Max Verstappen is both relieved and excited to finally get his Formula 1 world championship title defence off the ground. He won an intense Saudia Arabian Grand Prix on Sunday after a race-long battle with Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc.

The reigning Drivers' World Champion could not wish for a better comeback race after a disastrous opening leg at Bahrain last week. Not only were the Ferraris clearly faster, Verstappen and his Red Bull Racing teammate Sergio Perez were both forced to retire in the closing laps of the first ace of the season. As such, the Ferraris took an early lead in both championships thanks to a 1-2 finish by Leclerc and Carlos Sainz.

In Jeddah, Perez took pole position ahead of Leclerc and showed that Red Bull finally had the pace to compete against the Ferraris. Unfortunately, Perez lost track position and fell down to fourth after a safety car came out just after he made a pit stop.

That handed Leclerc the lead and the opportunity to secure back-to-back race victories. However, Verstappen was not having any of it. He decided to settle the score right on track and launched a proper dogfight against Leclerc.

The two drivers battled intensely and switched positions a number of times before the Dutchman was able to hold on to the top spot with just four laps to go. He had to defend against the Prancing Horse throughout every corner, but the Red Bull managed to hang on even as numerous cars started retiring further down the grid due to various reliability issues.

In the end, Verstappen sealed the victory along with the warning to Ferrari that the Red Bulls are already improving by leaps and bounds. The second Ferrari of Carlos Sainz took the final podium spot followed by Perez. After just two races, it has become clear the championship battle will likely be between these two teams as the Mercedes power unit fails to deliver once more.

George Russell only managed to finish fifth for Mercedes, with seven-time world champions Lewis Hamilton only finishing 10th in the other car.

The result meant that despite his podium finish last week, Hamilton is not looking like a strong contender this season. If the Silver Arrows don't find answers soon, then that eighth world championship title may not come for Hamilton this year.

Meanwhile, all the Ferrari powered cars remain strong, with even the Alfa Romeo and Haas cars performing much better than they did throughout 2021.

Max Verstappen
Verstappen soaks in Saudi win AFP / ANDREJ ISAKOVIC