The runaway winner in Bahrain had taken a clean sheet in practice sessions a fortnight earlier and finished the three-hour run with a cumulative advantage of 1.3 seconds.
However, after topping Q1 with an imperious 0.483s on teammate and eventual pole sitter Sergio Perez, his RB19 was troubled with a right-rear failure coming out of turn 10.
That forced the defending champion out in Q2, his first qualifying exit since opting not to race at all in Sochi in 2021 when he was charged with grid penalties for an engine change.
But as last season’s Belgian and Italian GPs emphatically proved, Verstappen is more than capable of pulling off an amazing comeback in this ground-effects era of F1.
And judging by his cheerful demeanor as he addressed the media right after a breakdown at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit, he believes another stunning recovery is eminently achievable.
Where the Red Bull excels in the Saudi streets
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19
Photo by: Zak Mauger/Motorsport Images
Verstappen took his first of a record 15 Grand Prix wins last season courtesy of a DRS-inspired victory over Charles Leclerc at the Saudi venue, with the rebranded Honda engine’s first-class punch proving decisive for the nimble Ferrari as the Red Bull headlined the speed demons.
But those traits were seemingly traded in for the round in Bahrain earlier this month.
The lighter for 2023 RB19 proved quick through slower speed acceleration zones, but ultimately lost traction compared to the low drag SF-23 as it headed north at 180 mph.
That high-speed habit and leaving behind the extremely abrasive Sakhir asphalt, which exposed Ferrari’s tire wear problems, should in theory have favored Leclerc and Carlos Sainz for this weekend. But Saturday’s GPS data from Saudi Arabia reveals the breadth of the Red Bull’s capabilities, with the RB19 having its legs over its red-painted rival in the flooding streets.
Even Verstappen’s Q1 top lap of 1m28.761s (which would still put him third in Q3, with Perez leading with a 1m28.265s) still had him near the top of the speed traps. The Dutch driver topped out at 206.3mph before hitting the brakes hard for Turn 1, which compares to 204.4mph for Perez as Leclerc clocked 322.6mph to narrowly eclipse George Russell. Fernando Alonso reached a top speed of 320 km/h in the initially dragging Aston Martin AMR23.
Interestingly, the Aston, Ferrari and Merc swap places from Turns 4 to 10 as the RB19 is compromised by the faster downforce controlled changes of direction.
However, it is then able to straighten its legs on the back to a maximum of 340 km/h – that’s 6 km/h better than the Ferrari and 10 km/h above the Merc and Aston.
While Perez’s pole lap sees him set the pace in the tricky turn 22, the RB19 looks set to pay a price in the next series as the Ferrari and Aston come to the fore.
Similarly, Red Bull are unparalleled for the sprint to the final corner, with Perez bringing the most speed to the top before Alonso cannot be overtaken during the low-speed acceleration.
How those traits translate into race strategy
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19, George Russell, Mercedes F1 W14, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-23, Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL60, others practicing their starting procedures at the end of FP2
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
It is because of Verstappen’s driveshaft failure that Saudi GP organizers and F1 bosses will be rubbing their hands at the prospect of completing a hat-trick of thrilling Jeddah races.
An inaugural race became notorious for repeated fights and clashes between Verstappen and bitter title rival Lewis Hamilton, leaving them level on points ahead of the Abu Dhabi showdown.
Last season’s edition was part two of the DRS detection duel between Leclerc and Verstappen.
This time all eyes will be on Verstappen’s recovery – albeit in the hope that it will take him longer than the 12 laps needed at Spa in 2022 to climb from 14th to first.
Unlike making progress on the famous Belgian circuit, Verstappen will certainly have to bide his time on the narrow, concrete-barrier-lined Corniche circuit. While Verstappen is a precise and thorough passerby, the focus will be on his ability to guess where his rivals will place their cars to avoid any shunts.
Likewise, he may have to watch and let the first round unfold if there’s a mid-pack melee ahead in which he could otherwise be collected.
But once the first stint has begun, the RB19’s set-up will be ideally suited to its recovery mission – even if that optimization is somewhat incidental, as none of the Red Bull crew initially intended Verstappen to be this early switched off. in qualifying.
Once DRS is activated, the overtaking aid combines with the Red Bull’s already superior top speed to enable seemingly easy passes down the straights or for Verstappen to draw level with any opponent before advancing in any braking zone.