at the site of Schumacher’s crash. The red flag meant that all cars would enter the pit lane, and tire changes would be allowed, meaning that Verstappen would not need to pit later on to fulfill the two tire compound race requirement. Norris, who had pitted under the safety car to get rid of his soft tires, was at a disadvantage for McLaren after having come out in the midfield before the red flag. 

The stewards decided on a standing start with Verstappen on pole ahead of Hamilton and Bottas behind him. Lap 15 got underway with an incredible start from Hamilton, who pulled beside and ahead of Verstappen as they headed into Turn 1. However, Verstappen chose to suddenly cut the entire curb, going off track before rejoining ahead of Hamilton and pushing the Mercedes driver left, which allowed Ocon to pass Hamilton for P2. 

In the midst of the drama at the front, Pérez found himself hit from behind by Leclerc on the first lap of the restart, spinning him around and putting him out of the race, as he lost his front wing. Mazepin also ran into the back of Russell’s Williams while trying to avoid Pérez’s stopped car, putting both himself and Russell out of the race. The damage from all of the collisions brought out a second red flag, bringing all the cars into the pit lane once again. 

Further drama was then initiated during the red flag period by Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) F1 Race Director Michael Masi radioing Red Bull to offer the team the choice to put Verstappen on P3 behind Ocon in P1 and Hamilton in P2 for the restart instead of allowing the stewards to make a decision on Verstappen’s off-track driving at the beginning of the previous restart. Red Bull decided to take the offer, which meant that Verstappen started on the second row when the race got underway. 

The grid made its way to the start-finish straight for another standing start, with Ocon in P1 after he started the race from P9. When the lights went out, Verstappen made a good getaway, braking later than both Ocon and Hamilton as the three drivers went into Turn 1 together. Verstappen was in the lead as they exited the corner. 

While Verstappen held the lead, Hamilton easily made his way past Ocon into the start of Lap 18, finding himself in P2, and began demonstrating strong pace in catching up to Verstappen. Behind the frontrunners, Bottas found himself in P5 behind Ricciardo, with Gasly, Giovinazzi, and Vettel behind him. 

Just as the chase was getting underway between Hamilton and Verstappen, Tsunoda ran into Vettel at Turn 2 and lost his front wing, bringing out a Virtual Safety Car (VSC) to allow marshals to clean up the debris. 

Later, Vettel was the recipient of more contact when former teammate Räikkönen went into the right side of his car, bringing out the VSC once again. Vettel eventually retired on Lap 44 after driving much of the race with damage, ending a disappointing weekend for the German driver, who has historically been very strong at street tracks like Singapore. 

Following the interruptions to the race by the VSCs, Hamilton continued to close in on Verstappen, soon getting within Drag Reduction System (DRS) range. Hamilton attempted to make an overtake on the Red Bull at Turn 1 on Lap 37 in a repeat of the first restart, but Verstappen once again went off track and cut the corner to stay ahead of the Mercedes driver. This time, the Red Bull pit wall radioed Verstappen to give the place back to Hamilton, but the way in which Verstappen chose to do so brought about a pile of controversy. 

Verstappen slowed going into Turn 27, but stayed near the middle of the track, attempting to let Hamilton past. However, Hamilton had not yet received the radio message from Mercedes telling him that Verstappen was supposed to let him by, and did not understand Verstappen’s braking. He ran into the back of Verstappen’s Red Bull, damaging Hamilton’s front wing. The incident was under investigation until after the end of the race, questioning why Verstappen braked so suddenly and then accelerated away from the collision. 

On Lap 42, Verstappen let Hamilton by as they headed into the final corner, but immediately overtook Hamilton once again through the exit of Turn 27 with the help of DRS. As this happened, the stewards announced that Verstappen would receive a five-second time penalty for going off track and gaining a lasting advantage. Though if Hamilton had stayed within five seconds of Verstappen through the end of the race, he would have achieved P1, the British driver managed to finally pass the Red Bull on track on Lap 43, giving him the lead of the race. After making the overtake, Hamilton continued to put in multiple fastest laps as Verstappen dropped off behind him, increasing the gap between the first two cars.

Further back, Bottas finally got past Ricciardo and began to chase after Ocon for the final podium place. Though Red Bull could have pitted Verstappen to try and take away the extra point for the fastest lap from Hamilton, Ocon was just at the end of Verstappen’s pit window so that, if Verstappen were to pit, he would be in danger of losing second place to Bottas chasing Ocon behind him. Red Bull left Verstappen out for the rest of the race, leaving him to finish in P2 behind Hamilton, who crossed the line and took the chequered flag to earn his 103rd win and draw level with Verstappen in the championship standings. 

Bottas finally managed to get past Ocon at the end of the final lap while heading onto the main straight, giving Mercedes a double podium and a strong collection of points for the Constructors’ Championship. Mercedes now lead Red Bull by 587.5 points to 559.5, a sizable gap heading into the final race that favors the team from Brackley. 

The stewards also announced after the end of the race that Verstappen would receive an additional ten-second penalty for causing a collision with his erratic braking on Lap 37, but the penalty did not change the race results and Verstappen stayed in P2. 

Hamilton and Verstappen now head into the last and title-deciding race of the season, the Drivers’ Championship, with the same number of points (369.5 each), though Verstappen is considered to be the championship leader, with nine wins to Hamilton’s eight this season. This is the first time since 1974 that the title fight will see the championship leaders enter the final race with equal points, making the Abu Dhabi GP at the Yas Marina Circuit certain to bring the tensest race weekend of the season: both Hamilton and Verstappen will know that whoever finishes higher in the race will become the 2021 World Drivers’ Champion.

Jiyu Shin can be reached at jshin01@wesleyan.edu.