Reliability scare is rivals' only hope as Perez leads Red Bull 1-2 in 2023 Saudi Arabian GP: race report


Red Bull proved Bahrain was far from a one-off as Sergio Perez won the 2023 Saudi Arabian GP and Max Verstappen raced from 15th to second. Behind, Fernando Alonso was classified third... then fourth... then third again

Sergio Perez pumps his fists on the podium after winning the 2023 F1 Saudi Arabian GP

Sweet victory for Perez, who missed out on winning from pole in Saudi Arabia last year

Peter Fox/Getty Images

It was supposed to be a race that offered hope to Red Bull’s rivals, that proved the sample set of Bahrain was an anomaly and the performance deficit wasn’t that big.

With Max Verstappen starting from 15th on the grid it was also supposed to be a treacherous task for the championship leader to try and reach the podium.

It proved anything but.

This was a race where events transpired to help a dominant team recover with one of its cars but slightly jeopardised the result of the other, yet ultimately the biggest drama was of the self-inflicted kind after the chequered flag.

Fernando Alonso got a great start to take the lead from Sergio Perez and ignite hopes of a competitive race, but before he’d even completed a lap he was under investigation for being out of position on the grid. Alonso had been too far to the left of his grid slot, and by the end of the second lap a five-second time penalty had been handed out.

“I need to pay more attention to that,” Alonso said. “It’s also strange in two races that two cars – Esteban [Ocon] and myself – had similar things so maybe this year’s cars, the halo, whatever, is interrupting the vision of how we position the car.

“But anyway, that was my mistake.”


Alonso beat Perez off the line to take an early lead

Lars Baron/Getty Image


Contact with Gasly ruined Piastri's race

Lars Baron/Getty Images

Like Ocon in Bahrain, when it came to Alonso taking his penalty at his first pit stop, there would be controversy. But by that point, he wasn’t in the running for victory. Perez had already regained the lead into Turn 1 with ease on lap three, while Verstappen was rising through the field to run in the top ten by lap eight.

One of those positions had been gifted to him as Oscar Piastri picked up damage after light contact with Pierre Gasly on the opening lap, forcing him to pit for a new front wing. To make matters worse for McLaren, Lando Norris hit the debris from Piastri’s car and also suffered damage that needed addressing.

Aside from that, the early phase was light on drama. Lance Stroll pulled a strong move on Carlos Sainz on the first lap while Charles Leclerc used soft tyres — as opposed to mediums for the majority — to climb into the top six. One of the cars he cleared was Lewis Hamilton, who started on hards but was struggling, telling his team: “The grip sucks on this tyre”.

Max Verstappen passes Fernando Alonso in the 2023 Saudi Arabian Grand prix

Verstappen passes Alonso to take second place

Giuseppe Cacace/AFP via Getty Images

Nico Hulkenberg ahead of Max Verstappen in the 2023 F1 Saudi Arabian GP

Verstappen had tricky task of curtting through midfield

Giuseppe Cacace/AFP via Getty Images

The two Ferraris had just made their pit stops to also take on the hard compound, reacting to Stroll’s first stop, when the Canadian was told to stop his car on track with a power unit issue. Race control couldn’t tell where the car was parked from camera angles and so deployed the safety car as a precaution on lap 17.

That interruption allowed the top five of Perez, Alonso, George Russell, Verstappen and Hamilton to all make pitstops and not lose out, leaving Verstappen in the top four and what had been a 20-second deficit to his team-mate erased.

“The beginning, the first few laps it was really hard to follow cars because of the street circuit, fast corners, the walls all very close, you get kind-of a tailwind effect,” Verstappen said. “And the car’s a bit all over the place. So, after a few laps, it all started to settle in a bit better, and I could pick them off one by one. Then the pace was good. The safety car, of course, helped me a bit to get back in the race.”

Related article

Alonso was also able to take advantage, as he could take his time penalty when the rest of the field was circulating more slowly. The rear jack was in contact with the car but race control – supporting by the FIA’s remote operations centre in Geneva – was happy that no work was done within the five-second window.

On the restart, Perez pulled away comfortably, and Alonso managed to edge away from Russell again too. Verstappen took just five laps to move up to second place by the halfway stage – using DRS to his advantage on both occasions – while Hamilton cleared the one car he had lost a place to during the pitstops as he pulled a smart switchback on Sainz to regain fifth.

At this point the gap between Perez and Verstappen was five seconds, and with a clear run the smart money would be on the defending champion closing in. But after Alex Albon retired with a brake problem, Verstappen started complaining about driveshaft concerns that reminded him of Saturday’s failure.

Aston Martin safety car leads the pack in the 2023 F1 Saudi Arabian GP

Safety car was a gift to Verstappen, closing the gaps and cutting time los in pitstop

Giuseppe Cacace/AFP via Getty Images

“Once I got into P2, it was quite a decent gap, on a track where there’s not a lot of deg. So I tried to close the gap a bit. But then, at one point, I picked up these vibrations on the driveshaft again, on the rear. The team couldn’t see anything, but I’m fairly sure there was something odd going on with the balance since the vibration started to kick in.

“So, at one point, I did the calculations, and I wouldn’t have been able to close that gap to the end with only 10 laps left. So, at one point it’s more important to just settle for second: not having an issue with the car.”

“The safety car again wanted to take the victory away from me in Jeddah, but not this time!”

Perez had kept the gap over four seconds throughout and despite some concerns over whether Verstappen was receiving the same messages to manage his pace, he was able to comfortably cruise home.

“It was going well, when I overtook Fernando I thought I could do my race,” Perez said. “But then the safety car again wanted to take the victory away from me in Jeddah, but not this time! We managed to get a good distance with Max, we kept a healthy lead and that went well.

“I’m proud of getting the victory. We know how strong Max is in the races and we’ve been matching him in Bahrain, we matched him here, so we have to keep working really hard. I think my team is doing a great job, we managed to get a good read on the high fuel, so I’m proud of my team today.”

Related article

While there was no racing between the top two, further back Kevin Magnussen was hounding Yuki Tsunoda for the final point behind the Mercedes, Ferrari and Alpine drivers, and duly got through on the penultimate lap at the first corner. There was also some action between the recovering McLarens and Logan Sargeant, who had run strongly for most of the race but was unable to make the hard-medium strategy work as well as Hamilton did as his tyres faded.

The main intrigue was further forward, however. Behind the Red Bulls, a radio message to Russell to stay within five seconds of Alonso hinted at a potential penalty, so Alonso – given the information of Russell’s message – duly pulled over five seconds clear by the flag. Alonso took the the podium and celebrated, but as those celebrations were finishing, the stewards handed him a ten-second time penalty for not serving his original penalty correctly, promoting Russell.

The decision was based on the jack being in contact with the car, and after a farcical few hours with no communication from the FIA as Aston Martin requested a right of review, Alonso’s team was able to prove there was no agreement that the jack touching the car would constitute working on it, and got the penalty overturned more than three hours after the race had ended.

“What a start to the season,” Alonso said. “I mean, probably unthinkable one month ago when we launched the car. But these guys, they made a fantastic car, fantastic execution of the race in Bahrain, and here as well, with the strategy, and the two podiums.”

Kevin Magnussen alongside Yuki Tsunoda as they fight in the 2023 F1 Saudi Arabian GP

Magnussen took the last point from Tsunoda on penultimate lap

Lars Baron/Getty Images

Ultimately, only Perez could walk away truly happy. Verstappen was left to rue the driveshaft issue in qualifying that limited his chances of victory, despite an impressive recovery, while Alonso had to endure hours of frustration thinking he’d lost his 100th podium in Formula 1.

Russell, too, was happy with his performance to come home fourth ahead of Hamilton, but also went through the podium rollercoaster, while the Ferrari and Alpine teams were disappointed not to have the race pace to threaten the Mercedes pair ahead.

Add in the FIA’s incompetence handling Alonso’s penalty and the competitive picture looking no brighter than two weeks ago, and it wasn’t exactly F1’s finest weekend. Still, 21 more to go, and after some reliability concerns, Red Bull surely can’t win them all.

Sergio Perez pours champagne on Fernnado Alonso on the 2023 F1 Saudi Arabian GP podium


2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix race results

Position Driver Team Time Points
1 Sergio Perez Red Bull 50 laps 25
2 Max Verstappen Red Bull +5.355sec 19*
3 Fernando Alonso Aston Martin +20.728sec 15
4 George Russell Mercedes +25.866 12
5 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes +31.065sec 10
6 Carlos Sainz Ferrari +35.876sec 8
7 Charles Leclerc Ferrari +43.162sec 6
8 Esteban Ocon Alpine +52.832sec 4
9 Pierre Gasly Alpine +54.747sec 2
10 Kevin Magnussen Haas +1min 04.826sec 1
11 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri +1min 07.494sec 0
12 Nico Hülkenberg Haas +1min 10.588sec 0
13 Zhou Guanyu Alfa Romeo +1min 16.060sec 0
14 Nyck de Vries AlphaTauri +1min 17.478sec 0
15 Oscar Piastri McLaren +1min 25.021sec 0
16 Logan Sargeant Williams +1min 26.293sec 0
17 Lando Norris McLaren +1min 26.445sec 0
18 Valtteri Bottas Alfa Romeo +1 lap 0
19 Alex Albon Williams DNF 0
20 Lance Stroll Aston Martin DNF 0

*Includes point for fastest lap