Sergio Perez
Red Bull's Mexican driver Sergio Perez ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP

Red Bull Racing missed out on a potential front-row lockout at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix when pole favourite Max Verstappen suffered a mechanical failure. The reigning world champion felt something give way in his car at the start of Q2, forcing him to limp back to the pits. He will therefore start in 15th place while teammate Sergio Perez sits on pole for the second season in a row at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit.

Verstappen appeared to be on his way to an easy pole position after dominating throughout all three practice sessions this weekend. He also looked strong in Q1, but he encountered a driveshaft problem before he could complete a flying lap in Q2. This makes the championship battle very interesting, especially since Ferrari ace Charles Leclerc will be starting from P12 after a 10-place grid penalty.

It may be remembered that Leclerc and Verstappen battled for the championship in the early months of 2022 before the Dutchman pulled away in the middle of the season. Many expected the battle to resume this year, but Verstappen's victory at the opening race in Bahrain made it clear that he won't be the one playing catch-up this season. Leclerc was not only beaten by Verstappen, he failed to secure any points after his Ferrari's engine gave out during the race.

The subsequent engine change resulted in the grid penalty for Leclerc, and it seemed like Verstappen would be having the perfect opportunity to extend his lead. Alas, with him starting in 15th and Leclerc in 12th (after qualifying in P2), the battle will be more even on Sunday.

Meanwhile, both of them will be worried about their respective teammates Sergio Perez and Carlos Sainz, who will be starting from pole and P4 respectively. It maybe remembered that last season, both Perez and Sainz showed that they have championship ambitions of their own.

This early in the campaign, both drivers will be eager to rack up the points in order to avoid playing the support role to their teammates for the rest of the season. Perez had been praised for being Verstappen's ultimate wingman on his was to back-to-back titles in 2021 and 2022, but the Mexican has declared that he won't be giving any cheap favours this year.

Sainz has also been vocal about his desire to prove himself and does not want to fall into the comfort zone of simply being there to help Leclerc. Ferrari team principal Fred Vasseur has also confirmed that they are not designating a number one driver until it becomes clear that one of them has the better chance of securing the world championship.

Perez posted an impressive 1m 28.265 to secure pole position, but the Red Bulls and Ferraris can't ignore the presence of Aston Martin driver Fernando Alonso. The two-time world champion qualified behind Leclerc, but will be promoted to second place after the Monegasque drops down to serve his grid penalty.

A front row start for Alonso will surely have him fired up, and Perez will be careful not to lose the lead in a track where it will be nearly impossible to overtake. During the press conference, the Mexican also spoke about being careful around the narrow track where it would be so easy to clip a barrier and pick up some damage.

Alonso is in the best position to win races since he left Ferrari almost a decade ago. However, he remains cautious and realistic about the Aston Martin's pace. When asked about his chances against Perez, he said: "I think we are not in that position yet. I think on pure pace, I think Red Bull is in another league. And I think we have to concentrate more on the teams behind."

Speaking of the teams behind, Alonso stated that he is keen on making sure that he keeps the Ferrari and Mercedes cars behind. Even though Leclerc has dropped further down the grid, he will have George Russell's Mercedes and Carlos Sainz hot on his heels. He will be counting on teammate Lance Stroll to put pressure on the two drivers in order to help him keep the podium position.

Meanwhile, Leclerc also admitted that the Red Bull cars seem to have a real pace advantage against the Ferraris. In the press conference, he said: "I feel like Red Bull are quite far ahead. And that is our goal, to beat them. So there's still a lot of work to do. Having said that, I think it's a bit better than what we expected for this qualifying session."