First off, we’re talking about a near-oval layout measuring just over 2 miles and a race distance just shy of 90 laps.
While we expect traffic to be one of the biggest problems, this isn’t merely going to affect the opening couple of laps, for the leaders are likely to be lapping the backmarkers two or three times over the course of the evening.
Following an overnight engine change, Lando Norris will start from the back of the grid alongside Pietro Fittipaldi who also received a number of additional engine elements.
While the Haas driver is likely to spend much of the evening battling at the rear of the field, Norris will be wanting to join the front of the midfield scrap as early as possible.
The battle between McLaren, Racing Point, Renault and Ferrari for third in the standings was always going to be one of the key elements to the race, but now we have AlphaTauri storming up on the outside.
This weekend, rather than skipping over the inevitable Mercedes win, we have the prospect of a real battle here also. With Lewis Hamilton laid low by COVID, this is Valtteri Bottas‘ opportunity to silence his sceptics and stake his early claim to the 2021 title.
However, there is the little matter of George Russell. Following two strong opening sessions, the Briton struggled noticeably in FP3 before getting it all together again in time for qualifying.
Though he insists he has nothing to prove, a strong result will serve notice to Mercedes that he is ready to step up, though it remains to be seen if that is to Valtteri’s car or Lewis’.
At the same time however, a win on his first time out in the car would surely give some weight to those who still argue that Hamilton’s seven titles are the result of having the best car.
With the Mercedes pair told they are free to race, Max Verstappen can only sit back and hope to benefit from any silliness. That said, his strong pace on Friday while on the long runs suggests he could pull of a surprise of his own this evening.
Someone who really needs to pull off a surprise is Alex Albon, who for a cat-lover is showing a worrying trend of using up his nine lives. We know he has talent, but it is difficult to keep making excuses when he underperforms as he did yesterday.
He’s been told the 2021 seat is his to lose, however, despite the backing of Messrs Horner and Marko he appears to be throwing it away with both hands.
While Marko continues to disappoint, Perez continues to impress and this evening offers the Mexican another opportunity to shine, likewise Daniel Ricciardo as Renault enjoys one of its roller-coaster weekends.
A two-stop strategy seems set to be the fastest approach. While the demands on tyres are a bit less than they were last weekend, wear and degradation is still relatively high on the abrasive surface.
The fastest two-stopper should be two stints on the mediums of 26 laps each, plus one 35-lap stint on the hards (which could be the middle stint).
Alternatively, another good two-stopper would be one 21-lap stint on the softs plus two stints on the hards of 33 laps each. Very close to that is a strategy with 25 laps on the mediums and two stints of 31 laps each on the hards.
What’s slower is using all three tyres: 23 laps on the soft, 27 laps on the medium, and 37 laps on the hard.
All of the above stints can be run in any order, and with the two Mercedes starting on the medium tyre, they have plenty of options – depending on the actual degradation rates that they encounter during the race, with track temperatures capable of falling over the course of the night race.
The pitlane opens and the drivers begin heading out and Verstappen is already being warned about the track limits at Turn 8. Teammate Albon warns that the track is very dusty (sand), thanks to the gusty wind.
Air temperature is 21.5 degrees C, while the track temperature is 24.2 degrees. There is 0% chance of rain.
Other than the Mercedes pair, Ocon, Albon, Vettel, Giovinazzi, Aitken and Raikkonen are on mediums, the rest are on softs.
As the field heads off on the warm-up lap, Ricciardo is warned not to stray off the racing line due to the dust.
Russell is slow to get away on the warm-up lap, as a result he is passed by Verstappen.
The grid forms as Gasly reports he’s been hit on the hand by a stone (again).
Good starts from both Mercedes drivers, and as they head into Turn 1, Russell has the inside line. As Russell takes the lead, heading into Turn 2 there’s a wobble from Bottas. The Finn loses ground which allows Verstappen and Perez – who are side-by-side – and Leclerc to close in.
Through Turn 3 Bottas, Verstappen and Perez are three abreast, while further back there’s a great cloud of dust and smoke as Raikkonen spins.
In Turn 4, Bottas is ahead, with Perez behind and Leclerc now on the inside of Verstappen. However, as Verstappen suddenly loses ground, Perez moves to the inside where the Ferrari driver clips the rear-right of the Racing Point sending him into a spin, causing Leclerc and Verstappen to take avoiding action.
Unfortunately though they avoid the spinning Racing Point they are both in trouble. Leclerc has damaged the front-left of his car in the clash with Perez whilst Verstappen heads into the barriers. They are both out.
“F***, I couldn’t do anything, F***,” moans Verstappen, who proceeds to kick the barrier.
Perez pits as the Safety Car is deployed.
Russell leads Bottas, Sainz, Ricciardo, Kvyat, Stroll, Gasly, Ocon, Vettel and Norris.
The stewards have noted the Perez/Leclerc/Verstappen clash.
Albon was hit further back down the field, but he is assured that his car is fine.
The Safety Car is withdrawn at the end of lap 6. A Russell heads off into the distance, Sainz is all over the rear of Bottas. They are side-by-side in Turn 1 and as the McLaren driver takes second the Finn immediately retakes the position.
At the start of lap 8, Norris passes Vettel in Turn 1 to takes 9th. Russell leads by 1s.