When the Mercedes driver George Russell climbed out of his car two weeks ago after the first race of the Formula 1 season, he declared the title race was already over. Red Bull’s cars, he said, were simply too fast.
“They have got this championship sewn up,” Russell said. Red Bull, he predicted, might win every race.
That prediction may be proved correct eventually: Red Bull did, after all, have the fastest car in qualifying again on Saturday night, when Sergio Pérez won pole position ahead of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix on Sunday. But a mechanical breakdown that brought Pérez’s teammate Max Verstappen limping back to the garage will serve as a reminder that nothing is a lock when it comes to fragile cars, finicky systems and tight corners.
Verstappen will start 15th on Sunday. The race for the title is, for one day at least, back on.
How to Watch
Time: Sunday’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix starts at 1 p.m. Eastern, which is 8 p.m. local time in Jeddah.
TV: Watch on ESPN in the United States. For a full list of Formula 1 broadcast rights holders wherever you are, click here.
Sunday’s Starting Grid
Verstappen’s broken drive shaft sent him tumbling down the grid, and a prerace penalty will do the same for Charles Leclerc of Ferrari. Leclerc was second-fastest in qualifying but will start 12th.
Mercedes (with Russell) and Ferrari (with Carlos Sainz) will be heartened to see two of their drivers right behind the leaders. Staying there will be the hard part. “Red Bull,” Leclerc said, “is on another planet.”
This Week’s Story Lines
Are Fernando Alonso and Aston Martin for real? A third-place finish in the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix was a delightful surprise for the 41-year-old Alonso and a fantastic start for his new team, Aston Martin. But Alonso wasn’t in the mood to probe the nuances of split times and speeds. “I have no idea,” he said when asked whether the team had learned anything from a strong week of practice. “I just drive the car and then in qualifying I see where I am.” Where he was after qualifying was alongside Red Bull’s Pérez on the front row.
Good news, bad news for Red Bull. How fast was Verstappen in his season-opening victory in Bahrain? Fast enough that his team told him to slow down late in the race, a request that annoyed Verstappen and ended with a Red Bull engineer pleading, “Just do it, please.” It is not clear if the command was made to spare Verstappen’s engine or the field’s honor, but the sudden loss of power that ended his qualifying bid on Saturday was not the jolt his team needed, and it spoiled the mood even as Pérez turned in the fastest lap. “Now it’ll be a little bit more tricky to get to the front,” Verstappen said of starting 15th. “Anything is possible at this track. But let’s stay a little bit realistic: It’s going to be tough.”
Ferrari’s power problem. Things could hardly have gone worse for Leclerc and Ferrari in Bahrain. Running with the leaders, Leclerc was forced out of the race after his power unit suddenly quit. (If you don’t know what makes a power unit quit, don’t fret: Ferrari’s engineers don’t seem to know either, and that is a significantly bigger problem for them than it is for you.) The specter of more power trouble, though, hung over Ferrari all week: It appeared to be running its cars at less than full speed just to play it safe.
Mercedes wants a do-over. “That was one of our worst days in racing,” the Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said after an abysmal start to the season in Bahrain that saw Lewis Hamilton come home in fifth and Russell in seventh. The mood has not improved. Wolff is still grumbling, Russell is still struggling and Hamilton is still stewing. “I just don’t feel the car underneath me,” Hamilton said. “I don’t really know what I am going to do about that.”
Last Time Out
Results and standings after the first race of the season, the Bahrain Grand Prix on March 5:
What They’re Saying
“Anything is possible at this track. But let’s stay a little bit realistic: It’s going to be tough.” — Verstappen on his chances of victory after dropping to 15th on the starting grid.
“I think on pure pace, Red Bull is in another league. I think we need to focus more on the other teams.” — Alonso, starting on the front row but already looking over his shoulder.
“We need the Red Bulls not to finish the race, the Ferraris not to finish the race and maybe now the Astons not to finish the race, for us to be winning at the moment.” — Hamilton laying out the extremely problematic path to victory for Mercedes. In his defense, knocking out a half-dozen of the fastest cars would be quite helpful for any middle-of-the-pack team, which is precisely what Mercedes looks to be at the moment.
April 2: Australian Grand Prix, Melbourne Grand Prix Circuit.