Verstappen beats Leclerc and Perez to Las Vegas GP victory
Max Verstappen emerged on top at the end of an action-packed Las Vegas Grand Prix, beating Ferrari rival Charles Leclerc and Red Bull team mate Sergio Perez to the chequered flag in a race punctuated by several incidents and Safety Car periods. Verstappen took the lead from Leclerc at the start of the race but was promptly handed a five-second time penalty for forcing his rival off the track and then got overtaken by the pole-sitter before serving it at the first round of pit stops. Leclerc went longer into the race before changing tyres in an opening stint dominated by graining concerns, only for a Safety Car shortly afterwards to allow Verstappen and several other drivers to pit again under caution. At the decisive restart, Leclerc initially controlled proceedings from Perez, who had benefitted from an early stop after an incident on the first lap, though ageing tyres meant he came under severe pressure.
Verstappen lit up the timesheets in the final laps to clear both his team mate and the leading Ferrari for a landmark win in the City of Lights, while Perez had followed him through to form a one-two, only to be re-passed by a determined Leclerc on the final lap. Behind, a remarkable rise from Esteban Ocon netted fourth place for himself and Alpine, despite being narrowly beaten by Mercedes’ George Russell to the line. However, Russell had been carrying a five-second time penalty for a clash with Verstappen that brought out the aforementioned Safety Car. Russell’s penalty also promoted the Aston Martin of Lance Stroll to fifth, while Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz and the sister Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton – who clashed at Turn 1 – also benefitted to take sixth and seventh positions. Fernando Alonso and Oscar Piastri completed the points in their respective Aston Martin and McLaren machines, the Spaniard recovering from a Lap 1 spin and the Australian rookie the only papaya car to make it to the flag after team mate Lando Norris suffered a heavy crash early on.
Pierre Gasly had held points for the majority of the race after starting up in fourth, but a tumble down the order for the Alpine saw him cross the line in 11th, with Alex Albon suffering a similar fate in his Williams. Kevin Magnussen and Daniel Ricciardo had lonely races en route to P13 and P14 for Haas and AlphaTauri, with the Alfa Romeos of Zhou Gaunyu and Valtteri Bottas – the latter another caught out at Turn 1 – and Williams rookie Logan Sargeant among the final finishers. AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda and Haas’ Nico Hulkenberg both pulled off the track in the closing stages amid apparent technical trouble, meaning they joined Norris on the list of retirements and watched the finish from the sidelines. After a spectacular three days of action under the lights in Las Vegas, F1 will move swiftly on to the Yas Marina Circuit for the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix next weekend.
After a thrilling qualifying session around the all-new Las Vegas Strip Circuit, attention soon turned toward Saturday night’s 50-lap showpiece, with the race start and potential tyre graining earmarked by the drivers as two vital components to success under the lights. Leclerc would be the man starting on pole position, with Verstappen joining him on the front row, while an engine penalty saw Sainz drop all the way back to 12th, and a five-place grid drop for Stroll – due to a yellow flag breach in practice – put the Aston Martin 19th. When the tyre blankets came off, it was revealed that that majority of the field would be starting on the medium compound, while Hamilton, Zhou and Piastri had opted for hards and back-row starters Stroll and Tsunoda had gone aggressive on softs. At 22:00 local time the lights went out and the racing began, with Verstappen boldly diving up the inside of Leclerc into Turn 1 and sending both drivers wide as he moved into the lead, which he defended on the long run down to Turn 5 that followed. Behind, Russell held third from Gasly, Albon, Sargeant and Magnussen, while Ocon and Stroll both found themselves in the top 10 after spectacular opening laps, but there was drama elsewhere as Alonso spun on his own and Sainz understeered into Hamilton.
At this point, the Virtual Safety Car came out to allow for debris to be cleared, after which Perez and Bottas – who also made contact in the Turn 1 bottleneck – headed into the pits for repairs along with the recovering Alonso. “We’re happy that you were ahead,” was the radio message to leader Verstappen during the neutralisation, while Leclerc complained that “this needs to be addressed now” and it would be a “joke” if no penalty came the reigning world champion’s way. On Lap 3, the VSC ended and the racing resumed, but only for a matter of moments as Norris dramatically lost control of his car through Turn 11, slammed into the barriers and almost took out team mate Piastri, signalling a full Safety Car and prompting more pit stops from Stroll and Sainz. Verstappen handled the restart – and tricky, cool conditions – to retain his lead from Leclerc, but the stewards would soon confirm a five-second time penalty for the Dutchman for the Turn 1 drama. “Yeah, that’s fine, send them my regards!” Verstappen wryly commented in response. While Russell and Gasly kept Verstappen and Leclerc in their sights, there was a gap forming to the cars behind, with Albon and Sargeant still fifth and sixth for Williams, Ocon holding seventh, Piastri up to eighth as another to enjoy a strong start and Hamilton in ninth after a move on Magnussen.
After his impressive qualifying display and early laps, Sargeant’s tyres appeared to hit the cliff and he tumbled from sixth to the tail-end of the top 10 in a matter of laps, while Perez was back into the points and coming back into the game via his early stop. Up front, there were similar tyre-related struggles for Verstappen as he issued a sweary radio message about the state of his rubber and was told to pit, but not before Leclerc reclaimed the lead of the race on Lap 16, sending the packed grandstands wild. Another wheel-to-wheel battle saw Hamilton and Piastri make contact, giving the Mercedes a puncture and leaving the McLaren sparking its way back to the pits – an incident that the stewards looked at but decided required no further action. As the race approached Lap 20, the yet-to-stop Leclerc led Perez by some 14 seconds, with Ocon also stretching out his first stint in third from Stroll, Sainz, Alonso, Zhou (another yet to pit), Russell, Verstappen (having served his penalty) and Gasly. A couple of laps later, Leclerc finally visited the pits for a fresh set of tyres, following the trend of moving from mediums to hards, with the Monegasque coming back out in third behind Perez and Stroll, who continued to gain track position on their alternate strategies.
Meanwhile, an exciting scrap was developing between Sainz, Russell and Verstappen over fourth, fifth and sixth. On Lap 24, the Mercedes and Red Bull blasted past the Ferrari along the lengthy Strip straight, and then embarked on a battle of their own. It did not take long for Verstappen to attempt a move on Russell but there was not enough space for the pair at the apex of Turn 14 and they made contact, littering debris all over the track. “Mate, he just turns in on me!” Verstappen radioed his team, with the stewards subsequently handing Russell a five-second penalty. That debris brought out another Safety Car and served as the perfect time for Perez and Stroll to make cheap pit stops, with Verstappen, Russell, Sainz, Alonso, Zhou, Magnussen, Hulkenberg and Hamilton also taking the opportunity to put on new tyres under the caution. With the field following Bernd Maylander around, Leclerc remained in P1 ahead of Perez, Gasly and Piastri, with Verstappen fifth after a second stop that did not include a front wing change, followed by Ocon, Stroll, Albon, Russell and Sainz in the final points-paying positions. Replays then showed Leclerc having a moment as he lit up the rears trying to warm his tyres behind the Safety Car. “Ah, I nearly lost it! The tyres are cold,” he commented over the radio, adding a swear word for good measure.
While Leclerc retained his advantage over Perez at the restart, Piastri got the jump on Gasly for P3 with a lunge into Turn 5, as Verstappen held onto fifth and avoided another penalty for an unsafe release that saw him run side-by-side with Stroll in the pits. Perez soon began to put pressure on Leclerc and, during the 32nd of the 50 scheduled laps, duly slotted ahead into Turn 14, with the other Red Bull also on the move as Verstappen found a way past Gasly and Piastri in quick succession. Behind, a monumental scrap between the Alpine drivers saw Ocon and Gasly exchange places on several occasions, with the team requesting that they hold position to avoid any drama, while Albon, Stroll, Russell and Sainz remained as the final top-10 runners. Back at the front, there was another twist in the tale as Leclerc cut the gap to Perez and turned the tables on his rival with a lunge into Turn 14, the Mexican’s race taking another turn for the worse when team mate Verstappen slipped by on the back straight. Verstappen soon saw his opportunity at the popular Turn 14 overtaking spot and took the lead from Leclerc with just over 10 laps to go, before being told by his engineer to “work hard” to break the tow and move clear of the all-important DRS window.
Piastri remained fourth from the squabbling Alpines, who were then split by Stroll’s Aston Martin, as Russell, Sainz and Alonso held the final points after Albon lost a hatful of places in a matter of minutes as Williams’ race unravelled. When Perez began to ramp up the pressure on Leclerc once more, the Ferrari locked up into Turn 14 and handed his Red Bull rival the position, meaning a one-two result for the reigning world champions was suddenly on the cards. However, as the final laps ticked down, Leclerc remained within DRS range of Perez and threatened a response, which he ultimately delivered on the final tour with yet another successful overtake into the Turn 14 braking zone. Verstappen crossed the line a few seconds later to secure the victory, with Perez chasing Leclerc all the way and completing the podium positions – still doing enough to secure second in the drivers’ standings. Ocon was pipped by Russell to P4 at the finish, but the Mercedes man nonetheless dropped back to eighth – behind Stroll, Sainz and Hamilton – after the application of his penalty for clashing with Verstappen.
“It was a tough one,” said race-winner Verstappen. “I tried to go for it [with Leclerc] at the start. I think we both braked quite late, then I just ran out of grip and we ended up a bit wide, so the stewards gave me a penalty for that. Of course, that put us a little bit on the backfoot, I had to pass quite a few cars, then the Safety Car again. At the point already there was a lot going on in the race. “Once we had the message to the end we could go flat-out. You could clearly see with the DRS around here it was very powerful, so even when you would take the lead, if the guy behind would stay in the DRS, he would still have an opportunity to come back at you. I think it created quite a lot of good racing here today, so it was definitely a lot of fun.” The final stop on the 2023 F1 calendar will be Yas Marina for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend, which takes place from November 24-26.