Why the new F1 cars provide exciting racing, but need more work


The Saudi Arabian GP demonstrated how much the new F1 cars have improved the racing, but still show there's much room for improvement

Max Verstappen ahead of Charles Leclerc in the 2022 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Close racing – but it could be closer

Eric Alonso/Getty Images

The Saudi Arabian GP gave us another absorbing battle between Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen. That was no surprise, but Sergio Perez’s performance across the whole weekend, certainly was!

Sergio was the first Mexican to start a Grand Prix from pole position, even if it took him 215 starts to do it, and 217 qualifying attempts if you’re being picky.

Three months ago, the racing world marvelled at Verstappen’s speed and commitment over nine-tenths of a very special qualifying lap before he clouted the wall at Jeddah’s final corner.

That final turn has been widened by a metre and a half since, and the walls moved back in the high-speed sweepers at a track combining blind corners and a 157mph average speed. The intention was to improve sightlines, but nobody figured it had made much difference. It was still ultimately a big balls lap demanding total commitment as well as confidence in the car.

When Perez managed to nick pole from Leclerc, he was absolutely delighted. “I can do 1000 laps and not beat that!” he beamed.

JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA - MARCH 27: Sergio Perez of Mexico driving the (11) Oracle Red Bull Racing RB18 on track during the F1 Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit on March 27, 2022 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)

Perez put in a masterful lap for pole

Lars Baron/Getty Images

His team principal was highly appreciative too. “To put in that lap at a track that’s so fast and a bit dangerous, was phenomenal,” Christian Horner thought. “I think this car is more suited to Checo’s style and is not so quirky as last year’s. But to deliver that, at this circuit, will do his confidence a lot of good.”

Verstappen had tried different tyre preparation that hadn’t worked in Q3, eventually lining up fourth, but he was still magnanimous in the praise of his team mate. Leclerc confirmed he’d left nothing on the table.

“It looks like the new rules are working” Charles Leclerc

Just as impressive was the way Perez led the opening 14 laps of the race, unflustered and in control, before the racing gods let him down with a safety car just after he’d made his pit stop. It was that man Nicholas Latifi again…

Running Sergio a close second for notability last weekend was the quality of racing. I’ve always thought that Leclerc is class, inside and outside of the cockpit, and it was great to witness him congratulating Verstappen and admitting “that was good” over the radio on the slowdown lap, despite obvious disappointment at being pipped.

Much of the enjoyment in Saudi was rooted in the raceability of the cars.

“It looks like the new rules are working,” Leclerc smiled. And for that, Ross Brawn’s Motorsports team, in association with the FIA, deserve a big pat on the back. Formula 1 has always been about the bottom line, the dollars, but, for the first time, money has been invested in improving the spectacle with input from those with the brains and tools to make a difference. It’s good basic leadership. Improve the product and even more people will watch it.

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To put some approximate numbers on it, the previous cars lost around 35% of their total downforce when running three car lengths (around 20m) behind a rival car, with that loss increasing to 47% if the gap came down to a single car length. The respective targets under the new regulations, with downforce now largely generated by the car’s underbody profile, were 4% and 18%. And, suddenly, you can race. With a few caveats, as Verstappen explained.

“The cars are better to follow,” he admitted, but cautioned, “it just depends on the tyre. The hard tyre was capable of following closer but the other compounds – and this depends on the track – just fall apart. As soon as you follow for a few laps, they just open up.

“It’s probably the tyres but, also, the weight of the car (almost 800kgs today) pushes you over the tyre edge. This is something we need to look at for the future. We’ve improved the following and the racing but if the tyres don’t let you for whatever reason, that’s a bit of a shame. In the first stint (on the medium compound Pirelli), I think we could have actually raced a bit more if the tyre didn’t die. We need to understand that a bit better.”

Leclerc largely agreed but added: “The balance of the car is much more predictable compared to last year, where it was very difficult to understand whether you would lose the front or the rear behind someone. This helps us to have the confidence to actually push behind someone.”

The two Alpine drivers, Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon produced a great spectacle early on, doing just that, medium compound tyre or not.

“The cars are definitely better,” Ocon said. “You can follow so much more closely and you can’t get out of DRS either. It’s like a go-kart race, pretty much.”


The alpines put on a spectacular show in the early laps


Lando Norris, who was battling Ocon for sixth at the end, backed that up, “You can get ahead, but there’s every chance that the guy gets you back.”

Which is a bit of a new concept for F1. The overtaking problem becoming so chronic prompted the introduction of DRS back in 2011. Purists derided it as totally artificial, and it is, but without it, we’d probably have had around 10 overtakes a season, total.

Originally, the idea was that if a driver was overtaken by a car with DRS, then he could have a go back on the next lap, precisely the situation that Ocon was describing in Jeddah. But the reality was that there was so much ‘dirty air’ turbulence thrown up by the overtaking car, that in practice it was nigh on impossible to stay within a second in order to have a go back.

When the new regulations took shape, there was even the suggestion that if they were as successful at improving racing as hoped, there just might be an end to DRS, with F1 cars going back to having to overtake like they used to, with the aid of a slipstream and later braking. So, are we anywhere close? The first three finishers last weekend didn’t think so…

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“If I didn’t have DRS today I’d never have passed Charles,” Verstappen said. “I think we are still too sensitive for that. Of course, some tracks are easier to pass on than others.”

“Yeah, I think we still need DRS for now,” Leclerc concurred.

“I agree,” nodded Carlos Sainz. “Without DRS, passing would be reduced significantly. What we might need to consider is that the speed delta there is with DRS might be a bit too much, giving the car behind too much, so that sometimes the overtake is done before the braking. You’d much rather have the two cars battling under braking rather than passing like on the highway. But we definitely need DRS.”

A lot of sense, there. A case in point being Turn 4 in Brazil last year with Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton. For anyone with eyes to see, the story was not whether Max should have been penalised for running Hamilton wide, although admittedly it made for better headlines. Most drivers, even if they scored cheap points by saying Max should have been penalised, would have done exactly the same. And that includes Lewis (witness Rosberg, T1 COTA or T2, Suzuka, both 2015).

The real story was exactly what Sainz spoke of last weekend, the speed delta being far too strong and, in the case of Brazil, with the potential to influence the championship. As Carlos says, DRS should give you a slight chance on the brakes, not a free pass.

Frustratingly for Lewis Hamilton and George Russell, Mercedes can’t as yet join in this new-found racing bonanza at the sharp end. It was only a few minutes into Friday’s first session of free practice when the Mercedes pit wall, observing Car No 63 out on the circuit, radioed Russell with, “Pretty hardcore, the bouncing?”

“Yes…” came the one-word response.

In Bahrain, Hamilton qualified the faster Mercedes 0.68s behind Leclerc’s pole. In Jeddah, Russell, the quicker Mercedes driver, was 0.9s adrift of pole man Sergio Perez.


Hamilton found himself in a midfield battle with Magnussen’s Haas


“We don’t have a handle on the car and are fighting a very small window,” Russell said after doing well to put his car in the grid’s top six. “We got inside that window and Lewis did not. It’s just confidence and I’ve been in that position. All of our effort is going into solving this porpoising and there’s so much more to an F1 car.”

As George pointed out, in two hours of running at a GP on a Friday, it’s going to take four races to get through the same amount of experimentation that can be done in a single day of testing.

“Not much has changed since the first race,” Hamilton summarised after managing to steal the final point for 10th in the race. “I couldn’t keep up with Haas at the end, so we’ve got some work to do.”

Words you simply could not have countenanced three short months ago…