F1 2021 Round 22 – Saudi Arabia

It could all be settled here. Depending on the result, Lewis Hamilton could win his eighth World Championship. Welcome to Jeddah.

The Jeddah Corniche Street circuit is easily the fastest street track in F1, and it made its debut in 2021. The real Grand Prix brought us a number of controversial moments in the penultimate chapter of Hamilton’s and Max Verstappen’s title battle. In my gameverse, Hamilton led Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas by 23 points. Was Hamilton to finish ahead of Bottas, he would be crowned champion, with the exception of any scenario where Hamilton only outscored Bottas by a point – though in theory, if the gap was 25 points going into the final race and Bottas won with Hamilton failing to finish, Bottas would win it on the basis of more race wins. The extra point for the fastest lap could also throw up some extra scenarios.

One thing was definitely true. If Hamilton won at Jeddah he would be champion.

Moving away from title permutations, what of the circuit? A lap around Jeddah is quite intense. Barriers line virtually every portion of the track. Most sections of the track are high-speed curves that every now and then snap into short, sharp little corners and chicanes. To get the best out of a corner often means skirting dangerously close to the barriers. However I will say that Jeddah was a fun track to drive. With some corners, nailing one was the secret to hooking up nicely through several others; messing up would compromise you through several others. In particular, turn 5 is taken flat-out and you want to hang the car to the right, then do the same but through the left-handers of turn 6 and 7. Quickly jerking to the right for turn 8 and then darting right again into 9 before powering through turn 9 all adds up to an experience that done properly, often equates to a purple first sector.

The same could also be said of a very quick sequence through turns 14 to 17. With turn 14 it feels like you might easily scrape the wall, but if you keep steering left you’ll be alright. The same applies to turn 17. Then there’s the big hairpin at the end of the lap. This felt satisfying and a good exit would let you power through down the pit straight. Al in all, Jeddah held no nasty surprises, provided I remained focused and didn’t do anything stupid. As usual I used high fuel loads and hard tyres to learn the track, though I put in a few laps under different conditions and different tyres to get a better understanding of how the car felt on the road. This translated into something I had not expected in qualifying – pole.

The achievement was all the better for having gotten through Q2 on mediums, which meant whilst I would potentially be a bit slower to start with, my car would be quicker and on the faster soft tyres when it mattered most. However the start was messy, and I dropped to fifth, behind Bottas, Norris, Sainz and Alonso. Behind me was Leclerc and then Hamilton. In that scenario Bottas would close to within four points of Hamilton, assuming neither of then got the fastest lap. Needless to say, whilst I wasn’t pleased with my start, Hamilton (who didn’t have a great qualifying) would have been mightily frustrated.

However as early as lap two (I think) Norris suffered some form of mechanical failure, with smoke billowing from his car, and retired, so we all got bumped up a place. Under these new circumstances, the gap between the title rivals would be six points. Would this be the scenario that played out?

Meanwhile, I had lost some ground on Alonso but after a couple of laps and with DRS, I was able to get by the Alpine. I set about trying to catch Sainz but all the cars around me were on soft tyres, so whilst I presented them from disappearing into the night, I couldn’t catch them either. Behind me Alonso tried on a few occasions to get back in front but I covered the inside line of turn 1 to deny him, and eventually Leclerc and Hamilton both cleared the Alpine. At one point Hamilton got by Leclerc and started to catch me, but Leclerc started to harass Hamilton and their squabble brought me breathing room. I stayed ahead, and began to reel in Sainz as the soft tyres began to lose grip. Once the cars in front stopped I had a clear track, and I noted with interest that virtually everyone around me had opted for another set of softs, which meant they had to stop again for a different tyre compound.

I was scheduled to pit for softs on or around lap 28 of 50, which to me would mean a very long stint on softs. I decided to hold on till lap 33, by which point my closest rival on track (Bottas) had just stopped for mediums. Delaying my stop by a few laps would hopefully give me fresher tyres when it mattered. It ended up being a very good decision, as was the decision to one-stop.

On brand-new soft tyres the car came alive. I pumped in fastest lap after fastest lap and stretched out a very comfortable lead. After barely scraping into the points in Australia, I crossed the finish line to win by nearly 30 seconds from Bottas. Hamilton took third, and therefore the title fight would come down to the very end. For me, it was a fantastic race, my sixth win of the season, and a very good platform to build on.

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