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Ett mycket annorlunda Saudiarabiens GP

Scott Mitchell-Malm tittar närmare på vad vi kan förvänta oss av årets andra Grand Prix-helg.

Scott Mitchell-Malm

The Jeddah paddock feels different to 12 months ago. How can it not?
When Formula 1 arrived in Saudi Arabia in 2022 there was still a huge amount of excitement around the new rules and we had just had a stunning season opener in Bahrain, where Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen had gone wheel-to-wheel for victory.
And given it was only the second visit to the kingdom, with the various concerns that go with that, there was a sense of unease as well. That was only heightened by the missile strike at a nearby oil depot on Friday around free practice…

LIVESNACK: Racehelg 11/2023 fredag

This year things are not the same. It’s only the second round but already there are concerns about what kind of sporting spectacle we will see (to the point that some made pretty distasteful jokes that Verstappen’s stomach bug, which forced him to delay his flight to Jeddah by 24 hours, wasn’t enough to sideline him from the event and make things more interesting).
And after enhanced security efforts to assure everybody that this is indeed a safe event, nobody’s really talking about anything off-track – to an almost strange degree, as if drivers and teams have been asked not to rock the boat…

It added up to a subdued opening day on Thursday. But now track action is approaching it is impossible not to start getting excited. We have a new circuit, a new data set, a new test awaiting. Yes, the first race gave the impression we face a worryingly predictable season. But there is a lot to discover this weekend.
The first will potentially provide a negative answer but how much was Red Bull holding back in Bahrain? Verstappen dominated. But scarily, he was in cruise control after Turn 1. And I have a suspicion we did not see everything the RB19 was capable of in qualifying either.
There was a big emphasis on rear tyre management as Sakhir is a unique challenge in that regard and Red Bull clearly protected the rears as much as possible with its set-up, which probably limited its ultimate performance to prioritise the race pace.

What Red Bull really unleashes this weekend will be a good guide for what to expect this season. At the same time we must see what its rivals are capable of at a different track too.
For example, Ferrari is expecting Jeddah to suit its car better than Bahrain. It’s faster with fewer slow corners and braking zones. Ferrari changed its car design to make it a bit quicker on the straights, sacrificing some grip in the corners as a result – and although Jeddah demands a good, stable, grippy car the high-speed nature should better suit the SF-23 concept a bit more.

But unfortunately, that will almost certainly mean nothing for Leclerc’s victory chances. He has a grid penalty this weekend – already! – because of some early season problems with the electronics system in Ferrari’s engine. This caused his retirement in Bahrain and he needs a replacement set of control electronics here. He’d already had one change during the Bahrain weekend too, which means he’s exceeded his seasonal limit.
It's bad news for Leclerc at the start of a season with little else. Ferrari’s slower than Red Bull, less reliable than Red Bull, and already under attack from the merciless Italian media.

Will Saudi Arabia relieve some of that pressure, and inject life into a season that pessimistic viewers are already writing off as one that Verstappen will dominate?