We’re just two races into the Formula 1 season and already it looks like fans the world over could be in for one mighty drivers championship battle. Reigning world champion Max Verstappen pipped Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc with a handful of laps remaining in a relentless Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, to get his first points on the standings board.
The Red Bull against the Prancing Horse, that’s seemingly the title fight beginning to unfold after a duo of races in the Middle East.
And in scenes reminiscent of last season’s duel between Christian Horner’s Red Bull team and Toto Wolff’s Mercedes, the tactical play between Red Bull and Ferrari off the circuit was just as important as the wheel to wheel racing on it.
In what appeared to be a stroke of tactical nouse by the Ferrari pit-wall, Leclerc was issued an instruction while in second behind Sergio Perez – who was starting on pole for the first time in his career, exactly 11 years on from his F1 debut.
The Monacan was told: “Box to overtake”. In response, Red Bull seemingly threw their pit crew into life and then race leader Perez came into the pits. Leclerc didn’t.
Had Ferrari baited Red Bull? Had Red Bull taken their opposition’s instruction too literally? Only Red Bull will know. What is known, though, is that soon after Perez entered the pits, Williams’s Nicholas Latifi found companionship with one of Jeddah’s race walls and the safety car came out.
Leclerc, now leading the race, Max Verstappen and Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz were all able to pit and emerge in front of Perez. A cruel twist of fate in the pit wall chess match.
Twice, too, did Max Verstappen complain to his race engineer about infringements relating to the pit lane entry after he himself had been penalised in Saturday’s qualifying for doing similar.
Alas, the off field tactics and general theatre of the race eventually came down to what was happening between the two rivals.
Verstappen bided his time tailing Leclerc and, with the nature of the circuit, wouldn’t have minded crossing the line in second 49 times – as long as he was in front come the final lap.
Jeddah’s street circuit sees a rarity in Formula 1. Because the advantage is in having the DRS leading to the first corner, drivers often aim to cross the line second.
Cast a thought back to last season’s race in Saudi Arabia, Lewis Hamilton and Verstappen did this and ended up colliding.
Here, though, no touching. What did happen, though, was a near stalemate to get the DRS advantage. Both drivers almost came to a complete standstill in order to gain the advantage – Verstappen locked up in the process of braking so hard.
The racing was clean and the racing was fair – something the sport’s governing body will hope continues after last year’s controversial Abu Dhabi finish.
Verstappen’s patience paid off, however, and he made his move in the 47th lap. Leclerc had little left in the ramining laps but came within metres as the duo crossed the line for the final time – just 0.5 seconds in it.
In the hotly contested battle between Leclerc and Verstappen, Ferrari and Red Bull, Formula 1 could be entering a new age of rivalry.
As for Mercedes? George Russell finished in fifth, his Silver Arrows team now best of the rest. Seven-time world champion Hamilton could manage just one point and 10th position.
It may officially be the year of the Tiger, but come the final chequered flag of this season – currently in its infancy – it very much feels like Silver Arrow dominance is over and it will be either the year of the Red Bull, or the year of the Prancing Horse.