Verstappen wins Saudi Arabia GP from Leclerc and Sainz as Perez suffers pit window misfortune

Max Verstappen held off a charging Charles Leclerc on a thrilling final lap of the Saudi Arabia Grand Prix as safety cars and pit stop timings again played a vital part.

Carlos Sainz finished on the podium for the second race in succession, but it was heartbreak for pole sitter Sergio Perez, who looked in great shape having led the field away at the start, only for an unlucky Safety Car situation to scupper his chances.

George Russell finished fifth behind the Mexican ahead of Esteban Ocon, Lando Norris and Pierre Gasly as Kevin Magnussen and Lewis Hamilton rounded out the top ten.

Having started an uncharacteristic 15th on the grid following a tough qualifying session, Hamilton charged through the field to run 6th behind his teammate before just missing a crucial pit window under a late Safety Car when fourth or fifth was a real possibility.

“It was really tough. We had a good race, we were battling hard at the front and we decided to play the long game,” said Verstappen after he won on the anniversary of father Jos’s F1 debut at the 1994 Brazilian Grand Prix. “They were really quick through corners, we were quick on the straight, but the tyres were wearing out quick around here. But you could see at the end we had a little more pace so I tried to get by.

“It wasn’t easy playing smart tricks in the last corner but eventually we managed to get ahead. Even after that, he was constantly in the DRS. The with the yellow flags in the last lap, just knowing how much you should lift was tough but really happy that we finally kick started the season.”


It was uncharted F1 territory for Perez, the Mexican securing his first pole position since his GP2 days. And he made the perfect start, leading away Leclerc as teammate Verstappen passed Sainz for third place.

Behind the leaders, a great move from Magnussen saw the Dane pass Gasly for ninth, Lando Norris also taking the Alpha Tauri car. Hamilton was also making inroads, gaining two places off the start on his used hard tyres.

With the status quo being maintained at the front, the television directors rather focused on a fabulous battle between the Alpines of Alonso and Ocon, the Spaniard finally getting the upper hand after several changes of position.

With all top ten on new mediums apart from Magnussen starting on the new medium compound tyres and Hamilton and Hulkenberg also on used sets of hard compound Pirellis, the first set of pitstops would once again be crucial.


On lap 15 Perez was first to roll the dice, pitting as Leclerc stayed out, Ferrari telling their man to do the opposite of the race leader. It meant that the Ferrari inherited the lead of the race and with the leaders on slightly fresher rubber.

And then came a huge spanner in the works for the man chasing his maiden F1 victory, Nicholas Latifi crashing out of the final corner and bringing about a safety car. It turned out to be a big game changer, with Perez having just pitted.

It dropped the Mexican to third on track behind Leclerc and Verstappen but worse was to follow, Perez penalised for pushing Sainz off at the pit exit line. And when racing resumed in earnest, Russell took Magnussen for fifth with another fine move, Hamilton following suit after an entertaining two lap battle against the HAAS machine.

With damage limitation clearly the name of the game for the hitherto dominant Mercedes package, all eyes now switched to the battle for victory at the head of the field. And with 20 laps of the 50 laps remaining, it looked like a two-horse race for victory between the young protagonists who have battled one another ever since their early days in karting.


Again, and with under two seconds separating Leclerc from Verstappen, the final change of tyres would likely decide the race. Then more drama, first Alonso then Ricciardo grinding to a halt on the circuit on the entrance to the pit lane. It led to a flurry of pit stops with the Virtual Safety Car deployed, Hamilton just missing the window to pit.

It led to a grandstand finish, the gladiators exchanging places and even both locking up into Turn 1 in a frantic end to the race. And on lap 47 Verstappen got the job done under DRS, breezing past the Ferrari.

Then further reprieve for the defending champion as Albon and Stroll came together, bringing about a yellow flag. Still the race wasn’t over, Leclerc again gaining DRS but Verstappen defending resolutely to the flag as the young protagonists finishing in a race order that is bound to go to and fro throughout the season.

“My god, I really enjoyed that race,” commented Leclerc afterward. “In the end it’s hard racing but fair. Every race should be like this, it was fun I’m of course disappointed, I wanted to win today. We just missed. We had two very different configurations with Max and Checo and both the Ferraris.

“We were quite quick in the corners but quite slow in the straights because we had more downforce so it was extremely difficult for me to cover Max in the straights but it’s like this. He did a great job and it was a fun race.

“It is a street track and we’ve been pushing like I’ve rarely pushed before and to the absolute limit. And we take risks at the end so of course there is respect but I’m disappointed.”

Fraser Masefield

Sports news and features writer, web editor and author.