Verstappen denies Leclerc as F1’s Las Vegas spectacular lives up to its billing

2023 Las Vegas GP report

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The front row of the grid for the Las Vegas Grand Prix presented punters with a straightforward question: Bet on red, or bet on Red Bull?

While the pole-winner in F1 often gets short odds on victory, Charles Leclerc’s rate of winning from the sharp end of the grid is poor. He hadn’t won once all season, and this was his fifth start from the front.

But those who backed him for victory in Vegas would have fancied their chances of a big pay-out during much of the night’s race. The combination of long straights and cool temperatures brought Ferrari back to their best and made them a genuine threat to Red Bull.

Unfortunately for Ferrari, circumstances started to go against them long before race day. Carlos Sainz Jnr should have completed a clean sweep of the front row for the Scuderia after qualifying second. But he was demoted by a 10-place grid penalty for using his third energy store of the season, one more than the maximum, a situation which arose after he hit a loose water valve cover during practice, wrecking his chassis.

Ferrari should have had a front row lock-out
The stewards were undoubtedly correct in applying the letter of the law – something F1 has struggled with in the recent past. Unfortunately the rules were unable to accommodate what was plainly a force majeure situation.

Red Bull’s closest competitor was therefore weakened through no fault of their own. But the world champions weren’t at full strength either, however, as Sergio Perez had failed to reach Q3 for the ninth time this year, and therefore lined up one place in front of Sainz.

Between them and their team mates, the grid had an unusual complexion. George Russell took third ahead of Pierre Gasly and the Williams duo. Valtteri Bottas, Kevin Magnussen, Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton completed a jumbled top 10. But the field was jumbled again as the combination of a low-grip track surface and a liberal coating of oil from a classic car during the pre-race festivities made the start a lottery.

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Grip-less grid causes start chaos

With the run to turn one so short, Verstappen didn’t need a great launch from second place to attack Leclerc there, so when the Ferrari driver had a surge of wheelspin shortly after pulling away, he pounced. But Verstappen overestimated how much grip there was at the first corner – an error most of the field also seemed to make – and ran so wide Leclerc never had a chance to get around it either.

Verstappen ran wide, taking Leclerc with him
From 10th on the grid, Alonso tried the same inside line as Verstappen and suffered the same fate, only he had to apply more steering lock at the exit to avoid cars ahead, and spun. Bottas backed off to avoid him but was knocked into the Aston Martin by Perez, dealing damage to all three. Sainz joined the melee, hitting Hamilton who somehow managed to avoid spinning as well while also avoiding Bottas and Alonso, who were nose-to-nose.

The roulette wheel numbering on the outside of the first corner could hardly have been more appropriate. Tsunoda and Ocon were big winners, gaining eight places each, but Stroll really cleaned up, moving up 10 places, the opposite of his team mate.

Leclerc was on the radio complaining about Verstappen’s start as they exited turn three. “Copy, we are on it,” replied his race engineer Xavi Marcos Padros.

“This needs to be addressed now,” emphasised Leclerc as he left turn nine. His concern wasn’t merely that Verstappen had gained a position by going off-track and forcing him wide too, Interlagos 2021-style. Being out front allowed Verstappen to benefit from the freshest air and keep his tyres in better shape, in a race where limiting tyre graining would be key, and Ferrari hoped to press home their advantage over Red Bull.

Red Bull determined it was better to leave Verstappen ahead, enjoy the clean air and accept the five-second penalty if it came. “Max I think we’re happy you were ahead when you went off-track,” said his race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase. “Happy to stay there.”

“Oh, of course I was ahead,” Verstappen replied.

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The Virtual Safety Car was deployed to allow the mess at turn one to be cleared. There was just enough time for Perez, Alonso and Bottas to drag their damaged cars into the pits for repairs. Like the majority of drivers, they had picked the medium tyre compound to start on, so took the opportunity to switch to hards.

The race resumed, but for less than a minute and a half. Within that space of time 13th-placed Lando Norris had lost control of his car on a bump in turn 11, nearly caught the resultant slide, then creamed the barrier on his right before hurtling down the turn 12 escape road where another barrier halted his wild ride.

Poll: Rate the Race – 2023 Las Vegas Grand Prix
The McLaren driver was taken to hospital for checks and the team happily confirmed he was in “good condition”. The same couldn’t be said for his MCL60, so the Safety Car was deployed while it was cleared away.

Verstappen chose turn 14 to plant the throttle when the race restarted on lap six, smartly pulling away from Leclerc. Behind the Ferrari driver came Russell, Gasly, Albon and Sargeant in the order they started, pursued by Magnussen and Ocon.

Nico Hulkenberg moved up to ninth as Stroll had pitted to bin the soft tyres he started on. Tsunoda, 10th, stayed on his softs but wished he hadn’t as Oscar Piastri became the first in a succession of drivers to relegate him as they reached turn one.

The stewards announced Verstappen’s five-second penalty on lap eight. But Red Bull had already priced it in. “You have been given a five-second penalty for that incident,” Lambiase told his driver. “But you’re already two seconds ahead so just keep ekeing that gap out to the stop.”

“Yeah that’s fine, send them my regards,” replied the race leader.

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“There was a degree of irony in the message he was delivering,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner explained later. “I think that he felt that it didn’t warrant a penalty. But he kept his cool and he just got on with it.”

Unusually, Verstappen wasn’t able to leave Leclerc behind
But there was a snag: Verstappen’s lap times stopped improving on lap 11, and Leclerc began to reel him back in. Soon the leader was complaining about his tyres and being told Leclerc was within DRS range.

As lap 16 began Verstappen was told to pit. He duly arrived in the pits, but not before Leclerc had cruised past him on the Strip to take the lead. “That’s Russell ahead, Max,” said Lambiase as his driver rejoined.

The Red Bull crew waited five seconds before whipping Verstappen’s grained mediums off and replacing them with a set of hard tyres. Like many of their rivals, Red Bull hadn’t touched their stock of the C3 compound until now, reasoning it would likely be the best rubber on race day.

Piastri arrived in the pits at the same time. He had continued his progress up the lower points place, with Hamilton in pursuit. But their paths converged as the Mercedes driver moved for the inside at turn 14 and they lightly touched wheels at the exit.

This was enough to leave both with punctures. Piastri could hardly miss his due to the volume of sparks from his undertray, and headed for the pits, but Hamilton didn’t realise he was in trouble until after he’d started the next lap.

“Just take care ahead Max, Hamilton ahead of Russell has a puncture,” Lambiase warned Verstappen, who then lost time behind the struggling Mercedes. “He didn’t drive out of the way, man,” said Verstappen. “He has a puncture and he just drives like it’s a normal racing line.”

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While Leclerc led, others dived for the pits. Ocon lost second place to Perez, who began to chip into Leclerc’s 14-second advantage until the Ferrari driver came in on lap 21. He had banked a useful five laps of tyre life over his biggest threat, Verstappen, and despite a slow front-right tyre change remained ahead of him.

Russell-Verstappen clash triggered another Safety Car period
Verstappen lost more time to Russell as he worked his way past Zhou Guanyu. Next the Mercedes and Red Bull passed Alonso, and as Leclerc rejoined the track Verstappen could see his target once more.

If Ferrari were hoping Leclerc’s team mate might help delay Verstappen, they were to be sorely disappointed. Russell and Verstappen both demoted Sainz on the Strip on lap 24.

Next time around Lambiase told Verstappen: “Mode seven if you want to continue to use the overtake, Max.” He had been getting good traction out of turn nine and used it to close on the Mercedes through the sweeping turns that followed, and make a bid for the inside at the next corner.

But Russell didn’t see him, and turned in. The contact destroyed the right-hand endplate on Verstappen’s front wing. “Mate he just turns in on me,” Verstappen exclaimed. “Check my tyre and front wing.”

“Tyre is okay, stay out for now,” Lambiase replied quickly.

“Just check front wing,” Verstappen urged. “Yeah the front wing is damaged but it’s okay structurally,” Lambiase replied. “Stay out,” he added as Verstappen approached the pit lane entrance.

Had Verstappen immediately pitted for repairs, it would have wrecked his race, as the Safety Car was deployed on the next lap so the debris could be cleared. Now Red Bull could bring him in for a second set of hard compound tyres at minimal cost.

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But the damage to his front wing did not justify the extra time spent changing it or the positions it would cost him. “We’re going to leave the front wing on the car, Max,” said Lambiase.

“It wasn’t a massive shift,” Horner explained afterwards. “We’ve seen it a few times this year where people lose that endplate and it doesn’t affect too dramatically the performance of the car.”

The Safety Car was perfectly timed for Perez’s second stop
The Safety Car was timed perfectly for Perez, who had been on his set of hard tyres since lap two, and would now restart on fresh tyres immediately behind the race leader on more worn rubber. Leclerc had nearly lost control of his Ferrari during the Safety Car period while trying to retain heat in his rapidly cooling tyres.

Once the race resumed on lap 29 Leclerc was unable to draw clear of Perez, despite the Red Bull driver being briefly attacked by Gasly. That opened the door for Piastri to pass the Alpine, though both would soon lose a place each to Verstappen.

Perez stayed within DRS range of Leclerc and easily passed him on the second lap after it was activated. But his hopes of ending a six-race podium drought with a win were soon dashed. Running a higher wing angle than his team mate, Perez could not leave his pursuers behind. Leclerc took three laps to reel him back in and, on lap 35, reclaim his lead.

That too proved short-lived however. Verstappen was making better use of his new tyres than Perez, despite his missing endplate, and cruised past his team mate in the DRS zone on lap 36. The next time around Leclerc was his target.

For the second race running, Perez lost a place on the final lap
The leaders played an intriguing game of cat-and-mouse at the end of the DRS zone on the Strip the next time by. Leclerc let Verstappen have the inside line, but the Red Bull driver hit the brakes early. Leclerc repassed him, but kept his car pointed straight, and Verstappen drew back alongside by releasing his brake pedal. Having skilfully blocked Leclerc’s angle of attack into the corner, the lead was Verstappen’s once more.

Now a Red Bull one-two was on the cards. Leclerc reported trouble with his tyres, and on lap 43 a brief lock-up sent him wide at turn 12. Perez capitalised and took second place, but again he couldn’t pull away from the Ferrari.

Leclerc was able to use his DRS on the penultimate lap, but wasn’t close enough to attack. With shades of the previous race at Interlagos, Perez had a rival breathing down his neck as the final lap began, only this time his place on the podium was not at stake.

As they hurtled along the Strip for the final time, Leclerc registered the fastest speed recording in the trap all race, exceeding 350kph. As his DRS snapped shut, he dived for the apex, catching Perez completely unaware and reclaiming second place.

“It was a mega good move,” grinned Ferrari team principal Frederic Vasseur afterwards. “At one stage I said on the lap before we will try to do it, but I had the gap on my dash and I said no, it’s too far away.

“But the lap after I was a bit surprised – but probably less than Checo!”

Poll: Vote for your 2023 Las Vegas Grand Prix Driver of the Weekend
Russell also pulled off a last-lap pass, taking fourth off Ocon. However the Mercedes driver’s five-second time penalty for the collision with Verstappen dropped him to eighth, promoting Stroll, Sainz and Hamilton.

Alonso came in ninth while Piastri took the final point from Gasly with three laps to go. The value of this was doubled as Piastri had set the fastest lap, and 10th place ensured he scored the bonus point which came with it.

Despite starting the race with the highest average grid position of any team, Williams failed to score, Albon dropping out of the points late in the race. Nor did their main threat in the constructors’ championship AlphaTauri, who never figured, Tsunoda retiring late on.

Verstappen had never disguised his dislike for the new Las Vegas as an event nor the lack of driving satisfaction offered by its simplistic track layout. But a win is a win, and he drew obvious delight from his 18th of the season, one of his more hard-fought victories of his dominant campaign.

The Las Vegas Grand Prix blended the often sober, technical world of Formula 1 with the hedonism of America’s gambling capital. Though they may seem to have little in common, in turns out they do: In the casinos, the house always wins; In Formula 1, Verstappen always wins.

Charles Leclerc, Max Verstappen, Francesco Laud, Sergio Perez, Las Vegas Grand Prix, 2023
The Red Bull pair donned Elvis tribute race suits for F1’s return to Las Vegas

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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6 comments on “Verstappen denies Leclerc as F1’s Las Vegas spectacular lives up to its billing”

  1. I wonder why Ferrari did not pit Leclerc at the final safety car. I am pretty sure with new tyres he would have won this race.

    1. Its because his tyres were only 5 laps older than Perez’s and Verstappens. He would rather have kept P1 with 5 lap old hards, rather than P2 with the same fresh hards as Perez had. I think Red Bull just had better pace on the hards.. so either way, Verstappen was going to come through.

  2. The photos tell an interesting story. Or rather, they don’t. Even without the constraints of framing for good TV coverage, it has evidently proven very hard to make photos of this event that sell the downtown in colorful Las Vegas vibe that F1 was aiming for, judging by its pre-race marketing. By having the sessions around midnight, everything is pitch black and there are barely any visual cues of the surroundings. Singapore does this better, probably because a lot of the signature buildings are much closer to the track.

    F1 was very lucky that Ferrari had a rare good weekend.

    1. Yeah, this was as charming as the Valencia GP. Occasionally I thought it would look a bit like Adelaide had it been during the day.

    2. Agree with all of that. The colorful neon city lights were drowned out by the floodlights needed to light the track. “Las Vegas” only really worked in the helicopter shots. I’m surprised though that none of the palm trees along the track had lights on them for instance. Or that all the pedestrian bridges had boring advertisements on them. Or that they blocked almost all of the Bellagio fountains with grandstands. Only the sphere was big and shiny enough to stand out.

      Googling for Singapore GP-pictures it seems to me that the rig for lighting the track is much more elegant and that the grandstands have lights on them as well.

    3. This way the billboards were much more visible (having everything else pitch black). That’s all that matters. Even that sphere was used for running ads only, and they were pretty visible. I don’t think they would want some palms or whatever else Vegas has to offer that isn’t neon and led lights to steal any attention. At least those poor fans (much poorer after visiting this event) who waited to watch practise sessions could enjoy some good, old advertisement for as long as they were allowed to stay; before they got booted.

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