Two weeks after Red Bull and Max Verstappen dominated the season opener in Bahrain, the F1 circus will be tested by the streets of Saudi Arabia. Christian Horner’s team arrives as clear favourites, although the characteristics of the Saudi circuit should be more favourable to the SF-23.
Aston Martin will hope to confirm their strong pace from Bahrain in a circuit which – in theory – should not suit the AMR23. Mercedes, meanwhile, remain something of an unknown entity.
Alpine will also be a team to observe this weekend, with the French squad’s pace – whilst unlikely to have challenged the front-runners – difficult to assess amidst several issues in Bahrain.
Event organisers have applied some changes this year, most notably in the middle sector, where the escape route has been widened at turns 14 and 20 for greater visibility.
The very fast chicane in the third sector has also been modified. Track limits have been altered in the second sector, reducing speed in this section by around 50 km/h. Finally, the last DRS detection zone has been moved to after the last corner – to avoid the dangerous DRS games we saw last year prior to turn 27.
Saudi Arabia GP: Top speed will be key – load critical in sector 1
At the Bahrain International Circuit, load and traction were tested. Ay Jeddah’s efficiency will play a bigger role – as shown last year by the very fast RB18, which overcame concerns surroundings its excess weight and tyre management.
This year the roles are reversed. Ferrari will have to maximise the very smooth asphalt in Jeddah to lower the SF-23 more than in Bahrain to better understand the car’s true potential.
Aston Martin, the second-fastest team in Bahrain, gained the upper hand over their rivals in the medium and low-speed sections of the track.
However, the AMR23 could suffer from the limited top speed shown in Bahrain – although it should be noted teams will use very different set-ups this weekend.
Out of the 27 turns in Jeddah, only three of these are corners slower than 120 km/h, whilst 6 turns will exceed speeds of 150 km/h.
The SF23 will suffer most in the latter of these, where the Scuderia will likely be forced to limit the damage before gaining time in the main straights.
In the multiple detection zones at Jeddah, Ferrari will better understand how significantly they are impacted by porpoising at a circuit that could highlight the team’s vulnerability.
Jeddah is the second circuit on the calendar, second only to Monza, reaching high speeds throughout much of the lap.
Power Units will be fundamental here, alongside ERS management in qualifying and in the race.
In Bahrain, the heavy braking zones made it difficult to assess the electrical efficiency of the teams. This weekend, the differences (or similarities) across the field will be clearer.
How far will tyre degradation impact teams?
The C4 compound will be used in Qualifying and likely in the first part of Sunday’s race.
In 2022, the “top teams” lost a few tenths per lap by the end of their first sting on this tyre.
The C2 compound, meanwhile, has negative tyre management – meaning that lower fuel and increased rubber offset the effect of tyre wear. Even for the SF-23, which appears to suffer from poor tyre wear, degradation cannot be an excuse this Sunday.
Perez was the first to pit at last year’s Saudi GP, only to be penalized by an early Safety Car.
This eventuality means that starting with a harder tire can be very risky, although a Safety Car in the later stages of the race would make this decision pay off. As ever, it will be a question of being at the right place at the right time.
In the last two Saudi GP, there have been two red flags, a safety car and four virtual safety cars.
The temperatures will still be low; air temperatures, like last year, range from between 20° and 25°C, with track temperatures fluctuating between 25° and 29°C.
Last year, tyre warm-up – especially after Safety Car restarts – proved crucial in Jeddah.
Saudi Arabia GP Updates: Ferrari, Mercedes and McLaren bring small upgrades
This weekend could already be an uphill battle for Charles Leclerc, who will serve a 10-place grid penalty for using his third control electronics this weekend.
However, this will not impact Ferrari’s performance – and Fred Vasseur insists that Scuderia’s power unit level did not impact the team’s Bahrain DNF. The Monegasque will start 11th in the best-case scenario and will have to be careful to avoid any early incidents.
In addition to reliability, the SF-23’s problems in terms of performance have been highlighted. Even in Qualifying, Ferrari was unable to compete with Red Bull – with the team’s pace during the race further highlighting their failure to progress over the winter.
Some – though by no means all – of these problems can be attributed to set-up choices. For this weekend, Fred Vasseur has confirmed that Ferrari will bring “small updates, and we hope to have more in Melbourne.”
A limited front-end cost Red Bull some time last season, with the Austrian squad losing out to the very well-balanced F1-75 in the last sector.
The roles have reversed in the 12 months since. Unless Ferrari can resolve many of their issues from Bahrain, they face losing significant time to Red Bull this weekend.
Mercedes will introduce some updates this weekend, but the Brackley squad is mainly focused on a major upgrade package initially planned for Imola – which Toto Wolff’s team intends to bring forward to Baku if possible.
The situation at McLaren is similar. The Woking-based team starts this season on the back foot after delays in the production of the MCL60, and whilst they wait for a major update package scheduled for Baku, “some minor updates will debut in Saudi Arabia and Australia” according to Andrea Stella.
On the grid, we will most likely see more unloaded wings, a similar transition we saw last season between Bahrain and Jeddah.
Ferrari’s decision to mount a more loaded wing to compensate for degradation hasn’t paid off so far, and the Italian squad’s straight-line efficiency could be the key to their success this weekend.
Author: Andrea Vergani
Translation: Jaden Diaz-Ndisang