The Hard Rock Stadium home of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins is a venue well used to hosting champions – even if the Dolphins themselves haven’t come close for a generation.
It was perhaps fitting, then, that Formula 1’s inaugural Miami Grand Prix held around the stadium grounds would see reigning world champion Max Verstappen claim victory in what may well have been his best performance of the season so far.
It was not supposed to be Verstappen’s turn. He and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc had traded wins over the opening four races: Leclerc, Verstappen, Leclerc, Verstappen. And the pattern appeared likely to continue in Florida after Leclerc and Ferrari exploited an error by the Red Bull driver on his final lap in qualifying to secure pole and a front row lock-out for Sunday’s race.
But despite the strong starting position, Ferrari were all too aware about the threat Verstappen posed with Red Bull’s clear top speed advantage over them down the two longest straights over the 5.4 kilometre course.
“It’s going to be very difficult,” Leclerc admitted after qualifying. “We’ve got this advantage in the corners, hopefully they will be too far to have an opportunity of overtaking us in the straight.”
Verstappen may have been in contention to challenge the Ferraris from third on the grid, but he was the least prepared for a race than he had been heading into any Sunday so far in 2022. Overheating troubles on Friday hadn’t just cost him valuable laps in practice, they had denied him the opportunity to carry out any practice starts from the grid over the weekend.
“I didn’t even do a start,” Verstappen later explained. “So I didn’t know what to expect in the actual start.”
However, as the lights went out at the Miami International Autodrome for the first time in front of the thousands in the grandstands and hundreds in the trackside swimming pools, Verstappen’s first getaway of the weekend was good enough to allow him to immediately challenge Carlos Sainz Jnr for second heading into turn one.
“We had a good launch,” Verstappen said. “I saw the opportunity to go around the outside in turn one so I tried and, luckily, it worked.”
Being on the outside of the first corner gave him the inside line for the left hander of turn two, allowing Verstappen to demote Sainz down to third. Behind, Sergio Perez retained fourth ahead of Valtteri Bottas, with Pierre Gasly in sixth. After gaining two places taking to the outside of turn one, Fernando Alonso then muscled past Lewis Hamilton by bumping the Mercedes’ wheels at turn two, before out-dragging Hamilton on the run to turn four.
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All who had started in the top 10 had chosen medium compound tyres to start the race, with track temperatures sitting at 40C – certainly hot, but not quite as high as earlier in the weekend. Leader Leclerc’s early pace seemed decent enough on the yellow-walled tyres, pulling out of DRS range by the time the system was activated on the third lap. But after lap five, Verstappen gradually began to inch closer to the leader, clocking four consecutive laps within a tenth of each other as Leclerc’s times suddenly fell by half a second, bringing the Red Bull within range.
“I just couldn’t get into the DRS initially,” Verstappen later explained. “But then, at one point, I think Charles started to struggle a bit more with the front tyres, and it seemed like our car was very good on the medium compound.”
By the end of lap seven, Verstappen was within DRS range. Using the Red Bull’s formidable straight-line speed and the overtaking aid to his benefit, Verstappen pulled close behind the Ferrari along the back straight approaching the turn 17 hairpin.
But with the patchwork asphalt around the hairpin laid down to cover damage from spilled hydraulic fluid offering little traction, Leclerc got a very poor exit out of the turn, allowing Verstappen to sit inches away from Leclerc under the Ferrari’s rear wing through the final two corners.
As the pair crossed the line to begin the ninth lap, Verstappen pulled to the inside of the Ferrari along the start-finish straight, the pair side-by-side for the latest time in 2022. Despite many drivers fearing the minimal grip off-line would make overtaking almost impossible, Verstappen found plenty of purchase on the inside into turn one and swept into the lead, Leclerc only able to offer a half-hearted look around the outside into turn two before having to surrender.
The move had caught Leclerc by surprise as he admitted he had not anticipated that a move to the inside of turn one would have been on that weekend.
“With the experience I had from practice inside there, it was a disaster, the grip on Friday and Saturday,” Leclerc explained after the race. “I did not expect Max to have that much grip.
“But actually, I think it was much better for the race today. I thought that, at that moment, it was the right thing to stay on the racing line and try to optimise the braking point, which I did – but it didn’t work out.”
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With the lead now his, Verstappen began to pull gently away from Leclerc, opening up a modest gap of just over three seconds, with Sainz a further three behind in third. Sergio Perez was considerably closer to the second Ferrari, sitting around a second away, until the end of lap 18.
“I’m losing power,” Perez reported, prompting anxiety on the Red Bull pit wall. “Yeah, I’m losing a lot of power.” Within half a lap, he’d dropped over 1.5 seconds to Sainz.
“Oh, fuck’s sake,” Perez spat. “What’s going on?”
However, Red Bull were happy with what they could see on the data. “It’s all looking good,” engineer Hugh Bird replied. “Power unit’s all looking good.”
But despite his team’s insistence, Perez lost a further 1.6 seconds down the length of the back straight alone, continuing to lose seconds on the flat out run from turn eight to turn 11. However, after following his team’s instructions to switch to “fail 5-0”, Perez suddenly found his power had returned. Altogether, the problem cost Perez six seconds over two laps.
Soon, many of those in the midfield began to pit and switch from the mediums to the hard tyre, but the leaders chose to extend as much as they could until Ferrari eventually called Leclerc in at the end of lap 24, Red Bull emulating them two laps later.
Then it was the turn of Sainz, but a delay on his front-right wheel cost him several seconds. However, the brief loss of power that had afflicted Perez had ensured there was enough of a gap for Sainz to hold onto his third position.
After all of the medium tyre starters had cycled onto the hards, those who had begun the race on the hard compound found themselves far higher in the order than where they had started, with George Russell sitting in fifth and Esteban Ocon up to eighth after starting from the very back of the grid.
In the pack, Alonso was now close enough to Pierre Gasly in ninth to finally try and attack the AlphaTauri he had spent the entire race behind. Much like Verstappen had to Leclerc earlier in the race, Alonso managed to tuck up behind Gasly at the hairpin before getting DRS along the pit straight.
Alonso’s eventual lunge to the inside of Gasly into turn one was not the two-time world champion’s most skilfully-judged move. From two car-lengths back, Alonso stuck his nose in a gap that was always going to disappear, making wheel-to-wheel contact with the AlphaTauri, sending Gasly wide and allowing Alonso by as Lance Stroll took advantage to slip by Gasly also.
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“I think he closed the door at the last minute,” Alonso insisted. But the stewards disagreed, handing him a five-second time penalty for the incident.
Initially, Gasly appeared to have only lost position from the contact. But as he continued around the circuit, he reported his car did not feel at full health. “The steering is bent,” he stated.
As Gasly carried on, he suddenly ran very wide at the long marina turns of six, seven and eight, dropping him behind both Haas of Mick Schumacher and Kevin Magnussen.
“We’re happy with the car,” engineer Pierre Hamelin assured his driver. “Nothing we can see on the data.” But Gasly was not convinced.
“Nah, I have a problem. I have a problem. The car doesn’t turn… oh!”
Gasly’s sudden surprise on the radio was prompted by Lando Norris, who had clipped him as he exited turn eight onto the winding straight and was now skidding down the track minus a right-rear tyre before coming to a rest next to the barriers.
“I’m out boys,” Norris bluntly reported to engineer Will Joseph. “Fuck. I’m sorry about that. I don’t know what happened.”
As Norris’s McLaren was spinning down one straight, Russell was in the process of flying down the back straight in the final sector.
“So be on standby for a Safety Car,” Russell’s engineer Riccardo Musconi told his driver as soon as he saw the images on his monitor. Then, “VSC. VSC. Box, box.”
With the Virtual Safety Car deployed, Mercedes had been gifted the perfect opportunity to pit Russell. As the field had been forced to slow, Russell managed to change onto mediums and rejoin the circuit having only dropped two places behind Bottas and Hamilton to seventh, with the advantage of fresher and faster tyres than the pair. Alpine waited a full lap before bringing Ocon in for his first stop, by which time Race Control had upgraded the Safety Car from a virtual one to a full deployment.
What had been a 7.5 second lead for Verstappen had been reduced to almost nothing, but he had every reason to feel confident given how he appeared to have had the measure of Leclerc after passing the Ferrari. When the race restarted at the start of lap 47, Verstappen got a clean jump and held the lead, but Sainz’s poor traction out of the hairpin left him vulnerable to Perez.
Sensing danger, Sainz covered the inside line aggressively, forcing the Red Bull to try the outside. However, Sainz had the ability to position his car into turn one and hold onto his third place for the time being.
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Russell in seventh was enjoying the grip from his fresh medium tyres and was right behind team mate Hamilton who himself was pressuring his former Mercedes team mate Bottas ahead. Rounding the turn 17 hairpin almost together, Bottas misjudged the exit and almost touched the wall, allowing both Mercedes through into fifth and sixth.
It did not take long for Russell to challenge his team mate and by the next lap he was side-by-side on the outside of Hamilton heading into turn 11. Russell went out of the white lines on the exit, before rejoining the track for the long right hander of turn 12 on the inside of Hamilton, eventually making his way past. Russell promptly pulled away from his team mate, until Musconi came over the radio a couple of minutes later with an edict from the FIA.
“So, George, we need to give the place back to Lewis, because we went off track when we overtook,” he explained. “The earlier you give the place back, the more chance you have to attack. Race control asked the question.”
Russell obliged, blending out of the throttle to allow Hamilton to catch him along the back straight before letting him by into turn one. Hamilton’s return to fifth was short-lived, however, as Russell slipstreamed back alongside his fellow Mercedes driver on the run to turn 11 and move back into fifth once again.
Out front, Leclerc was doing all he could to try and catch Verstappen. He got within close enough proximity to make Red Bull nervous, but not enough to attempt a pass. Perez behind, however, was close enough to Sainz at the start of lap 52 to try a lunge up the inside for third place at turn one and appeared for a moment to have achieved it, before he missed the apex and ran wide, allowing the Ferrari back through to reclaim the place.
Eventually, whether through lack of tyre life or pure exhaustion, Leclerc’s push for the lead wilted, allowing Verstappen to enjoy the final handful of laps in relative comfort. It had been possibly the most challenging weekend of the year so far for Verstappen, not least due to his reduced running on Friday, yet he had still succeeded in harnessing the race pace from the RB18 and it had repaid his efforts by not faltering once despite the heat.
Verstappen took the chequered flag to claim his third victory of the season, his second in a row, and complete his record of winning every race he has finished in in 2022. As at the sprint race in Imola two weeks ago, and in Jeddah before that, he had fought his way past his championship rival on-track to win.
Once again he cut into Leclerc’s buffer at the top of the standings. Having been 46 points adrift just two races ago, Verstappen could take the championship lead at the next race.
But despite having bested his rival in back-to-back weekends, Verstappen was not getting ahead of himself about what it could mean for the rest of the year.
“We’re still having a few issues we have to solve,” he said. “I mean we are quick, but as you can see, my Friday was terrible which is not great if you want to have a good weekend.
“Also Checo had a few issues in the race, so we have to be on top of that, but clearly there is a lot of potential, we just need to make sure it’s reliable.”
Having to settle for second, Leclerc had to accept that he was now in for a tough season ahead to try and hold onto his lead in the championship.
“I think we have been in only one position since the beginning of the season, which means we are hunted for now,” Leclerc said. “I quite like this position to be honest, because it means that you are doing something right.
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“But it is also true that it’s two races that the gap is slowly closing down. But I don’t really mind to be honest whichever position I am in, I just want to be the most competitive out there. And, at the moment, it seems that Red Bull has the upper hand in the in the races.”
For Sainz, just being on the podium was a relief after managing just one completed racing lap over the last two grands prix.
“It’s not so much a relief – but it’s needed, he said. “I think I needed to complete a race distance, to get the body back to shape, and also get the feel for the car on used tyres, high fuel.
“The important thing is that we got a full race in, but at some stages of the race I was pretty quick and also the battles and the feeling with the car in battle with Checo, you know what to do with the battery, with the tyres – I think it gave me a good understanding of what to do in the future.”
Russell led both Mercedes home in fifth and sixth, believing that Mercedes had achieved the best result they could have on the day but accepting that fortune had played a part to get him there. Bottas finished in seventh, with Alonso eighth on the road but demoted out of the points after two five second time penalties were applied.
That put Esteban Ocon into eighth – helped by Sebastian Vettel and Mick Schumacher clashing in the later laps – with Alex Albon promoted to ninth for his and Williams’ second points finish in three races. Lance Stroll claimed the final point in tenth.
If you loved the concept of the Miami Grand Prix or despised it from the start, what took place over the 57 laps on Sunday likely left you feeling validated either way. The question of whether the future of Formula 1 lies in more races of this nature is one that will continue to be debated. But right now, the more important question is whether Ferrari can find an answer for Red Bull and Verstappen’s increasingly impressive form.
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2022 Miami Grand Prix
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