Max Verstappen cruises to victory at Saudi Arabian GP to extend dominant start to F1 title defense

Ferrari driver Oliver Bearman of Britain boards his car prior to the start of the Formula One Saudi Arabian Grand Prix at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit, in Jedda, Saudi Arabia, Saturday, March 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

Ferrari driver Oliver Bearman of Britain boards his car prior to the start of the Formula One Saudi Arabian Grand Prix at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit, in Jedda, Saudi Arabia, Saturday, March 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

Max Verstappen stayed firmly on course for another season of dominance in Formula 1 on Saturday by winning the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

Even after just two races, and despite turmoil at Red Bull, Verstappen seems in near-total control on the track as he aims for a fourth consecutive title this year. Still, he had to share the attention with 18-year-old Oliver Bearman, who was a surprise seventh in his first F1 race as a Ferrari stand-in.

“A fantastic weekend for the whole team and also for myself. I felt really good with the car,” Verstappen said.

The Dutch driver won easily ahead of his teammate Sergio Perez by 8.6 seconds on the road, 13.6 once a time penalty for Perez was factored in. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was third.

“It was a bit of a boring race because Red Bull were a bit too quick and behind we had a bit of a gap, but we took the maximum points we could today,” Leclerc said.

Verstappen started on pole and held off Leclerc at the first corner, as he did last week at the season-opener in Bahrain which he won, before quickly building his lead.

The only interruption came when Lance Stroll’s crash brought out the safety car. Verstappen came into the pits for a tire change and after the restart easily passed Lando Norris — who hadn’t stopped — to retake the lead.

Perez had a five-second penalty because Red Bull released him from a pit stop into the path of another car, but that didn’t matter since he finished far ahead of Leclerc.

Verstappen has won nine races in a row going back to last season, and 19 of the last 20 races in total. The next race in Australia on March 24 offers him the chance to match his own record of 10 consecutive wins, set last year.

Saturday’s race was the 100th podium finish of Verstappen’s career and his 56th win, a signal of just how dominant his recent title-winning seasons with Red Bull have been.

Bearman was seventh for Ferrari, one day after the British driver was called up as an emergency replacement for Carlos Sainz Jr., who needed an operation to treat appendicitis.

Oscar Piastri took fourth for McLaren, with Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso fifth and George Russell sixth for Mercedes.

Behind Bearman, McLaren’s Lando Norris held off Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton in a fight for eighth place. Nico Hulkenberg was 10th for Haas’ first point in F1 since the Singapore Grand Prix in September.

Verstappen’s second win of the season followed speculation over his future at Red Bull.

Verstappen had suggested Friday that he might reconsider his relationship with the team if his mentor Helmut Marko were to leave Red Bull, but Marko told German broadcaster Sky Sport on Saturday that he was staying.

“I always said that, what is most important is that we work together as a team and that everyone keeps the peace,” Verstappen said after the race.

“And that’s what we, I think, we all agree on within the team. So hopefully from now onwards that is also fully the case and everyone is trying to focus in the same direction. And I think the positive out of all this is that it didn’t hurt our performances, so it’s a very strong team.”

The team’s parent company last week dismissed a complaint of alleged misconduct by Red Bull team principal Horner toward a team employee. Verstappen’s father Jos has been sharply critical of Horner, claiming the team could “explode” if he remains in charge.

The employee whose complaint sparked the investigation has since been suspended, a person with information on the matter told The Associated Press on Thursday. The person requested anonymity because Red Bull hasn’t revealed details of the investigation.

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