Max Verstappen pinched victory from Charles Leclerc in a tense conclusion to the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.
The Dutchman launched his bid for victory late, with Leclerc having controlled most of the race until the final 10 laps.
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Leclerc inherited the lead from poleman and erstwhile leader Sergio Perez, who had been managing the pace until his first pit stop, on lap 15.
The timing proved terrible for Perez – Nicholas Latifi crashed his Williams just one lap later, and the ensuing safety car gifted Leclerc along with Verstappen and Carlos Sainz free pit stops, and all three jumped him when they made their stops under the caution.
Leclerc nailed the restart ahead of Verstappen, who pulled up alongside the Ferrari as they crawled along the back straight before the restart. The pair settled into a rhythm through what became a subdued middle stint of the race.
The battle was enlivened on lap 37, when Fernando Alonso and Daniel Ricciardo both ground to a halt on track triggering a virtual safety car. Verstappen maintained better tire temperature during the lull, and when the race resumed three laps later he was all over the back of the Ferrari to try to relieve it of the lead.
Verstappen’s speed through the final sector was immense and at the end of lap 42 the Red Bull driver swept easily past Leclerc into the last corner – but, crucially, before the DRS activation line.
Leclerc powered his way back past into the first corner with the aid of the drag reduction system, and the fight resumed.
Verstappen closed again near the end of the lap, but this time both hit the brakes early into the penultimate corner to avoid being ahead at the DRS line. Both locked their brakes, but Leclerc took the opportunity to get back on the power early, breaking Verstappen’s momentum and holding the lead once again.
The Red Bull Racing driver bided his time before launching another move. On lap 46 he timed his run in the final sector more cleverly to arrive in the braking zone just behind the Ferrari, and as they rounded the corner he was used the DRS to take the position over the start-finish line with four laps remaining.
Leclerc sized up another move at the end of the following lap, but a crash between Alex Albon and Lance Stroll in the first chicane brought out yellow flags, preventing him from attempting a move, leaving him with just one more lap, but with the finish line coming early on the front straight, Verstappen was able to take the flag first by just 0.549s.
“It was really tough, but a good race,” he said. “We were battling hard at the front, but you start to play the long game. You could see in the end we had a little bit more pace, so I just tried to get by.
“Eventually I managed to get ahead, but even after that he was constantly in DRS.
“It was tough, but I’m really happy we finally kickstarted the season.”
Leclerc was buzzing despite the loss and the reduction in his title lead to 20 points.
“It wasn’t enough today, but oh my god, I really enjoyed that race,” he said. “It’s hard racing but fair. Every race should be like this.”
Carlos Sainz completed the podium, having snatched the place from the unfortunate Perez during the safety car by barely a foot as he exited pit lane. They were evenly matched for the rest of the race, but Sainz was eight seconds off the lead by the end of the night with Perez a further 2.7s back.
“For me this race was a bit of progress from Bahrain,” said Sainz, who has admitted to struggling to match Leclerc so far this season. “I think I managed to find a bit more rhythm with the car.
“Still some more tenths to find, but I’ll end up getting there.”
George Russell was comfortably best of the rest for Mercedes in fifth, with more than 20 seconds on either side of him at the end of a lonely grand prix.
The bottom half of the points-paying places was decided by sudden simultaneous retirements for Alonso, Valtteri Bottas and Ricciardo, who were net sixth, seventh and ninth on lap 34.
While Alonso and Ricciardo stopped on track with their engine problems, while Bottas made it back to pit lane to retire.
Esteban Ocon and Lando Norris were promoted to sixth and seventh and fought to the line, the Alpine taking the flag ahead of the McLaren by just 0.107s.
Pierre Gasly crossed the line eighth as the sole AlphaTauri finisher after teammate Yuki Tsunoda retired on his way to the grid with his third engine-related issue of the weekend, beating Haas driver Kevin Magnussen to the place by just over a second.
Lewis Hamilton completed the top 10 with a long first stint on hard tires. He started 15th with his offset strategy, but in a car he’s struggled with all weekend. Hamilton gained only two places on his way into the points, with the rest coming from retirements ahead of him.