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Formula 1 Saudi Arabian GP

What the GPS data reveals about how Verstappen must approach Saudi GP

Max Verstappen was seemingly a certainty to land pole position for Formula 1’s 2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, right up until the point the driveshaft failed aboard his Red Bull.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19

The runaway winner in Bahrain a fortnight previously had taken a clean sweep across the practice sessions, ending the three hours of running with a cumulative advantage of 1.3s.

However, after topping Q1 by an imperious 0.483s over team-mate and eventual polesitter Sergio Perez, his RB19 hit trouble with the right-rear failure as he emerged from Turn 10.

That forced the defending champion out in Q2, his earliest qualifying exit since electing not to run at all at Sochi in 2021 when he was loaded with grid penalties for an engine change.

But as the Belgian and Italian GPs of last season proved emphatically, Verstappen is more than up to the task of mounting an astonishing comeback in this ground-effects era of F1.

And judging by his upbeat demeanour when addressing the media straight after breaking down on the Jeddah Corniche Circuit, he believes another stunning recovery is eminently feasible.

Where the Red Bull excels on the Saudi streets

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Verstappen scored his first of a record 15 grand prix victories last season courtesy of a DRS-inspired triumph over Charles Leclerc at the Saudi venue, with the top-end punch of the rebadged Honda engine proving decisive over the agile Ferrari as the Red Bull headed the speed traps.

But those traits had seemingly been swapped for the Bahrain round earlier this month.

The lighter-for-2023 RB19 proved rapid through lower-speed acceleration zones but was eventually out of puff compared to the low-drag SF-23 when heading north of 180mph.

That high-speed habit and leaving behind the extremely abrasive Sakhir asphalt, which exposed Ferrari's tyre degradation woes, should have favoured Leclerc and Carlos Sainz for this weekend, in theory. But the GPS data from Saturday running in Saudi reveals the breadth of the Red Bull’s capabilities, with the RB19 having the legs over its red-painted rival on the flowing streets.

Even Verstappen’s Q1-topping lap of 1m28.761s (which still would have put him third in Q3, with Perez leading the order with a 1m28.265s) still had him near the top of the speed traps. The Dutch driver hit 206.3mph before slamming on the brakes for Turn 1, which compares to 204.4mph for Perez as Leclerc clocks 202.6mph to very narrowly eclipse George RussellFernando Alonso in the initially draggy Aston Martin AMR23, meanwhile, reached a peak of 198mph.

Interestingly, the Aston, Ferrari and Merc trade places from Turns 4 through to 10 as the RB19 is compromised through the higher-speed, downforce-determined changes of direction.

However, it is then able to markedly stretch its legs on the backstraight to max out at 210mph - that’s 4mph better than the Ferrari and 6mph over the Merc and Aston.

While Perez’s pole lap does feature him setting the pace into the tricky Turn 22, the RB19 appears to pay a price through the next sequence as the Ferrari and Aston come to the fore.

Similarly, Red Bull is unmatched for the sprint into the final corner, with Perez carrying the most speed to the apex before Alonso cannot be caught during the low-speed acceleration.

How those traits translate to race strategy

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19, George Russell, Mercedes F1 W14, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-23, Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL60, others practice their start procedures at the end of FP2

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19, George Russell, Mercedes F1 W14, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-23, Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL60, others practice their start procedures at the end of FP2

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

It is because of Verstappen’s driveshaft failure that Saudi GP organisers and F1 bosses will be rubbing their hands at the prospect of completing a hat-trick of thrilling Jeddah races.

An inaugural race earned infamy for the repeat battles and collision between Verstappen and bitter title rival Lewis Hamilton to leave them equal on points ahead of the Abu Dhabi showdown.

Last season’s edition acted as part two of the Leclerc and Verstappen DRS detection duel.

This time around, all eyes will be on Verstappen’s powers of recovery - albeit with the hope that it takes him longer than the 12 laps required at Spa in 2022 to climb from 14th to first.

Unlike making progress at the famed Belgian venue, Verstappen will surely need to bide his time to a greater extent on the narrow concrete barrier-lined Corniche circuit. While Verstappen is a precise and incisive passer, the emphasis will be on his ability to second-guess where his rivals will place their cars in order to avoid any shunts.

Likewise, he may need to spectate and allow the first-lap to unfold should there be a mid-pack melee ahead that he might otherwise be collected in.

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But once the opening stint has settled in, the set-up of the RB19 will be ideally suited to his recovery mission - even if that optimisation is somewhat incidental, with none of the Red Bull crew initially planning for Verstappen to have been eliminated so early in qualifying.

Once DRS is activated, the overtaking aid will be teamed with the Red Bull’s already superior top speed to allow seemingly simple passes down the straights or for Verstappen to draw level with each opponent before edging ahead into each braking zone.

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