Carlos Sainz Jnr, Las Vegas, Ferrari, 2023

Ferrari are flying but cruel luck has already hurt their chances against Red Bull

2023 Las Vegas GP Friday practice analysis

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Nearly 600 days and half a billion dollars after the grand announcement of Formula 1’s newest and most hyped grand prix, drivers were finally let loose around the Las Vegas Strip Circuit for the first time in an official practice session.

Just eight minutes later, all running around the newly-certified FIA Grade One race track was halted, bringing first practice to an end after lasting for less time than drivers received during an emergency acclimatisation session at the Qatar Grand Prix one month prior.

Thankfully, the commitment and hard work of an army of professionals ensured that second practice eventually got underway, albeit after fans had been told to leave, in the early hours of Friday morning. An extended 90 minutes of running saw the field cover a combined 5,000 kilometres of vital data-gathering around the newest circuit on the F1 calendar.

But what was learned from that hour-and-a-half and what does Friday’s practice running suggest about what fans will see from Formula 1’s first midnight qualifying session?

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Las Vegas Strip Circuit, 2023
F1’s return to Vegas hit an early snag
Ahead of the weekend, there were many unknowns about the Las Vegas circuit, but a handful of factors were commonly recognised: It would be very fast. It would be very cold. And it would be very low in grip.

They were right about it being fast. Top speeds during the session clocked over 340kph – more than seven times over the Strip’s standard 30mph speed limit and without a single objection from the local Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

However, temperatures were not quite as chilly as many had feared. Ambient temperatures remained around 14 degrees in the 2am air and the track temperatures remained static around 16 degrees. That was a small mercy for teams and drivers, who could run direct comparisons between compounds and set-ups on their cars to see how the three tyre compounds responded.

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As for grip, there was little to go around. Although nothing near as difficult as many drivers have experienced before in their careers or even during this season, it was little surprise when even the likes of Max Verstappen complained about the low level of grip over the radio on their first laps around the circuit. Verstappen was one of 10 drivers who was recorded to have run off track at some point during the session, joining at least six other drivers by failing to make the apex of the tricky left-hander of turn 12 leading onto the Strip and having to swing his car around the spacious run-off to right his car.

Unlike many of their rivals, the Red Bull duo of Verstappen and Sergio Perez ran on the medium compound for their first run of the extended session, switching onto the softs later on. The Ferraris instead began their session running three separate sets of soft tyres, with the fastest times for both Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jnr coming from their third sets. Leclerc ultimately posted the day’s quickest time with a 1’35.265, going half a second quickest on his best lap than the rest of the field.

“It looks good for now,” Leclerc said. “We look quite strong for now.

“It’s difficult to understand exactly where we are in race pace, but in terms of quali pace we seem strong. However, we still have to work on trying to come forward for tomorrow – but it’s a good start.”

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There were many eye-opening things about Leclerc’s quickest time of the day. After so much talk about heating up tyres prior to the race weekend, what was perhaps more interesting was not his fastest time, but his flying lap before that. Around the same point in the session, Verstappen, Perez, Sainz and Leclerc all headed out on fresh soft tyres. While the former three all improved their best times with push laps straight after an out-lap, Leclerc took a second lap to warm up his new rubber. After pushing on the third lap out of the pits, Leclerc went quicker than all of them, including being around a tenth up on the three in the opening sector.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Las Vegas Strip Circuit, 2023
Verstappen is no fan of the track, but looks quick as ever
If that suggested that taking a little more time to get tyres up to temperature was worth the investment, the fact that Lewis Hamilton bailed out of a push lap attempt after a single out-lap while reporting his rear tyres were not ready could be another sign that the best times on fresh tyres could be on the third lap, not the second.

Although Leclerc ended his quickest lap of the day half a second up on the rest of his rivals, he made up the bulk of that time entering the sequence of corners between turns seven, eight and nine which will likely become know as the ‘Sphere section’. By braking much later and harder into the tricky curved entry of turn six, he managed to carry more speed into turn seven and then out of turn eight too, allowing him to gain a lot of tenths of his competition.

Down the long Strip straight, Leclerc continued to gain time on Verstappen thanks to a straight-line speed advantage of 4kph on the Red Bull. Verstappen was slower down the Strip than his team mate, suggesting he either was running slightly more wing than the sister Red Bull, or was not running his power unit to the same potential.

Leclerc’s impressive pace was mirrored by team mate Sainz, who was the closest driver to his faster team mate at the end of the 90 minutes. Typically, Ferrari might be feeling emboldened by this showing, with their low-downforce strengths from previous rounds like Baku and Monza appearing to be reflected in what many expected would good track for them in Vegas.

However, nothing ever seems to be that simple when it comes to Ferrari. Frustratingly, Sainz will be doomed to start Sunday’s grand prix – sorry, Saturday’s grand prix – 10 places lower than where he qualifies at midnight. Most infuriatingly, it will be for a reason that neither he nor his team had any realistic control over.

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“We seem to be on the competitive side this weekend and I’m looking forward to tomorrow,” Sainz said after practice. On the negative side, we have been given a 10-place penalty for Sunday after the manhole cover damaged, amongst other things, my battery and we had to replace it.

Carlos Sainz Jnr, Ferrari, Las Vegas Strip Circuit, 2023
It was Sainz’s turn to have the rotten luck at Ferrari
“I honestly cannot understand it and I think an exemption to the rule should have been considered given what happened, but we’ll have to deal with it.” It’s a bitter blow for Ferrari as they appear to be the sole team able to offer a challenge to Red Bull thus far.

McLaren, who have held that position at so many rounds since the summer break, did not factor at the front throughout the session, with Lando Norris admitting his team were “a long way off where we’ve been the last few weekends, but probably where we expected.” Mercedes were satisfied with their first two sessions of running, but they need to find a lot more speed over a single lap if they want to snatch a top five grid position for either Lewis Hamilton or George Russell at this rate.

The stage, then, is set for Verstappen to once again shatter all hopes of his rivals, secure yet another pole position and crush Leclerc’s hopes for another time in 2023. Verstappen may not have featured at the very top of the times, but all signs point to Red Bull focusing very much on their longer run pace – which seemed as strong as to be expected from the world champions.

But with the Las Vegas Strip Circuit still yet to reveal all of its secrets at this all-new event, only a true gambler would be willing to bet where the chips will fall come qualifying.

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Combined practice times

P. # Driver Team FP1 time FP2 time Gap Laps
1 16 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 1’40.909 1’35.265 43
2 55 Carlos Sainz Jnr Ferrari 1’45.824 1’35.782 0.517 43
3 14 Fernando Alonso Aston Martin-Mercedes No time 1’35.793 0.528 40
4 11 Sergio Perez Red Bull-Honda RBPT 1’46.793 1’36.085 0.820 40
5 77 Valtteri Bottas Alfa Romeo-Ferrari 1’47.147 1’36.129 0.864 40
6 1 Max Verstappen Red Bull-Honda RBPT 1’44.397 1’36.183 0.918 41
7 27 Nico Hulkenberg Haas-Ferrari 1’43.446 1’36.489 1.224 37
8 18 Lance Stroll Aston Martin-Mercedes No time 1’36.496 1.231 42
9 44 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1’48.513 1’36.663 1.398 46
10 23 Alexander Albon Williams-Mercedes No time 1’36.688 1.423 44
11 4 Lando Norris McLaren-Mercedes 1’48.947 1’36.864 1.599 36
12 63 George Russell Mercedes 1’45.497 1’36.890 1.625 41
13 20 Kevin Magnussen Haas-Ferrari 1’44.261 1’36.917 1.652 41
14 81 Oscar Piastri McLaren-Mercedes No time 1’36.987 1.722 37
15 10 Pierre Gasly Alpine-Renault 1’48.253 1’37.134 1.869 38
16 31 Esteban Ocon Alpine-Renault 1’45.365 1’37.241 1.976 42
17 22 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri-Honda RBPT 1’45.908 1’37.412 2.147 46
18 24 Zhou Guanyu Alfa Romeo-Ferrari 1’48.822 1’37.656 2.391 41
19 3 Daniel Ricciardo AlphaTauri-Honda RBPT 1’48.650 1’37.680 2.415 44
20 2 Logan Sargeant Williams-Mercedes No time 1’38.140 2.875 42

2023 Las Vegas Grand Prix

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Author information

Will Wood
Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...

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10 comments on “Ferrari are flying but cruel luck has already hurt their chances against Red Bull”

  1. It can actually help Ferrari win as Sainz can now give Leclerc an optimal tow & the chance is higher that they pick a good strategy since they tend to get very confused managing two cars.

    1. If Sainz were destined to a back row start, but as P11 is the highest possible, sacrificing him would be unideal.

  2. “…hard work of an army of professionals…”
    An army of actual professionals would have had a track prepped and ready a month ago and just sit back for the show. I’m starting to think the Mafia still runs Vegas and everyone involved in this debacle is scared to death of them.

    1. Haha, got me thinking THIS is the F1 movie we really need. I can just imagine some mafia boss in a back room with a baseball bat telling a Liberty media mogul “You want the fans to watch the race? You got to pay for the fans protection…”

  3. So Ferrari is going to get penalized for an incident that was not their fault but rests squarely on the FIA.

    Nine out of the 10 teams voted Ferrari should not be penalized but a certain team who is competing with them for second place in the constructors championship voted they should.

    Maybe I’m being a bit presumptuous insinuating Mercedes is the culprit but Toto Wolff has proven in the past to be not such a nice, sporting guy.

    But it shouldn’t have come down to that in the first place. Giving one team the power to overrule in a situation like this, especially when tens of millions of $ is at stake, is beyond stupid.

    If the FIA can rescind a penalty for Aston Martin prematurely touching a jack to the car frame in pit lane then certainly they can change this.

    1. Biased against Mercedes much?

    2. If you watched FP2, they explained that the teams couldn’t overrule the stewards, even if they wanted to. They, I think it was Ted, said that the stewards themselves didn’t want to penalize but the rules are rules. Very unfortunate for Ferrari.

      If it actually was up for vote, I doubt Mercedes would be very kind to Ferrari or any team.

  4. I don’t quite get why Sainz was given a grid penalty: Surely red flagging the session means repairs can be done penalty free..

  5. Ferrari competitive early is good signs, but early day stills. Qualifying will be a good test of teams to adapt their cars setup to the data gathered over night. I’d love to know how far off that data is from their predictions coming in, but I’m sure all the questions asked will be about the “spectacular” drama.

  6. The way this was handled had NOTHING to do with “luck”. What impacted Ferrari’s chances wasn’t a flying drain cover, it was the absurd handling of what came after that.

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