For a race that nearly did not happen, the second race of Formula 1’s 2022 season at Jeddah’s Corniche circuit kept pace with Bahrain and the scintillating battle between Ferrari and Red Bull. While Lewis Hamilton continued to trundle along rather uncharacteristically, Max Verstappen and Charles LeClerc laid down plenty of rubber on the track as they went wheel-to-wheel once more.

The Saudi Arabia Grand Prix started and finished in dramatic fashion. Pictures of black smoke rising in the background of Friday’s first practice session resulted in four hour long discussions between the FIA, F1 bosses, the team principals and the team drivers, the latter seemingly reluctant behind closed doors to go ahead, fearing further attacks after it came to light that it was a missile attack on an oil facility not 10 kilometres away from the racing circuit, purportedly carried out by Houthi rebels.

The smoke around that issue refuses to die down with several drivers promising to carry the conversation forward with the officials at the end of the race. The race did go ahead but in the midst of chants once more of F1 bosses putting money over safety and also, of human rights violations concerns in the Gulf country.

The track also remained red hot for a while after the race as Ferrari kept up their pace and promise to keep the rest of the field on their toes this year unlike in seasons past.

One of the early crashes came from Mick Schumacher, son of the legendary Michael Schumacher, whose Haas car seemed to virtually disintegrate upon impact during qualifying on Saturday. An almost hour long delay - a 57 minute break - to clear up the debris and ensure the driver was safely extracted out of the car and sent for check up at the hospital, provided its own fair share of drama, delaying once more the session on Saturday as it did on Friday for the drivers doing some overtime thinking.

Sergio Perez made history eventually in Saturday’s qualifier in Q3 when he snatched pole from pace setter Charles LeClerc in the final moments by becoming the first Mexican driver to start on pole. However, his elation was short lived as the race itself put a spanner in the South American driver’s attempts to win from pole.

Leading impressively from the front, Perez seemed on course when his plans went astray after lap 16 when the safety car was deployed. Unfortunately for the Red Bull driver, he had already pitted before the safety car unlike the rest of the frontrunners and lost places he could not regain for the rest of the race, finishing a dismal fourth considering where he had started.

The woes for Mercedes went from bad to worse. If Hamilton was lucky to have finished third in Bahrain following the stunning, sudden retirement of both Red Bulls in the dying moments of the Sakhir race circuit finish, his chances seemed bleak to begin with and disappeared into vapour by the end of it.

In the background of the missile attack and the Schumacher crash was also the shock of Hamilton failing to qualify on Saturday, dropping out of the numbers in the first phase of qualifying itself. It was a rare position for Mercedes and Hamilton to be in, given that it had last happened back in the Brazilian Grand Prix in 2017 and this took some digging up through the history books. Such has been the Brit driver’s dominance in Formula 1, until recently.

Starting on 15th, Hamilton did make ground at a much protracted rate compared to the Red Bulls and Ferraris. But his sixth place on lap 38 took another hit when a virtual safety car deployment and the closure of the pit lane - where cars in retirement Daniel Ricciardo, Valterri Bottas, Fernando Alonso lay in wait, threw his one pit stop strategy in turmoil, losing places to drop out of the top ten once more.

Before his retirement, Alonso, the two time world drivers champion, provided some heat and intensity as he and Estebon Ocon, his team mate at Alpine racing, went wheel-to-wheel. Even as the battle between the Red Bull and Ferrari continued at the top, the action was simply irresistible even to the broadcasters. While the team tried to keep a calm façade, it was obvious that the attrition levels were going to be high from this short lived battle as neither back down an inch, creating for some fiery on track moments that set up the F1 race nicely.

However, the real in-the-mirror duel was left to the two men who reprised their battle for the top spot from Bahrain.

With barely five laps to go, Verstappen, who had been shadowing LeClerc ever since the Monegasque driver took over from Perez as the race leader, overtook LeClerc, making for some serious DRS jostling as the duo traded places just like in Bahrain.

Once more it was racing at top notch as the two went head-to-head, at times locking up simultaneously and planning moments to overtake so as to deny the other the opportunity of the DRS to take the place back. Verstappen did talk about “tricky moves” in the post race interviews when alluding to LeClerc. Indeed the Dutchman could barely sit tight in the course of the race, wondering over the pit radio about several aspects of the driver from the prancing horse, including his crossing the pit lane white line a couple of times. He had to be told to put his head down and focus on his race.

Charles LeClerc has been all over the newly crowned champion’s mind and it is only two races in in a long 22-race season!

LeClerc, not finishing first on the podium this time and his team Carlos Sainz, who seemed a spectator for much of the race, have certainly given Ferrari a real edge at the top after years of being in the shadows of the top row. With Mercedes languishing with just George Russell in the top five and Hamilton inquiring of his team engineer of the points scoring value of finishing in 10th place, Red Bull seem like the only team that can give the red hot Ferrari some pushback but barely.

Despite the close calls, LeClerc called for such close battles through the rest of the season, while Verstappen praised the Monegasque for some clever racing. The two drivers shook hands, congratulated each other and even embraced each other in elation. The camaraderie and respect amongst the young guns off the track and their give-no-inch, take-no-inch riveting racing on track have already made this a fascinating season to watch.