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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Sergio Pérez won, but Max Verstappen stole the show

Max Verstappen said he was not worried about a head-to-head battle with Sergio Pérez, above, for the drivers’ championship. “The best one,” Verstappen said, “will finish in front.”

By Andrew Das and Josh Katz

Maybe George Russell had it right.

Almost as soon as Russell climbed out of his car early this month after the first race of the Formula One season, he declared the chase for the season championship over. Red Bull’s cars, he said, were simply too fast. “They have got this championship sewn up,” Russell said at the time. Red Bull, he said, might just win every race.

So far, that is just what it is doing. Sergio Pérez on Sunday breezed to Red Bull’s second victory in two races, capturing the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix with a performance nearly as dominant as the one turned in by his teammate Max Verstappen the last time out.

That Verstappen did not win himself was only the result of a bit of bad luck: He broke the drive shaft on his car during qualifying Saturday, forcing him into a repair that left him starting 15th. It hardly mattered.

Pérez, who had started in pole position, lost the lead to Fernando Alonso’s Aston Martin before the first turn, won it back by the fourth lap and slowly and methodically pulled away for his fifth career victory.

Verstappen, meanwhile, was picking his way through the pack behind him with ease. Told before the race of a prediction by a rival that his car was so fast that he would be “P2 by Lap 25,” Verstappen shrugged and said he would do his best.

But when the 25th lap arrived, that was right where he was: P2, or second place, with only his teammate Pérez ahead. By then, the Red Bulls were cruising, and the sense of resignation about their unmatched speed — a feeling that was palpable all week in Jeddah — was spreading.

“Red Bull,” Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc said before the race, “is on another planet.”

Max Verstappen’s wild ride

Verstappen had played down his chances of victory from the moment a broken drive shaft ended his qualifying early Saturday and left him in 15th place. But that did not mean he had any intention of staying in the back of the field.

It took him only eight laps to move into 10th place, and only eight more to rise to fifth. By the halfway point of the race, and helped by the fortuitous arrival of a safety car that allowed him to make up even more ground, Verstappen was in second.

Some radio traffic between Verstappen and his garage suggested his mechanical issues may not have been over, but that was forgotten after he closed the race with the fastest lap of the day. That earned a bonus point, which was just enough to nudge Pérez out of the top spot in the season standings.

He and Red Bull remain, without question, the team to beat.

“I’ve definitely never seen a car so fast,” said Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes, a seven-time world champion. “When we were fast, we weren’t that fast.”

OK, read this slowly because it gets a bit tricky.

— Fernando Alonso of Aston Martin finished third Sunday to claim his second podium finish of the season and the 100th of his long career. Hugs were shared. Trophies were awarded. Bubbly was sprayed. Hooray!

— But wait! After he had accepted the third-place trophy, stewards ruled that Alonso, who had served a five-second penalty for lining up with his tires outside his box at the start of the race, had actually not served the penalty correctly during a pit stop during the race. (Formula One television’s Zapruder film breakdown of the stop showed that a crew member’s jack had touched his car prematurely.)

— Penalized for that illegal contact, Alonso was assessed an additional 10-second penalty, just enough to strip him of his third-place finish and elevate Russell of Mercedes, who had been fourth. Womp womp womp.

— Russell accepted the extra points, and the trophy, but said he was happy to cede the onstage moment to Alonso. “I’ll take the trophy for sure,” he said, “but Fernando and Aston deserve the podium.” He called the penalty “harsh.”

— Oh, but you thought that was the end of it? Heavens no. Even as Russell gazed at his new hardware and Alonso gave interviews, the stewards and Aston Martin officials were huddling and taking a second (or was it a third now?) look.

— Reversal! Formula One heard the Aston Martin appeal and decided — hours after the race, hours after the trophy ceremony, and on the strength of evidence that touching a jack to a penalized car is actually quite common — that Alonso could have third place after all. “Having reviewed the new evidence, we concluded that there was no clear agreement, as was suggested to the stewards previously, that could be relied upon,” motor racing’s governing body, which oversees the apparently hazy rules, said in a statement. “In the circumstances, we considered that our original decision to impose a penalty on Car 14 needed to be reversed and we did so accordingly.”

Got it? Now quickly keep reading before they change their minds again.

What they’re saying

— “We will keep pushing. The important thing is we were the fastest car out there today.” — Pérez, after posting the fifth win of his career but failing to take the season points lead from Verstappen.

— “When they told me I had a five-second penalty, I said, ‘OK, I need to drive a little bit faster.’” — Alonso.

— “We are not where we want to be but we will get there.” — Hamilton, acknowledging that fifth place is better but still not good enough for him or Mercedes.

Next race

April 2: Australian Grand Prix, Melbourne Grand Prix Circuit.

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