Verstappen’s rivals believe he can still win the Saudi Arabian GP. He can?
Make no mistake, Formula 1 World Champion Max Verstappen can even win the 2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix from 15th on the grid.
Testimonies from his rivals after a dramatic hour of qualifying at Jeddah, his own heroic blitz from 14th to victory at Spa last year and Jeddah’s curveballs should all point to Verstappen’s chances of winning remaining high despite the painful qualifying blow of the failure of the driveshaft that stopped him in Q2.
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said a Verstappen win would not surprise him as he has “a second in hand” over his rivals and even joked that the failure happened because F1 CEO Stefano Domencali begged Red Bull to make things more interesting.
Wolff’s driver George Russell, who predicted Verstappen’s attack at Spa last year, said he expected Verstappen to “get through fairly comfortably unless there are any incidents or delays”.
Fernando Alonso, starting on the front row, was adamant that Red Bull was in “a different league” and he was simply concentrating on the fight behind him rather than attempting to challenge polesitter Sergio Perez.
“I think Max will come [catch me] finally in the race,” said Alonso.
“You have that advantage. I think there is no doubt that he will probably at least get on the podium.”
Edd Straw’s verdict on Verstappen’s chance to win
The Verstappen/Red Bull combination is clearly the fastest in the field. With Red Bull being strong on the straights, catching up should be possible.
Its breed is determined by several factors. First, the choice of starting tire. According to Pirelli, the optimal strategy is a one-stopper with medium and hard rubber. However, Verstappen also has soft Pirellis available and a car that is relatively gentle in terms of thermal degradation.
The starting tire decides how offensive Verstappen will be. But given the car pace, on any tire he’s running he should be able to pick up cars quickly once the DRS is engaged.
The only disruptive factor to his midfield progress will be Charles Leclerc, who qualified second and will start in 12th place due to his penalties. Unlike other midfielders, he will likely be more interested in driving Verstappen.
The starting tire also decides whether Red Bull uses a proactive and offensive first stop or not. Given that this is a one-stop race, it might be more likely not to be the approach, but it’s an option depending on how the race plays out.
But given the relatively high chance of a safety car, with both previous F1 races at the circuit being neutralized at some point, Red Bull will likely prefer a longer first stint from Verstappen lest he be caught by others who stayed out in able to drive under the safety car. Remember that teammate Perez lost that race last year.
Red Bull could also control the race at the front if Perez keeps the lead at the start. What is clear is that if Verstappen can minimize the time lost in traffic and get close enough to Perez, he will likely have the speed to overtake him regardless of team orders.
Verstappen has the pace to win. Although he won easily from 14th on the grid at Spa last year, this race is a far more difficult affair and he needs to do well, especially in the early laps. But if he’s up front in the first stint, then he has every chance.
Perez also expected his teammate Verstappen to ease his way to the front of the field.
“We certainly have a good race car,” said Perez.
“We’re probably a bit better than the competition there. But it depends. As Fernando says, so many things can happen in one race, but I expect him to come back.
“The competition will keep coming. It is therefore important to be able to maximize the maximum number of points.”
Perez was asked about the prospect of Verstappen catching him and what he would do if he saw Verstappen in his mirrors.
“Well, I’m not going to go into the race with Max in mind,” Perez replied.
“First of all, I have to make sure that I can keep my mouth shut in the first few laps. And if I’m able to keep this lion [Alonso] It will be good behind me because I think I can concentrate on my race.”
With both Red Bull drivers crossing the checkered flag, Perez only finished ahead of Verstappen three times during their two years as team-mates – when Perez’s controversial qualifying crash saw him earn track position at Monaco last year and later at Silverstone after a wedged piece of the winglet by Yuki Tsunoda’s AlphaTauri destroyed Verstappen’s afternoon and finally in Singapore where an “incredibly chaotic” race resulted in Verstappen finishing seventh while Perez won.