'If only Perez and Verstappen can win F1 title, let's hope it's a proper fight'


2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix analysis: Midfield battles provided most of the entertainment as Sergio Perez led Max Verstappen to a Red Bull 1-2. On current form there’s no other way they’ll be beaten, writes Mark Hughes

Fireworks explode as Sergio Perez walks away from his winning Red Bull at the 2023 Saudi Arabian GP

Perez victory means he and Verstappen are separated by a point in the championship - for now

Luca Bruno/AFP via Getty Images

Sergio Perez stayed steely as team mate Max Verstappen came at him, no team orders. Checo had cursed when, just like last year here, the safety car came out at a very inopportune moment for him – for it brought Verstappen to within just 5sec behind by the time he’d easily DRS’d his way past George Russell’s Mercedes and Fernando Alonso’s Aston Martin. But on the other hand Perez was fortunate that Max had started back in 15th after a driveshaft had failed on him in Q2.

Aston was clearly best of the rest but there wasn’t actually that much in it

Max could feel something amiss with the car in the late stages of the race too. That mechanical fragility is all that’s injecting any jeopardy into these early races, for we now know that there were lots of fingers crossed at Red Bull in the late stages of Bahrain too. On current form there’s no other way they’ll be beaten. Verstappen put himself in the lead of the championship over Perez by the margin of the fastest lap point he took on the final lap.

A long way behind the Red Bulls in third, Alonso produced a superb final lap too, just 0.3sec adrift of Verstappen’s. This was to ensure he was more than 5sec clear of Russell’s Mercedes as there was a penalty hanging over him about whether a previous 5sec penalty had been taken correctly. The penalty was confirmed but it turned out to be 10sec – so giving Russell the official final podium place. Then the decision was successfully appealed by Aston Martin, returning the drivers to their finishing positions.

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Although the Aston was clearly best of the rest – and Alonso led the first three laps after out-accelerating Perez off the grid –  there wasn’t actually that much in it on race day between it, Mercedes and Ferrari, which finished line-astern behind the Alonso/Russell struggle in the order of Lewis Hamilton, Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc. Stroll had been running an early fourth – he’d put a great pass on Sainz on the opening lap – before a suspected ERS-K failure took him out and brought out the safety car.

Hamilton – feeling no confidence in the handling of the W14 – had made the unusual choice of starting on the hard and after a few laps was looking for a way past his medium-shod team mate Russell. But the Mercedes plan in challenging Alonso was to be gentle on the tyres in the early laps so as to mount an undercut threat at the stops. So Hamilton was called off.

Kevin Magnussen fights with Haas team mate Nico Hulkenberg in the 2023 Saudi Arabian GP

Magnussen vs Hülkenberg

Grand Prix Photo

Sparks fly as Oscar Piastri and Lando Norris fight in the 2023 Saudi Arabian GP

Piastri takes on Norris

Florent Gooden/DPPI

Team-mate battles were something of a theme through the field. Aside from those at Red Bull and Mercedes, Esteban Ocon won the Alpine contest, in eighth, after a close wheel-to-wheel moment with Pierre Gasly on the restart. Kevin Magnussen fended off Haas team-mate Nico Hülkenberg for lap after lap until his better tyre usage allowed him to pull clear and then put a superb on-the-limit out-braking pass on Yuki Tsunoda’s AlphaTauri for the final point. At McLaren, despite Oscar Piastri making it through to Q3 and Lando Norris going out in Q1 after damaging the suspension against a wall, they ended up going wheel to wheel near the back. Piastri had taken wing damage at the start and was in the pits at the end of the lap. Norris damaged his car on the Piastri debris. The rookie made it through on the set of hard tyres he’d had fitted at the end of lap one, Norris did a more conventional tyre sequence. Piastri got the upper hand in their wheel-to-wheel dice which also involved Logan Sergeant’s Williams.

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Such internal scraps may be the best entertainment we get this year. Unless Perez can continue to challenge Verstappen. Even from the perspective of race two, they look like the only two title contestants.