Sergio Pérez claimed pole for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, the first of his career, with a fine run for Red Bull. However, in a reminder of sport’s role as cruel mistress his joy stood in stark contrast to Lewis Hamilton’s disappointment as he suffered an exceptionally rare early exit in a session that was extensively delayed after Mick Schumacher suffered a horrific high-speed crash.
Mercedes’ early season woes multiplied for Hamilton as he managed only 16th place, his worst qualifying on pace alone since the British GP in 2009. If he is to fight for the title this year the scale of the mountain he has to climb was made painfully clear in Saudi Arabia. Charles Leclerc was in second for Ferrari with his teammate Carlos Sainz in third and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in fourth.
Hamilton, a seven-time world champion with 103 pole positions, was in uncharted territory. He could not find any confidence in his ride and seemed powerless to make a difference. Mercedes are looking to extract the most from a car where their aerodynamics are not working as planned and in doing so are having to examine new setup options. Hamilton admitted his part in the decision-making process.
“With the setup I chose the car was undriveable, that was my decision,” he said. “I struggled with the car, it was snappy, I was losing the back end. It’s a wonder I wasn’t one of the drivers in the wall. It was very unstable, I don’t know how it will be tomorrow but it is a long, long way back, I don’t anticipate moving very far forwards.”
Hamilton was a full seven-tenths off his teammate George Russell, who finished in sixth. He was unable to push through the corners and for Mercedes it was stark evidence of how much ground they have to make up with their car, the all-conquering team of recent years facing their toughest test yet.
Hamilton suggested he would start the race from the pitlane in order to be able to change his setup again for the race but a spectacular comeback is not on the cards. “I am looking forward to going home,” was his somewhat resigned conclusion.
Schumacher suffered a major crash into the barriers in Q2 on a circuit that was described by Pérez as “the most dangerous on the calendar”. It has been repeatedly criticised by drivers, with close walls at high speed and blind corners, as the reasons to continue racing in Saudi Arabia dwindle to a vanishing point. The impact was at approximately 160mph but Schumacher remained conscious and was extracted from the car and while apparently unhurt was still taken to hospital for a check up. With such a heavy hit his Haas team confirmed he would not take part in the race and they will enter only Kevin Magnussen on Sunday.
When they began again after almost an hour’s delay for the hot runs in Q3 Sainz, who had been quickest in Q1 and Q2, set the early pace with a 1minute 28.402second lap, a fine marker but just four-hundredths up on Leclerc. Yet it was Pérez who had the edge when it mattered, He attacked the second sector and was immaculate throughout to seal his first pole, two-hundredths up on Leclerc. It was a mighty result for the Mexican who has struggled in the past to nail the single-lap discipline. To beat Ferrari and Verstappen was some achievement but it has taken the Mexican 215 races to finally do so, the longest wait for any driver to have claimed the top spot.
Qualifying remained overshadowed by events on Friday, when Yemen’s Houthi launched a missile attack on an oil facility less than 10 miles from the circuit, raising questions over whether the race would go ahead. F1 and the team principals reached a decision to race on in under an hour but had not factored in the deep sense of unease among their drivers.
The drivers discussed their clear misgivings on Friday night in a meeting that lasted four hours and which the team principals were forced to engage with to avoid a potential boycott. They ultimately agreed to continue to race but it is understood many remain unconvinced F1 should even be in a country where such attacks can take place.
The Ferrari team principal, Mattia Binotto, acknowledged on Saturday that their concerns remained. “I don’t think we said that they are 100% happy and fully relaxed,” he said.
F1 issued a statement on Saturday morning stating the Saudi authorities had given “full and detailed assurances that the event is secure”. Another missile strike with similar proximity to the circuit, however, would end any chance of the race taking place. The disquiet it has engendered has also now called into question its place on the calendar with a 10-year deal currently in place. “Certainly, there will be a lot of discussions after this event. It’s not the teams that make the calendar,” said Aston Martin’s team principal Mike Krack.
Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso were in fifth and seventh for Alpine. Valtteri Bottas was eighth for Alfa Romeo, Pierre Gasly in ninth for AlphaTauri and Magnussen in 10th for Haas.
The McLarens of Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo were in 11th and 12th. Guanyu Zhou in 13th for Alfa Romeo, Schumacher 14th and Lance Stroll in 15th for Aston Martin.
Alex Albon and Nicholas Latifi were in 17th and 19th for Williams. Nico Hulkenberg was in 18th, deputising for a Sebastian Vettel who has yet to recover from Covid. Yuki Tsunoda was in 20th for AlphaTauri.