The penultimate round of this year's Formula 1 season brings us to the sandy sweeps and straights of Jeddah for the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. A circuit as zany, dramatic and thrilling as the 20 races that have preceded it, and sure to throw a giant curveball into the closing stages of the title fight.
In many ways, is this the decider? You could argue that the re-designed Yas Marina in one week's time is a Mercedes safe haven, meaning the unknowns of F1's newest street track may prove to be the final hope for Red Bull.
But wait - come Sunday afternoon, we could be crowning a new champion!
It's Round 21 of the 2021 Formula One World Championship.
A 6.174 km, flat-out blast on the shores of the Red Sea. An expected average speed north of 250kph. Triple DRS. A desert dance between the barriers. A recipe for chaos!
Verstappen and Red Bull enter the weekend as underdogs. Comfortably beaten in the last two events, an old (ailing?) PU, and a track layout that's assumed to work against them. Conversely, Verstappen's strength all season has been extracting every last tenth from his RB16, a trait that should pay extra dividends at such a unique track. Will the flappy DRS wing return to hamper Red Bull's medium downforce setup? And what about the freshly-laid tarmac, an extra layer to unlock in the puzzle of Pirelli tyres?
Hamilton and Mercedes are in a position in which they've so often thrived - the hunters. After 20 gruelling events, only now is the Mighty Mercedes Magic starting to take effect. The power sensitivity of the Jeddah track will be eaten up by the rocketship PU5 installed in Brazil, while the quick corners, changes of direction and night-time temperatures suit the revitalised W12. But nothing is certain in this crazy season, and there's plenty of pitfalls around each (blind) corner to throw them off the unstoppable rhythm that's been building.
The Midfield Fight
After establishing a 39.5 WCC lead after Qatar, the fight for third is likely concluded. But with two low-drag circuits to round off the season, McLaren can't give up hope just yet. After a paltry 4 point return from the last three events, a reset is needed if they want to repeat their 2020 comeback versus Racing Point to steal P3 at the line.
Ferrari shouldn't be too worried, however. Strong at street circuits all season, with a class-leading ERS that should shine thanks to Jeddah's high on-throttle time and lack of heavy braking zones. Can either gatecrash the title battle? Watch out.
The battle for fifth, too, has likely concluded after Alonso's triumphant return to the podium last time out, but the 25pt gap isn't insurmountable for an Alpha Tauri team that often has the third-fastest car. Tsunoda's pace has improved since receiving the upgraded Honda PU in Mexico, but still isn't enough to back up team leader Gasly. The expected new surface low-deg should temper the front limitation that plagued their Qatar weekend.
The only inconsistency in Alpine's metronomic points-scoring consistency has been their flip-flopping from the top of the midfield to the bottom. Another strong weekend will put them out of sight.
Aston Martin will look to build on only their third double points score of the year in Qatar. Vettel's underlying pace seems to have ticked up a notch recently, if only he could string together a clean weekend. A welcome return to form for Stroll as he secured his best finish of the year.
Alfa's forlorn chase of Williams seems to be another done deal, but there's still a chance of a crazy race to make up the 12pt deficit. Two to go for both Kimi and Gio's F1 careers, albeit under very different circumstances.
Haas will be encouraged by one of their strongest showings of the year, courtesy of Mick's gutsy drive in Qatar. Mazepin, however, will be discouraged after probably his worst, albeit with a heavy dose of mitigating circumstances. A tough weekend ahead for the rookie pair.
Last, but not least, a word for Williams. A sombre weekend ahead with the spirit of Frank racing with them. Apt in many ways we are in Saudi, the country that helped to fund Frank's dream many decades ago. Valiantly defending an over-achieved P8 WCC, not the most glamorous of endeavours, but a proud battle from a proud team with a bright future.
Fri - Dry, 29c
Sat - Dry, 27c
Sun - Dry, 28c
The standard selection of compounds from Pirelli. The golden question is how the fresh tarmac will affect the grip levels. Front pressures increased slightly after the Qatar blow ups.
Tyre pressures: 23.5 psi (front) | 20.5 psi (rear)
GMT CET FP1 1330 1430 FP2 1700 1800 FP3 1400 1500 Q 1700 1800 R 1730 1830
Time zone conversion here.
The elusive Formula 2 and Porsche Sprint Challenge supporting. Full schedule.
Thoughts, championship predictions, safety car probabilities and flexible rear-wing watch all welcome below