10 things we learned from F1's 2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen will go into the 2021 Formula 1 title decider in Abu Dhabi level on points after the former's victory in an ill-tempered Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. Autosport picks out the key turning points from an eventful first visit to the Jeddah Corniche Circuit, as race control came under fire, while on-track ethics were again subject to debate

10 things we learned from F1's 2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Formula 1’s first visit to Saudi Arabia provided a memorable and controversial race as tensions flared between title rivals Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton.

It became the latest chapter in their rivalry following the spats at Silverstone, Monza and Interlagos, but the eventual Hamilton victory means they sit tied on points going into the Abu Dhabi season finale - albeit with Verstappen ahead on countback of race wins.

The weekend was dominated by stewards’ room chat once again, continuing the theme of recent races. While F1’s newest and fastest street track proved thrilling in qualifying, the incident-packed race led to questions about the suitability of the Jeddah Corniche Circuit from a number of drivers.

It was also a weekend where human rights again came into the spotlight for F1, which became the latest sport to join the array of major international events to debut in Saudi Arabia.

Here are 10 things we learned from the 2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

The atmosphere between Verstappen and Hamilton was decidedly frosty following their on-track clashes

The atmosphere between Verstappen and Hamilton was decidedly frosty following their on-track clashes

Photo by: FIA Pool

1. Hamilton and Verstappen’s title fight is getting ugly (by Luke Smith)

As fraught as the F1 title fight has been at times this year, it seemed on Thursday that things were cooling down a bit. Both Hamilton and Verstappen seemed in good spirits and rather relaxed heading into the penultimate race of the season, separated by eight points.

But the race was a very different story. The narrative of Verstappen’s aggression continued - not that it should be a surprise - but the back-and-forth between the teams and some of the antics on-track left a sour taste over the battle.

PLUS: How the Jeddah F1 race became a one-sitting Netflix drama series 

It is inevitable that both teams and drivers are doing all they can to try and gain an advantage. But there have to be times when you know when to back down. Verstappen refused time and time again to do that, and while we want to see fighting spirit and commitment from drivers, that can sometimes cross a line.

The frosty post-race procedures and podiums summed up where things are at now between Hamilton and Verstappen. Hamilton called Verstappen “crazy” over the radio in the race, and labelled his driving as “over the limit” in his post-race interviews. Verstappen fumed at the amount of rules in F1, while Red Bull claimed that it was being treated differently by the stewards in their rulings.

Whichever side of the fence you are on, it feels like this title fight is getting really, really ugly - but some of that is because the powers in place have not acted sooner.

Verstappen refused to yield position to Hamilton into Turn 1 and took both wide in his attempts to defend

Verstappen refused to yield position to Hamilton into Turn 1 and took both wide in his attempts to defend

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

2. Verstappen’s Turn 1 moves were a consequence of Brazil (LS)

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff warned after the stewards took no action against Max Verstappen’s Turn 4 move on Lewis Hamilton at Interlagos that it could set a precedent - and we saw exactly that in Jeddah.

Verstappen’s moves to keep Hamilton at bay were aggressive, but he again appeared to blur the lines of what was and was not allowed when it came to defending position.

PLUS: Why F1’s inconvenient penalties have to stay 

The first red flag restart move on Hamilton was very similar to Monza, where he went off-track trying to keep his foot in and refused to back out. But the more concerning one was his defence into Turn 1 when he totally missed the corner. He seemed out of control, running a long way wide and cutting the corner, prompting Hamilton’s “crazy” radio call.

It does little to ease concerns that the title fight could be decided with a clash or collision. Wolff said after the race that he hoped the events of Jeddah would be enough to avoid a “messy situation” in Abu Dhabi. But particularly with Verstappen’s later penalty for their collision approaching Turn 27 having no bearing on his final result, he hasn’t faced any real consequences.

The FIA needs to try and keep a lid on things heading to the finale. But it does feel like the lack of action and clarity over Brazil has given the green light to some very aggressive moves.

“I think we’re seeing multiple incidents this year, where even with Brazil we’re supposed to do our racing on track in between the white lines and the rules haven’t been clear from the stewards, that those things have been allowed, so that’s continued,” Hamilton said.

"From my understanding, I know that I can’t overtake someone and go off track and then keep the position but I think that’s well known between all us drivers but it doesn’t apply to one of us, I guess.”

Verstappen was ordered to hand position back to Hamilton

Verstappen was ordered to hand position back to Hamilton "strategically", leading to their farcical contact into Turn 27

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

3. F1 fans deserve better than an incident to decide the title in Abu Dhabi (by Haydn Cobb)

From the moment a winner-takes-all scenario was confirmed for the Abu Dhabi GP, the hype job – not that it needed much – was completed for the 2021 F1 finale.

But that also meant the possibility of a return to a dreaded scenario F1 has witnessed before, if the title rivals clashed and neither scored points, then one would be declared champion regardless of how the clash occurred.

Similar situations have unfolded before; think Ayrton Senna on Alain Prost in 1990, Michael Schumacher on Damon Hill in 1994 and variations on the theme for Prost vs Senna in 1989 and Schumacher vs Jacques Villeneuve in 1997, where one party managed to keep going.

Whatever happens in Abu Dhabi, the 2021 campaign will go down in history alongside those iconic and at times controversial seasons. But rather than it all end in carbonfibre confetti – or worse, the stewards’ room – fans of both sides should demand a clean fight to the finish to decide who comes out on top.

Given the numerous on-track clashes Verstappen and Hamilton have been involved in this season, each one ramping up in controversy as the stakes get higher, there is a sense of inevitability that a flashpoint will happen at the Yas Marina Circuit.

The world will discover what that is over the next week, but the plea from all areas will be to keep it clean.

Norris was the driver who was worst-affected by pitting for tyres under the safety car

Norris was the driver who was worst-affected by pitting for tyres under the safety car

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

4. The red flag tyre change rule remains controversial (by Tom Howard)

The rule effectively allowing a free tyre change under a red flag conditions is back in the spotlight after Sunday’s race.

Lando Norris was arguably the most affected and most definitely the most vocal about the rule he feels is “unfair”, “stupid” and “just ruins everything.”

He’s right to feel aggrieved. On Sunday, the McLaren driver was running sixth before he came in for tyres under the safety car caused by Mick Schumacher's crash - but it dropped him to 14th when the red flag then came out, allowing all those who stayed out a free tyre change. Norris did recover to 10th, but made his feelings on the rule known.

"I think they should change it to one mandatory pitstop with two different tyre sets needed to be used, and then I think that's acceptable,” said Norris. “But this just ruins everything, to be honest. You put so much effort in for it to be taken away for some stupid rule.”

Hamilton was also in a similar boat, losing out to Verstappen for the first restart, but had better track position than Norris so wasn't so heavily affected. However, had this rule decisively contributed to the outcome of - say - a title decider, the move to change the rules would be loud and clear.

There were plenty of frustrated radio exchanges between the pitwall and race direction in a race filled with controversy

There were plenty of frustrated radio exchanges between the pitwall and race direction in a race filled with controversy

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

5. Masi and the FIA face big questions after a hectic Sunday (HC)

After a relatively calm first day at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit, FIA race control and the stewards might have been given a false sense of security against the warnings of a busy weekend due to the new track’s blind corners and tight confines providing an unwanted risk of numerous and heavy crashes.

Even when the situation got a bit hairy in final practice and qualifying, Hamilton’s yellow flag plus near-miss with Nikita Mazepin in FP3 and then the traffic paradise in Q1, it wasn’t out of the ordinary and manageable.

But what followed on Sunday was a chain of events that leave questions unanswered by FIA F1 race director Michael Masi.

From the conventional clarity needed on the constant switches between Virtual Safety Car to green-flag racing for debris, to the more absurd on the bartering of grid position switches heard over FIA-to-teams radio between Masi and Red Bull's Jonathan Wheatley, the race was a challenging one to manage - even before the Turn 27 collision between the title protagonists.

At this point, Masi appeared to lose control of the race as the chaos played out, arguing over the radio with Mercedes sporting director Ron Meadows over whether the instruction to switch positions had been given. Red Bull wasn't happy with matters either, Christian Horner remarking that the race had missed the calm hand of the late Charlie Whiting, Masi's predecessor.

Have answers been forthcoming about what went down? To a small extent, yes, but only through a three-and-a-half minute recorded FIA interview with Masi after his usual post-race media briefing was cancelled.

In that recording, Masi called the situations normal or elevated due to unusual situations. But watching it live and having time to unpick events, it felt anything but the norm.

Since when were teams allowed to be offered grid position changes? Why weren’t the stewards involved? Has the ‘let them race’ mantra gone too far for self-policing? Where is the line between hard racing and unfair racing? Is the Jeddah track really safe enough for single-seater racing? What changes will be made when F1 returns next March?

As the entire F1 paddock heads straight to Abu Dhabi this weekend, this one isn’t set to go away soon. Serious questions need answers.

Perez's spin caused havoc in the pack behind him, leaving Mazepin nowhere to go but into the back of Russell

Perez's spin caused havoc in the pack behind him, leaving Mazepin nowhere to go but into the back of Russell

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

6. The Jeddah track should face changes (TH)

There was an element of trepidation and nervousness surrounding F1’s first visit to the Jeddah Corniche Street Circuit given its eye-opening blend of ultra-fast flowing (and often blind) corners.

Drivers raised concerns before a wheel had turned and urged the marshals to be extra-vigilant with limited time to react to an unfolding incident ahead. Come Sunday night their worries were proven valid, as many were calling for changes to be made ahead of next year’s visit.

Crashes marred Sunday’s race, with a nasty multiple car crash that eliminated Sergio Perez, George Russell and Nikita Mazepin to prompt a second red flag, the Haas driver ploughing into the back of Russell's Williams as the pack slowed to avoid Perez's spun Red Bull.

Perez labelled the circuit unnecessarily dangerous after qualifying, while Russell felt "motorsport has a lot to learn" from a chaotic inaugural Saudi Arabian GP.

While the track is exhilarating and offers a unique challenge for the drivers, there was a feeling that F1 had dodged a bullet.

F1 Race Director Masi has highlighted there could be some tweaks for the future, saying “there'll be some fine-tuning but nothing in a major way that I envisage here and now.”

Ocon was promoted to pole for the final restart, though knew he couldn't stay there

Ocon was promoted to pole for the final restart, though knew he couldn't stay there

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

7. Ocon again seized his chance as drama struck (by James Newbold)

There was a significant element of fortune to Esteban Ocon's first F1 win at the Hungaroring earlier this year, as Valtteri Bottas and Lance Stroll's wayward driving at Turn 1 contrived to knock out several faster cars and left the way open when Mercedes' tyre conservatism left Hamilton alone on the grid for the restart.

And once again in Jeddah, as carnage unfolded all around him it was the Alpine driver who emerged as an unlikely player in the latest episode of the Verstappen-Hamilton soap opera by inheriting pole for the third race start.

It tells of Ocon's maturity that he knew victory was never on with the title protagonists lining up right behind him and had already set his mind on securing third.

"I never had the intention of keeping them behind anyway," he explained afterwards.

“I knew they were going to be a lot faster so I let both of them go. I was not really trying to ruin my time in the race, I was trying to do the fastest time I could, and that was the best way I could do it.”

But while luck was again a factor in his rise, Ocon did his job magnificently to claim a strong fourth place, only denied a rostrum by Bottas on the run to the flag as floor damage took its toll in the final two laps.

He had made no mistakes to run comfortably in third until the legacy of his earlier brush with Yuki Tsunoda began to take its toll, the resultant floor damage allowing Bottas to capitalise in the drag race to the line.

Although he may not have a podium to show for it, Ocon's drive in Jeddah was every bit as worthy as Hungary - and further validated Alpine's decision to tie him down until 2024.

Another double points finish for Ferrari has all-but put third in the constructors beyond McLaren's reach

Another double points finish for Ferrari has all-but put third in the constructors beyond McLaren's reach

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

8. Ferrari’s consistency continues to all-but-seal P3 (by Megan White)

Ferrari continued its recent consistency in Saudi Arabia as Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr came home in consecutive places for the fourth race in a row, crossing the line seventh and eighth.

It means Ferrari has all-but-sealed third in the constructors’ championship ahead of season-long rivals McLaren, with 307.5 points to the Woking-based outfit’s 269. Barring a McLaren 1-2 in Abu Dhabi, third is Ferrari’s.

While McLaren had looked the stronger team throughout the first half of the year, Ferrari’s consistency has been key. The team has scored 57 points in the last four races, compared to McLaren’s 15.

It's latest points finishes follow fifth and sixth places in Mexico and Brazil and P7 and P8 in Qatar, underlining an impressive comeback from the Maranello team following its torrid 2020 - although Leclerc will lament falling back from his fourth place on the original grid following his tyre change under safety car, clash with Perez and poor second restart.

Sainz - who recovered well from his Q2 spin that left him 15th on the grid - had a close on-track moment with Leclerc at one stage as the medium-shod Spaniard fought to get past his team-mate on the hards, but they avoided contact and ran line astern to demote Alfa Romeo's Antonio Giovinazzi to ninth.

With Norris unable to back up Daniel Ricciardo's fifth place with his own meaningful contribution of points, Ferrari can take some heart in ensuring McLaren wasn’t able to capitalise on the kind of crazy race it needed to turn around their private points battle.

Tsunoda hit another setback (and another Aston) in a rocky rookie year

Tsunoda hit another setback (and another Aston) in a rocky rookie year

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

9. Tsunoda’s growing confidence still needs a result to back it up (JN)

As Pierre Gasly made up for his "worst performance" of 2021 in dropping from second to 11th in Qatar, scoring an almost unnoticed sixth place, his AlphaTauri team-mate again had an eventful day blighted by incident.

Tsunoda's season of ups and downs continued in Jeddah with a strong run to reach Q3 on the mediums, eventually qualifying eighth - albeit three tenths adrift of his team-mate, which he attributed to dirty air behind Sergio Perez.

"I think my confidence, even compared to Qatar, is better," he said after qualifying. "Still maybe a couple of percent are missing. But definitely it is getting there.”

But it wasn't long before Tsunoda's fortunes took another dip, a slow getaway from the initial race start dropping him to 12th before a recovering Sainz dropped him another position. Taking the third start 12th, he charged past Kimi Raikkonen and both Ferraris, his move on Leclerc around the outside of the Turn 13 hairpin a particular high point.

But his race came unstuck when his ambitious move on Sebastian Vettel around the outside of Turn 1 resulted in contact that pitched Vettel into a spin. It was the second time in three races he'd lost a front wing against an Aston - after hitting Stroll at Interlagos - and after pitting for a new one was given a five-second penalty to add insult to injury.

The Japanese rookie's last points finish, a ninth place at COTA, now feels like a very long time ago, with Alpine having surged ahead in the battle for fifth in the constructors' championship.

Tsunoda could really do with ending his campaign on a high in Abu Dhabi to back his growing confidence up with a result.

Hamilton voiced his unease about racing in Saudi Arabia on Thursday

Hamilton voiced his unease about racing in Saudi Arabia on Thursday

Photo by: FIA Pool

10. Hamilton’s voice on human rights in Saudi Arabia was crucial (MW)

Hamilton once again took a stand on human rights this weekend in Saudi Arabia, donning his defiant Pride helmet to take victory for the second consecutive race.

He admitted that he didn't feel overly "comfortable" about racing in the Kingdom ahead of the weekend due to the country's human rights record, adding that he believes F1 is "duty bound to help raise awareness for certain issues that see with human rights in these countries we are going to".

While Vettel joined his stand, donning a pair of Pride flag emblazoned trainers and hosting a women-only karting event to learn about womens’ rights in the country, others were less keen to demonstrate solidarity. Ricciardo faced backlash on social media after pleading ignorance, saying he "doesn’t watch the news".

While it’s a shame that so few drivers still speak out on these issues, Hamilton once again took the sport’s moral high ground – something he must be applauded for.

Sebastian Vettel donned rainbow boots in the Saudi paddock

Sebastian Vettel donned rainbow boots in the Saudi paddock

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

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