Formula One: Verstappen favourite again in Saudi Arabia, but all eyes on Alonso

Aston Martin driver Fernando Alonso celebrates on the podium at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

JEDDAH – Max Verstappen may start as favourite, but Fernando Alonso will have widespread support this weekend when the Formula One season resumes at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

After his dashing and surprising podium finish behind the two Red Bulls at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix two weeks ago, the 41-year-old Spaniard has played down expectations of a repeat in his sleek new Aston Martin.

He knows that the high-speed Jeddah Street Circuit offers a very different challenge to man and machine.

“I think that we found, in Bahrain, that we were strong in things that maybe we won’t have in Jeddah, or in Melbourne,” Alonso explained.

“So, if we are strong again, in these two races, I think we are going to have a very good year.

“I am curious about these races – very different circuits, with high-speed corners and very low degradation. It’s going to be very different.”

Two-time world champion Verstappen will be the man to beat with Aston Martin, Ferrari and Mercedes in hot pursuit, following his commanding victory in Bahrain, ahead of Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez.

The Dutchman has recognised the strong threat to his title defence, but believes his Red Bull package has the blend of high-speed handling characteristics and pure power to triumph again.

“We have a strong car for this track, but I don’t expect it to be easy,” said the 25-year-old, who praised several modifications made to the circuit after complaints about the danger of poor visibility at certain corners last season.

“The changes have improved things, hopefully. It was definitely dangerous in some areas for the drivers.”

Perez, who finished fourth here in 2022 after starting from pole position, will seek to prove he is more than the supporting cast to Verstappen’s starring role on the kind of track that usually suits his style.

“I was unlucky last year, with the timing of a safety car,” he said. “It will be interesting this time.”

Ferrari, under new management and enthused by fresh hope, will also want to make a statement at a circuit where they finished second and third last season.

But they will start on the back foot, with Charles Leclerc taking a 10-place grid penalty for taking a new electronic control unit.

After a disappointing, if not desultory, display at the season-opener, Mercedes, similarly, require a much-improved showing to lift morale.

Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton and George Russell struggled for pace in Bahrain and are likely to suffer a similar fate on Sunday.

“We have a few small developments for the car,” said team boss Toto Wolff. “Not game-changers, but they might move us in the right direction.”

If Mercedes slump again – they won eight successive constructors’ titles before Red Bull took their crown in 2022 – it could lead to a radical rethink and the end for their much-criticised W14 car. AFP

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