Although the 2024 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix finished with the same top 2 as the season opener, it proved to be an exciting one, and not just because someone other than Verstappen led (yes only for 6 laps, shush). There was a safety car; there were 20 seconds worth of penalties just for one driver, and there was someone younger than me scoring his first world championship points. Here’s what went down in Saudi Arabia.

There was drama from even (pointedly) before lights out, as Lando Norris inched forward before the start of the race, then stopped, before getting going again. Less eagle-eyed viewers might have thought that it was just a poor reaction from the Englishman, but George Russell – ever the teachers’ pet type – was quick on the radio to point out what had gone on: “Norris – jump start”. The stewards decided against penalising Norris for this incident though, presumably because he hadn’t really moved out of his box, or because it ended up hindering him. Having said that, the McLaren driver recovered quickly, with he and his teammate making quick work of Fernando Alonso ahead.

That wasn’t the end of the first lap drama though, with Pierre Gasly’s Alpine giving up before the Frenchman could even complete 2 laps. At the risk of being a cynic, I dare say that with Alpine delivering another dismal performance in Saudi Arabia, he was not on course for points anyway. This retirement was followed by a somewhat more spectacular one in the shape of Lance Stroll’s seventh-lap collision with the wall on turn 22: his suspension broke and sent him hurtling into the wall to bring out a safety car.

This was Stroll’s second year in a row bringing out the safety car at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit, during a Grand Prix that has yet to see a race go without one. Stroll, however, was not the only driver to test the limits during the race. Alonso admitted to ‘giving a little kiss to the wall’ on Lap 28, and McLaren driver Oscar Piastri also let on that his Friday qualifying session had featured a bit of “kissing walls; very aggressively kissing them but…”

The effect of the safety car was to allow almost all the grid to take advantage of a more efficient pit stop. This was especially helpful for 18 year-old Ferrari driver Ollie Bearman, who had started the race on soft tyres. But with only a handful of drivers choosing to stay out, the busy pit lane proved to be a hurdle for some; Sergio Perez was charged with a 5 second penalty for unsafe release, and a slow stop for Leclerc meant he lost position to Piastri.

Lando Norris was one of those drivers who didn’t make use of a pit stop under the VSC and stayed out, which we can assume to be because he was running so close to his teammate, rendering a double stack implausible. It was also not unsensible to expect that there might have been another safety car, with the 2021 race featuring no less than 6, but alas, no luck for the Brit. Norris led for 6 laps before being passed by Verstappen, and only held on to second for a further 5 before Perez took his place in a Redbull 1-2 that would go on to finish on the top two steps of the podium for the second week in a row.

In fact, once Charles Leclerc repassed Piastri to make up the position he lost in the pit lane, it was a fairly quiet race for the podium sitters, with no real threat to their positions at any point. It should be pointed out though that, without his penalty, Perez would have finished just 8 seconds behind Max Verstappen. No-one is suggesting title race, but maybe, just maybe, it won’t be a 24-race sweep for the Dutchman!

The race everyone was watching though, was that of 18 year-old Oliver Bearman, the youngest driver for Ferrari ever, and the first Brit to drive for Ferrari since Eddie Irvine in ’99. The Formula 2 star received the call-up after Carlos Sainz was admitted to hospital for an emergency appendectomy, and it is safe to say that Ollie drove a fantastic race as his replacement. With just one practice session under his belt, the British teenager managed a stellar P7, despite even his own prediction that he would be caught by two senior British drivers, Norris and Hamilton, on fresher tyres. Although there isn’t a spare seat at Ferrari next year, it seems like Bearman has made a good case for a drive somewhere. Might we see Haas, who have hinted at wanting to bring in a rookie to replace one of their more experienced drivers, make a bid for the youngster next year? Time will tell…

In the event, the British drivers finished 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th (sparking a One Direction comparison from one twitter user) but there was an Australian in the mix too for much of the Grand Prix. Oscar Piastri ended up finishing 4th after Hamilton and Norris were forced to make their pit stops in the latter stages, hopes for a second safety car gone unrealised. Still, the young McLaren driver spent a hilariously long portion of the race stuck behind Hamilton. He has since gone as far as to declare himself a ‘Mercedes rear wing expert’ on twitter, after endlessly trying and failing to pass the 7-time World Champion, who put up what can only be described as a defensive masterclass. Well, Piastri did actually manage it once, he just went careering off the track afterwards…

Drama, nay, racecraft, too, amongst the back half of the grid, in the fight to claim the last points position. Despite impressively amassing penalties worth no less than 20 seconds (one for causing a collision with Albon, the other for leaving the track and gaining an advantage), Haas’ Kevin Magnussen still put in a performance to be proud of. The Dane managed to drive so slowly as to back up the drivers behind him, thereby creating a DRS train so potent, that it allowed him to stretch out a huge gap to his teammate in front of him, thus allowing Hulkenberg to make his pit stop without losing position. Teamwork to be proud of.

One gets the sense that Bearman’s performance means that a full-time driver is going to end up finishing 21st in a 20-car championship, and at this point, it’s anyone’s game. Alex Albon managed some good battles with Ocon and Tsunoda despite front wing damage from his incident with Magnussen earlier on, but the Thai driver remains yet to score in 2024. Tsunoda’s own strong qualifying performance (slotting above Lance Stroll to start P9) was wrecked by a poor pit stop. Interestingly though, he still managed to finish ahead of his teammate, who had looked somewhat off the pace all weekend. The Australian driver ended up spinning all by himself on the penultimate lap after taking too much contact with a curb: it might be too early to draw conclusions, but I dare say Ricciardo to Red Bull is looking increasingly unlikely. But I digress. Max Verstappen won his 56th race and 100th podium finish, Ollie Bearman became the first British driver to score points on debut since 2011, and Kevin Magnussen proved that there is more than one way to drive to a successful race. Overall, plenty of action to mull over in the long, long (it’s two weeks) wait until the Australian Grand Prix. See you down under!