Sergio Perez overcame a poor start to claim victory in the 2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix over Red Bull team mate Max Verstappen, who had to recover from starting the race from P15 after problems in qualifying.
Having originally snatched the lead from Perez at the start only to be passed again on lap 4, Fernando Alonso crossed the line in third and joined Perez and Verstappen on the podium.
However the Aston Martin driver was subsequently handed a ten second post-race penalty for failing to correctly serve an initial sanction for lining up improperly on the grid. It dropped him to fourth, handing the third place trophy to Mercedes' George Russell instead.
Further back there was an early retirement for Aston Martin's Lance Stroll which triggered a significant safety car intervention on lap 18, and Alex Albon's Williams also failed to last full race distance. Neither McLaren managed to score points again this week.
The second race of 2023 saw an unsurprising second pole position of the season for Red Bull - but this time it was Sergio Perez who lined up at the head of the field for the start of the race under the floodlights in Jeddah. Aston Martin's Fernando Alonso joined him on the front row ahead of Mercedes' George Russell and Ferrari's Carlos Sainz. All the top ten cars were on medium tyres with the exception of Lewis Hamilton, who was starting on the hard compound from P7. But two drivers who should have been in the mix were absent from the front - for now at least.
The seeming inevitability of a Max Verstappen victory had been thrown into doubt by the Red Bull's mechanical failure in qualifying. The team had been able to repair the car overnight using a replacement gearbox, but there were no additional penalties so he lined up in P15 on the grid. That was three places behind Ferrari's Charles Leclerc who had been handed a ten place grid drop of taking a third electronic control unit coming into the weekend. But as the lights went out to get the Saudi Arabian GP underway, the question on everyone's lips wasn't if Leclerc and Verstappen could recover and get back to the front, but how quickly.
When Perez struggled to get away, Alonso got the jump on the polesitter into the first corner. Russell held on to third, but Lance Stroll was able to go around the outside of turn 13 to pick off Carlos Sainz. Esteban Ocon and Lewis Hamilton slotted in behind, but there was contact between Pierre Gasly and Oscar Piastri that sent the McLaren heading to pit lane for a new front wing. It helped Leclerc to make swift progress into the top ten ahead of Alfa Romeo's Zhou Guanyu, but Verstappen found himself stuck in P13 in the middle of a DRS train headed by the two Haas cars of Kevin Magnussen and Nico Hulkenberg.
The early excitement of Alonso leading the race was quickly smothered by news that the Aston had been out of position on the grid (too far left) and would have to serve a five second grid penalty at the first pit stop. Long before that could be a factor, a mistake by the Spaniard gave Perez the opportunity to cut the gap between them and then use DRS to dive into turn 1 and retake the lead on lap 4. Meanwhile Verstappen was also starting to make progress, having finally dispatched the two Haas cars to climb to P11 on lap 5, while Leclerc took care of Gasly to move up to eighth on lap 7.
Leclerc was now bearing down on Hamilton, who was desperately weaving down the straight in an attempt to break the tow he was inadvertently lending to the Ferrari - until he was warned by race control not to persist. Given that Leclerc was on the soft tyres, it was a futile exercise anyway and the exchange of places was duly executed with clinical disdain on lap 8.
Ten laps into the race, Perez had a two second advantage over Alonso with Russell six seconds in arrears in third, Stroll looming in his rear view mirrors. Sainz and Ocon were holding place behind with Leclerc catching them, and Hamilton was coming under pressure from Verstappen who had made swift work of Gasly and Zhou. The Chinese driver then headed in for an early pit stop, just as his Alfa Romeo team mate Valtteri Bottas had already opted to do further back.
Perez was told by the Red Bull pit wall that his "front right" was a concern, having locked up in his pass of Alonso; Alonso meanwhile was being warned by his race engineer that that the hard tyre "isn't looking great" based on the performance of Hamilton and others who had started on that compound. By contrast, Leclerc was showing that the soft compound was performing better than forecast.
Stroll was the first of the leaders to pit on lap 14, exchanging his mediums for the hard variant. Sainz had been told by Ferrari to pit at the same time, but decided against doing so when he saw the Aston come in, in the hope of achieving an overcut on the Canadian. He was now running in fourth ahead of Leclerc, followed by Verstappen who had picked off both Hamilton and Ocon without incident to take up sixth place albeit still 25s off the pace of the race leader, his Red Bull team mate, who was now turning the screw and pulling away from Alonso.
Sainz finally came in on lap 16 and duly succeeded in exiting ahead of Stroll. Leclerc was in on the next lap and for the second time the Ferrari strategy paid dividends as the Monegasque also successfully jumped Stroll. Moments later we found out why Stroll had lost out, when he slowed and was ordered to immediately stop the car. It triggered a safety car on lap 18 despite the Aston having found a relatively safe spot to park. Now the scramble was for those drivers who had not yet come in to pit lane to do so under the caution.
Perez retained the lead, while the timing of the safety car was a boost for Alonso who was able to stay in second despite serving his penalty - or at least, so the team believed at the time. Russell was back out in third with Verstappen now right behind him, the top four all on hard tyres. Behind Sainz, Hamilton was sixth having switched to the mediums, now ahead of Leclerc, Yuki Tsunoda and Alpine pair Ocon and Gasly, with Magnussen in 11th ahead of William's Alex Albon when the race restarted on lap 21. Hulkenberg had dropped to 13th ahead of the three rookies - Nyck de Vries, Logan Sargeant, Oscar Piastri - with Zhou and Bottas running ahead of Lando Norris.
Hamilton's medium tyre advantage helped him pick off a weaving Sainz into turn 3 for fifth. That left Verstappen stuck between the two Mercedes - Russell ahead, Hamilton behind - but that didn't last long as he used DRS and the slipstream to blast his way past Russell for third place on lap 24. Moments later Alonso showed little resistance as Verstappen sped by, and the reigning world champion immediately punched in the fastest lap of the race so far (by half a second) as he made it plain he was gunning to tear into the Perez' five second lead and take the lead of the race as soon as possible. But Perez wasn't giving in, and he put in a fastest lap of his own in response.
Albon was the next driver to face technical problems, the Williams limping back to pit lane and into retirement on lap 27 as he declared 'brake failure' over the team radio. Otherwise the order was predominantly two-by-two, with no team orders apparent at Red Bull between Perez and Verstappen at the front with Alonso in no man's land in third, or from Mercedes to Russell and Hamilton. Ferrari pair Sainz and Leclerc were looking relatively inert in sixth and seventh, followed by Alpine duo Ocon and Gasly, with Tsunoda providing a buffer to the Haas drivers Magnussen and Hulkenberg. Sargeant was now the lead rookie ahead of Zhou, with de Vries in 15th ahead of the two McLarens of Norris and Piastri who were ahead of Bottas, the Finn having made a third stop complaining of problems with the C43: "Something's not right", he grumbled.
With 12 laps remaining, Verstappen had been shaving a tenth or two a lap off Perez lead - but he wasn't making the major in-roads that might have been expected and time was starting to run out. Perez briefly ran wide, but it was Verstappen who dropped a second as he became distracted with fears that the replacement driveshaft of the RB19 was suffering further issues. Perez then reported a long break pedal which cost him time in turn, with the race seemingly turning into a duel of attrition between the team mates.
Having locked up and almost run into the rear of Tsunoda on lap 35, Magnussen finally pulled off a do-or-die lunge on the AlphaTauri on lap 47. De Vries also had managed to edge ahead of Sargeant for 'rookie of the day' honours, while the McLarens of Norris and Piastri continued to trade positions behind them. Even though the MCL60 looked to have desperately poor straight line speed, Piastri eventually succeeded not only in getting the better of Norris but also dispatching Sargeant by the finish.
With two laps to go, Perez had succeeded in pulling away from Verstappen who seemed have opted instead to find some clear track space to make what proved to be a successful final lap push for the overall fastest lap bonus point. As they neared the line, Alonso was being urged to extend his margin over Russell after suggestions that his earlier time penalty for bring out of position on the grid might still be in play. Sure enough, the Aston was handed a post-race ten second penalty which meant that Russell picked up third place with Alonso dropping to fourth followed by Hamilton, Sainz, Leclerc, Ocon, Gasly and Magnussen.