How might Sergio Pérez’s Jeddah race have panned out if Nicholas Latifi had not crashed his Williams about 30sec after Pérez – the pole-sitter and first stint race leader – had pitted?
Because the medium tyre on which most of the field started could not be raced flat out, but needed some temperature management by the driver, Pérez’s task in the first stages was a) to get out of the DRS zone of the chasing Charles Leclerc before the feature was enabled at the end of the second lap, and b) to be out of Leclerc’s undercut range as the first pitstop window opened. But to do all this without overheating the rubber.
He got himself out of the DRS reach of the Ferrari but couldn’t quite manage the second task. As a pitstop’s-worth of gap to the fifth-place George Russell began to be imminent by the 14th/15th lap, Pérez was only around 2.2sec clear of the Ferrari. In anticipation of that window opening he’d stepped up the pace, on lap 11, by around 0.3sec, trying to get himself far enough clear of the Ferrari that even if he stopped a lap later he’d still be in front. To do
that, he needed the gap to be around 3.5sec.By lap 12 he had it out to 2.8sec and it looked like he may have been on course to do it. But it was just Ferrari biding its time, keeping some of Leclerc’s tyre life in reserve and only unleashing him at the last moment. It was the13th lap when he was allowed off the lead.
“Pérez didn’t have pace advantage to put destiny into his own hands”
“Can we push a bit more now?” he was asked. “I can’t,” Leclerc replied. But he did! He took 0.5sec off Pérez on that lap and it was clear the Red Bull’s tyres had suffered in that attempt at pulling clear. “OK, we are +4 on tyre life to before,” Leclerc was told at the end of that lap, together with the information of how much time he’d just taken out of Pérez. Not only that, but he was lapping faster than the chasing Verstappen, potentially meaning Max couldn’t be used to force Leclerc in early.
This was all positive for Leclerc. He’d been planning on coming in for the undercut, but he watched as Pérez peeled into the pitlane ahead of him and so stayed out.
Pérez simply didn’t have the pace advantage over Leclerc to put destiny in his own hands. Lap 15 was actually slightly earlier than ideal to pit because they hadn’t quite cleared a pitstop’s-worth gap over Russell. But Red Bull couldn’t wait any longer – because his tyres were clearly in worse shape than Leclerc’s.
Checo was still in contention for the win as he pitted but it was all going to hang on Leclerc’s in-lap pace and the out-lap of Pérez on cold, hard-compound tyres. Could Checo get them up to temperature in time? Could he clear Russell, who was lapping slower than Leclerc? Did Leclerc have enough tyre life left to do a punishingly fast in-lap to overcut ahead?
It looks like Pérez – who was unable to find a way past Russell in the first few corners – was going to lose the position. Leclerc’s pace was still good enough to be faster than the Russell-dictated pace Pérez was being held to. Leclerc would have exited ahead and put himself in the driving seat. Verstappen would have stopped on the next lap and would have rejoined behind team-mate Pérez, with the Ferrari in the lead.
So Pérez probably was not robbed of a win by the Latifi crash. He’d already lost it by not having that crucial gap over Leclerc as the pitstop window had opened. The way it played out – with Leclerc, Verstappen and Sainz all getting the cheap pitstop under the Latifi safety car – did however give Red Bull a second bite at the cherry, via Verstappen.