It was lift off for Max Verstappen as he picked up his first win of the season at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, getting the better of Ferrari's Charles Leclerc in an epic duel at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit.
The Red Bull driver had a race to forget in the new Formula One season’s curtain-raiser in Bahrain, suffering a power failure with just a few laps to go. However, the Dutch driver bounced back on Sunday, taking the lead with three laps to go in a nail-biting contest.
Sergio Perez, who was marking 11 years to the day since his Formula One debut, started the race as the pole-sitter but despite a bright start to the race was dealt an early hammer-blow.
The Safety Car was brought out on the 17th lap when Williams’ Nicholas Latifi crashed, hitting the barriers after exiting the final corner. It came as desperately unfortunate news for race-leader Perez, who had pitted just before the car had come out, opening the door for Leclerc and Verstappen to take advantage and bring them out ahead of Perez.
Things got worse for the Mexican when he was judged to have pushed Carlos Sainz off despite the Ferrari appearing to be ahead at the pit exit line. Subsequently, the positions were swapped when the safety car was dismissed, meaning Perez came out of the fiasco having dropped from first to fourth. Leclerc stayed in first as the track went green again, capitalising on a clumsy restart from Verstappen, who gave the Ferrari driver too much space on Turn One.
The race was in danger of becoming a little dull as it entered its last few laps, but a sudden flurry of stoppages on the 36th served up a dramatic finale and meant that the Virtual Safety Car was reintroduced. First Fernado Alonso suffered an apparent power failure, then Daniel Ricciardo was forced to forfeit due to engine problems, before Valterri Bottas was ruled out for another technical issue.
Lewis Hamilton, who started in 16th, impressively managed to work his way up to sixth. However, he missed his opportunity to pit under the VSC, and dropped to 12th when he finally had his tyres changed. The Brit, who eventually finished 10th, made history in Jeddah though. It was his 180th race with Mercedes, taking the record for the most races with a single team, surpassing Michael Schumacher's 179 for Ferrari.
With ten laps to go, Verstappen overtook Leclerc on the final corner with DRS, but the man from Monaco bit back with DRS of his own on the home straight to take the lead again. You got the sense that it would be a case of when, not if, Verstappen would regain the lead with the gap between the Red Bull and Ferrari driver narrowing at every turn.
With three laps to go, the defending champion flew past Leclerc down the main straight and then blocked any attempt to fight back to cross the chequered flag first.
Despite the defeat, Leclerc claimed the fastest lap of the race to earn an extra World Championship point. Sainz, who finished third, made sure there were two Ferraris on the podium for a second week in a row.
Speaking to Sky Sports after the race, Verstappen said: "It was really tough but a good race. We were battling hard at the front and we just tried to play the long game.
"They were really quick through the corners and we were really quick on the straight. The tyres were wearing out quite quickly around here.
"You could see at the end, we had a little bit more pace. It wasn't easy but we eventually managed to get ahead.
"I'm really happy that we've finally kick-started the season."
Leclerc congratulated Verstappen for the win over the radio but having watched these two go head-to-head for almost 50 laps, you have to wonder how long this friendship will last. On to Australia…
Saudi Arabia Grand Prix Top Ten
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