The Las Vegas weekend drama matched the months of hype the Formula One return to sin city had promised. On Friday the chaos in practice looked as though it would overshadow the weekend in Nevada, though come race day – all was forgiven.
F1 experts, team bosses and drivers had no idea whether the Vegas circuit would deliver great racing, or as so often is with street races, a procession in the starting order to the chequered flag would be the result.
Ferrari suffer in Las Vegas showdown
Yet a combination of newly laid asphalt, cold temperatures and low grip conditions together with intense breaking zones following the cars reaching top speed along the strip did in fact result in a thrilling Grand Prix and for most of the race an uncertain result.
Ferrari promised much during the practice sessions under the neon lights as their car looked to excel in the low grip and cold temperatures. This resulted in Charles Leclerc snatching pole position and his team mate claiming P2 with the Red Bull of Max Verstappen well beaten in the final one lap shootout.
Unfortunately Sainz suffered a 10 place grid drop penalty having been forced to fit one too many battery units to his car than the regulations allow for the season. This promoted the number one Red Bull driver to P2 but Max faced starting the race on what looked an extremely dusty side of the track.
When the lights went out, despite the slippery surface, Verstappen scrambled past Charles Leclerc taking the lead into turn 1. Yet the stewards decided he had forced the Ferrari driver off the track and Max received a five second penalty he had to serve at the first change of tyres.
Verstappen penalised by stewards
There was a scent of change in the air, as during the ensuing laps Verstappen failed to establish his usual several second lead. Leclerc keep the gap to around two seconds and so inevitably the Ferrari driver was set to regain the lead of the race when Red Bull called in their driver who was suffering with tyre graining.
The early stop meant Max would probably not be able to make it to the end of the race and was now committed to stopping again later in the race. Ferrari seized their opportunity leaving Leclerc out believing he could compete the 50 laps with just one stop saving around 21 seconds against Red Bull’s two stop strategy.
The news was not great for Verstappen, who following his time penalty and tyre change now found himself in 11th place with cars to overtake if he was to have a chance making the podium. Ferrari looked strong as Charles Leclerc reeled off lap after lap as Verstappen struggled to make his way through the field.
Meanwhile Sergio Perez who had been involved in a first lap incident, had fitted a new wing and the hard tyres and had made his way through to sit ahead of his team mate and around 11 seconds behind Charles Leclerc.
Ferrari split second decision fatal
The inevitable occurred when Ferrari decided to end their first stint and switch their lead driver’s tyres. Perez took the lead, though Leclerc emerged ahead of Max Verstappen.
Then came the second safety car of the race and Red Bull Racing brought in both their cars replacing Perez ageing tyres and those on Verstappen’s car that had been pushed as he’d pressed on through the field back to P3.
In a split second, Ferrari compromised their lead drivers race deciding to retain track position and leave him out on tyres several laps old with around half the race yet to complete.
This proved to be a bridge too far for the Monegasque driver who succumbed to both Perez and Verstappen flying on their fresh rubber.
Leclerc gracious despite losing victory
Verstappen quickly regained the lead and with Perez in second a Red Bull 1-2 looked certain. However, Perez was running more rear wing and had less top speed down the long back straight. This allowed Leclerc to retake second place as both cars entered the final corners of the penultimate lap.
What could have been for Ferrari had they too stopped Leclerc under the safety car when Red Bull called both their drivers in?
Charles Leclerc explained after the race:
“We got a bit unlucky with the Safety Car. We didn’t pit because we didn’t know what the others would do. We went for track position and keeping that first place and that was difficult with the older tyres towards the end. Second place with a lot of fights, honestly, I enjoyed it.”
Red Bull dominance ended
Unlike on previous occasions when Ferrari have thrown their drivers under the bus with woeful strategic decisions, Charles appeared upbeat despite having now failed to convert his last 12 pole positions into a race win.
Giving a last message for Ferrari fans in attendance, Leclerc added: “I’m sorry about the second place, I gave it my all. But on the other hand, I am sure that everybody had an amazing time looking at the race.
“I really really enjoyed it. We should have more races like that were the racing is like that because it was really enjoyable.”
There was good reason for Ferrari and Leclerc to be delighted because unlike at most races this season, the gap to Verstappen at the chequered flag was minimal. The Ferrari car had proven to be match for the dominant RB19 and with a different strategy call, could easily have seen a driver for the Scuderia on the top step of the podium in Las Vegas.
Verstappen changes his tune
Verstappen was elated following his victory and clad in his Elvis style race suit took the post race plaudits with delight. Yet this was a different Max Verstappen than the one who had grumpily claimed he felt like a “clown” at the opening ceremony – accused the Vegas event of being “99% and 1% sporting event” – and described the track as boring before adding “I’ve had better tracks in my life”.
The world champion joined his team over the radio in a rendition of “Viva Las Vegas” on his slow down lap and admitted he can’t wait to come beck in 2024.
“It was a it was a lot of fun there,” the Dutchman told David Coulthard after hopping out of his victorious Red Bull. Maybe being forced to work as hard as he has needed to all year for this win, made Verstappen realise real racing too is a lot of fun.