JEDDAH (Reuters) – Formula One champion Max Verstappen roared past Ferrari rival Charles Leclerc four laps from the finish to snatch a last-gasp first win of the season at Sunday’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.
The 24-year-old, who had started fourth, crossed the line just half a second ahead of the Monegasque under the floodlights at the speedy Jeddah Corniche circuit, while Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz was third.
The Italian team had opened the season with a one-two last week in Bahrain and Sunday’s win put Red Bull, who drew a blank in Sakhir, back in the game.
“A good race, we were battling hard,” said Verstappen after taking his 21st career win and first points of the season.
“We just had to play the long game, the tyres were wearing out quite quick.
“It wasn’t easy, eventually managed to get ahead, just really happy to kickstart the season.”
Leclerc, who recorded the fastest lap, leads the overall standings by 12 points from team mate Sainz with 21 races to go. Verstappen is 20 points off Leclerc in third.
Ferrari continue to lead the constructors’ standings ahead of Mercedes with Red Bull vaulting up to third.
Leclerc and Verstappen were running second and third after the start.
Pole-sitter Sergio Perez appeared to have the race under control but an unfortunately-timed safety car, just after his pitstop, dropped him behind the Monegasque and his Red Bull team mate.
The Mexican lost another place when he was ordered to give up third position to Sainz, who had exited the pits alongside but slightly ahead of the 32-year-old under safety car conditions.
Leclerc established a comfortable lead over Verstappen as the race resumed and appeared set for a second straight win.
But a virtual safety car in the closing laps brought the race to life.
Leclerc and Verstappen swapped the lead several times, as they both tried to be behind the other turning onto the long start-finish straight in an attempt to benefit from the top-speed boost of the Drag Reduction System (DRS).
Verstappen eventually won the game of “DRS chicken” and swept past his Ferrari rival on the 47th of 50 laps.
“It wasn’t enough today but, oh my God, I really enjoyed that race!” said Leclerc.
“It was hard racing but fair, every race should be like this.”
George Russell took fifth for struggling champions Mercedes.
Lewis Hamilton, winner of last year’s inaugural Saudi race, went from 15th to 10th to claim the final point.
Mick Schumacher did not start. The German was fit to race following a qualifying crash but his Haas team withdrew his car to save parts.
AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda stopped while on his way to the grid.
Nicholas Latifi crashed his Williams bringing out the only safety car of the race, while Alpine’s Fernando Alonso, McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo and Alfa Romeo’s Valtteri Bottas ground to a halt in quick succession.