Red Bull’s Max Verstappen will start the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in 15th place but none of his rivals ruled out the Formula One championship leader, who was in contention for victory on Sunday.
The two-time world champion retired from qualifying on Saturday due to a sudden drive shaft failure after dominating every practice session.
Mexico team-mate Sergio Perez will instead start from first place for the second straight Jeddah race, but he is aware a safety car interlude ruined his chances in 2022 when Verstappen won.
The Dutchman started fourth back then.
“I think tomorrow he will undoubtedly be at least on the podium,” said Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso, who will start on the front row.
“As Fernando says, so many things can happen in a race, you know, but I expect him to come back,” agreed Perez, who said he would focus on his own race and not the “lion behind.”
Mercedes driver George Russell, who qualified third at a track where overtaking is relatively easy, expected to see Verstappen in his mirrors.
“When you have such a fast car, you can do whatever you want,” said the Brit, who predicted after the season opener in Bahrain that Red Bull could win every race this season.
“We saw what Max did from 15th at Spa last year and he has a faster race car this year.”
Verstappen won from 14th on the grid last year in Belgium after being one of eight drivers to suffer an engine penalty while Perez started second.
“Maybe they did it on purpose to win from the start,” joked Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff.
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, who will start 12th after the second qualifying session but is 10 places off the grid, said Red Bull is on another planet.
Former Mercedes driver and 2016 World Champion Nico Rosberg also joined Sky Sports. “(Ab) 15th seems like a bit too much to ask. But with this lucky safety car it could be possible,” he said.
Fellow expert and 1996 champion Damon Hill agreed: “Max has the car for it, provided it’s reliable. “He’s got the car and the speed to work his way through the pack, he just needs to stay out of trouble.”
Red Bull boss Christian Horner preferred to praise Perez’s pole lap.
“It’s a great opportunity for Checo (Perez), it’s important to convert that (Pole),” he said. “Tomorrow there will be two different races in the Grand Prix.”