Verstappen Wins The Jackpot After Las Vegas Thriller
History was made this weekend when, for the first time ever, Formula 1 cars raced along the world-famous Strip in America’s Las Vegas, and, after a gripping late-night encounter on a new temporary street circuit that even featured some casino-themed kerbs, it was Red Bull’s Max Verstappen who had to work hard to claim the victory spoils.
Max Verstappen flies past the Las Vegas Sphere
F1 did race in Las Vegas back in 1981 and 1982, using an uninspiring track laid out in the car park of the Caesars Palace Hotel, but the sport’s American owner, Liberty Media, has long had high hopes of a return and has spent over US$400m to achieve its dream. Significantly, it is promoting the race itself rather than via a third party, which is generally the norm, and buying a suitable plot of land to build a permanent pit and paddock complex. The intention is to hold the event every year until at least 2032, but ticket prices were set at a very high level, and this brought high expectations from all those willing to invest in the racing experience, not to mention the inflated cost of hotel accommodations nearby. Also, after the stifling conditions experienced earlier this season in Singapore and Qatar, Las Vegas was set to be rather chilly, with expected night-time air temperatures as low as 5–10 °C.This would normally not be considered a problem, but it was because all the track action was scheduled for this time of day, causing challenges for the cars’ tyre temperatures and also, of course, for spectators sitting in the grandstands.
2023 Formula 1 Las Vegas Grand Prix
1 Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 1hr29m8.289s
2 Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +2.070s
3 Sergio Pérez (Red Bull) +2.241s
4 Esteban Ocon (Alpine) +18.665s
5 Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) +20.067s
6 Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) +20.834s
7 Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +21.755s
8 George Russell (Mercedes) +23.091s
9 Fernando Alonso (Aston Martin) +25.964s
10 Oscar Piastri (McLaren) +39.596s
11 Pierre Gasly (Alpine) +34.270s
12 Alex Albon (Williams) +43.398s
13 Kevin Magnussen (Haas) +44.825s
14 Daniel Ricciardo (AlphaTauri) +48.525s
15 Zhou Guanyu (Alfa Romeo) +50.162s
16 Logan Sargeant (Williams) +50.882s
17 Valtteri Bottas (Alfa Romeo) +1m25.350s
18 Yuki Tsunoda (AlphaTauri) Retired
19 Nico Hülkenberg (Haas) Retired
20 Lando Norris (McLaren) Retired
Turning briefly to F1 news since the previous pair of races in Brazil a fortnight ago, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff described the events in São Paulo as his worst ever weekend in Formula 1, with drivers George Russell and Sir Lewis Hamilton just fourth and seventh, respectively, in the Sprint race, and come the Grand Prix, Hamilton was only eighth, and Russell had to retire due to excessive oil temperatures. This left Mercedes as the sixth-best team out of ten in the main event, with Hamilton reaching the chequered flag a mighty 1m3s behind the victorious Verstappen. Wolff said the experience was so dire that the team needs to abandon the concept behind its current W14 car and follow a totally new direction for next year. The Austrian has a management and financial background rather than a technical one, but feels that without such a radical step, the team, of which he is a part owner, may continue to struggle until the new technical regulations are introduced in 2026.
Meanwhile, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner has indicated that it is the team’s intention to retain Sergio Pérez alongside Verstappen for next season, with Daniel Ricciardo and Yuki Tsunoda continuing at AlphaTauri. Horner has also semi-jokingly suggested that Hamilton must be suffering from selective memory syndrome after the British multiple champion’s complaints about the sport needing to stop a single team and driver from winning too often, which is exactly what he and Mercedes so often did for year after year between 2014 and 2021.
In other news, the FIA governing body has rejected a request from the Haas team for the results of last month’s United States Grand Prix to be reviewed. It related to Haas’ belief that the ninth-placed Williams driver Alex Albon had failed to be penalised for potential track limit transgressions, and if he had been and had received a five-second penalty, this would have promoted the Haas driver Nico Hülkenberg to tenth position, the final points-paying place. Teams are understandably keen to accrue as many points as possible, as the end-of-season Constructors’ Championship standings directly impact how much prize money each outfit receives.
Third placed Sergio Pérez passing some appropriately painted kerbs
Formula 1 weekends tend to have a fairly familiar feel to them, regardless of whether a Sprint race is included too, but there was a justified sense that all might be just a little different in Las Vegas as it set out to be bigger, better, brasher, and, yes, more expensive than anywhere else on the calendar. As well as the long main straight along the Strip, bordered by some of the most famous hotels in the world, another part of the circuit passes the new globe-shaped Sphere concert venue, where the rock band U2 is part way through a residency there, if paused around F1’s visit. The Sphere’s exterior surface is the world’s largest LED screen and is an eye-catching sight, particularly at night. Liberty Media has paid to fully utilise it while F1 is in town, including when the cars are on track, but for safety reasons, it was agreed in advance that the colours yellow, red, and blue would not be used at such times to avoid any chance of the drivers mistaking them for flag signals.
Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised either when the organisers constructed a wedding chapel in the paddock, named Race To The Altar, for those wishing to be married there! This included the Canadian 1997 F1 champion Jacques Villeneuve, who tied the knot in it on Thursday. Perhaps I should also mention that Vegas isn’t known as Sin City for nothing, with its variety of more questionable evening entertainment venues beyond the renowned casinos and the blatant presence of escorts, strippers, and illegal prostitution services readily available.
Even the timing of the various F1 sessions in Vegas was set to be somewhat weird, with Nevada being eight hours behind UK time and nine behind western Europe. Sticking to the US timings, the three free practice sessions were scheduled to start at 20.30 on Thursday, midnight (yes, midnight!) and then 20.30 again the following day, with the all-important qualifying hour not due to begin until midnight Friday night. This was then all to be topped off by the Grand Prix itself at 22.00 local time on Saturday evening. Fortunately, as the saying goes, what happens in Vegas tends to stay in Vegas! Spare a thought too for the USA’s east coast viewers keen to follow the action live, with their time zone being three hours ahead of Nevada.
The whole event kicked off on Wednesday evening with a glitzy opening ceremony, which featured a drone show, musical performances including Journey and Kylie Minogue, fireworks from the rooftops of nearby hotels, and pairs of drivers being introduced to the crowds on top of giant boxes on the pit straight. All so Vegas, but actually good fun.
Turning to the ontrack action, which seemed to almost be just a side issue during all the razzamatazz of the build-up, the teams had no historic data to rely on with this being a totally new circuit, but it was clear that overtaking opportunities might well present themselves via the two DRS zones on the Strip and between Turns 4 and 5. Also, the long stretch from Turn 16 to Turn 1, which includes the start-finish straight, might also encourage passing manoeuvres. Unfortunately, the opening free practice session got off to an inauspicious start when it had to be stopped and then aborted after just eight minutes as a result of Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari hitting a loose water valve cover and being significantly damaged. The Alpine of Esteban Ocon also suffered damage. Understandably neither of the affected teams were happy, particularly not Ferrari, when it became apparent that, amongst all the other expensive repairs, the necessary battery replacement would trigger a ten-place grid penalty for Sainz come the race. The stewards were very sympathetic and tried to find a solution to avoid penalising the Spaniard, but regretted that, within the regulations as they currently stand, they had no authority to do so. An angry Sainz also implied later that, with F1 end-of-season prize money being so substantial, Ferrari’s closest championship rival, Mercedes, may have been pushing for him to receive a penalty regardless of the unfortunate circumstances.
Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz was unfortunate to receive a 10-place grid penalty
Manhole covers are usually sealed in place on temporary street circuits to stop them from lifting, but in this case, the concrete surround to the cover in question had failed due to the extreme stresses put on it by the passing cars. As a result, the FIA and F1 officials immediately set about checking every other cover on the track, and the second hour-long practice period, scheduled to start at midnight, was delayed by two and a half hours and extended to ninety minutes. I know from previous visits that Las Vegas has a justified reputation for being surreal in so many ways, and the prospect of seeing F1 cars hurtling around the circuit between 2.30am and 4am just added to this.
At least the Ferrari mechanics showed an admirable sense of humour in difficult circumstances by blasting out the Lionel Ritchie classic “All night long” in their pit garages! Less funny though was the fact that those fans who wanted to stay in the grandstands well into the early hours of the morning to see some action were denied the opportunity as working hours limitations on related security and transportation staff meant that the stands had to be emptied, adding to the somewhat chaotic and embarrassing start to this highly anticipated event. Formula 1 subsequently apologised to all the affected fans and offered them a US$200 voucher to spend in the Las Vegas Grand Prix Official Shop as a “thank you for your support” gesture.
Ultimately, it was the Ferraris of Charles Leclerc and Sainz who topped the much-delayed second practice timesheets ahead of Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso and the Red Bull pedalled by a somewhat rejuvenated Pérez. Fans were subsequently welcomed back into the grandstands for Friday evening’s final practice session, in which Russell led the way for Mercedes in a session curtailed slightly by red flags after Albon had put his Williams into the wall at Turn 5.
A key reason behind some of the unusual session timings was the fact that parts of the circuit were still being used as public roads during daytime hours before being closed to allow on-track action, and so the crucial qualifying hour didn’t begin until midnight. It proved to be dominated by Leclerc, who went fastest in each of the three parts, with Sainz, Verstappen, and Russell the best of the rest. Sainz’s controversial penalty meant that he would only be starting the Grand Prix in 12th position. Hamilton and Pérez both failed to make the top ten shootout, and even more noticeable was the fact that the McLarens of Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri didn’t progress beyond the opening Q1 segment. Alpine’s Pierre Gasly and the Williams duo of Albon and American driver Logan Sargeant impressed, though, as they earned the right to line up for the race in fourth, fifth, and sixth places, respectively.
As the start of the Grand Prix neared, the early problems at the beginning of this whole event were history, and there was an amazing atmosphere on the grid and around the rest of the track, even if the air temperature was a little chilly. A true sporting spectacle. With Leclerc and Verstappen on the front row just ahead of Russell and Gasly, but with leading drivers such as Hamilton, Sainz, and Norris out of position and further from the front than any of them would have liked, there was so much to look forward to. When that famous row of red lights went out and a mighty 20,000 horsepower was unleashed towards the opening lefthand corner, Verstappen and Leclerc battled hard for the lead, with both drivers temporarily leaving the track and the Dutch triple world champion subsequently receiving a five-second penalty for his part in the skirmish. There was chaos to their rear as Alonso spun on the slippery, dusty circuit, and Sainz did likewise after contact with Hamilton. This left Verstappen leading from Leclerc and Russell as a brief Virtual Safety Car period enabled debris to be cleared away at Turn 1.
George Russell reached the chequered flag fourth, but a penalty dropped him to eighth
However, when racing resumed at the start of lap three, Norris had a high-speed accident after losing control of the rear of his McLaren approaching Turn 12 and crashing into the barriers down an escape road. Fortunately, the rising British star was just winded but was later taken from the circuit medical centre to a nearby hospital for further precautionary checks. A full Safety Car intervention was summoned while the incident was dealt with before racing resumed at the start of the seventh tour. When told over team radio about his five-second penalty from the stewards, Verstappen amusingly replied, “Thanks. Send them my regards”. On lap 16, Leclerc took matters into his own hands and swept into the lead at Turn 14, and Verstappen immediately pitted to serve his penalty and switch from medium to hard specification tyres, rejoining the track down in 11th position.
On the same lap, Hamilton made contact with Piastri, resulting in some damage and a puncture for both cars. The leading Leclerc headed down the pitlane on lap 21, leaving Pérez, who had made an earlier stop, to take over out front ahead of Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll. To their rear, Russell and Verstappen were on a charge but clashed at Turn 11 on the 25th tour, damaging the latter’s front wing and earning the British driver a five-second penalty of his own. The Safety Car was again called into action to facilitate the removal of the related ontrack debris, and this triggered multiple “cheap” pitstops.
Racing recommenced at the start of lap 29 of 50 with Leclerc leading from Pérez and Piastri, but soon Red Bull’s Mexican driver claimed the lead from his Monégasque rival at the end of the Strip straight before Verstappen moved into third place. A mouthwatering battle out front ensued between Pérez, Leclerc, and Verstappen before Leclerc reclaimed the lead, and Verstappen then usurped Pérez for second. This was soon followed by the reigning champion sweeping past Leclerc into the lead before the Ferrari driver lost second place to Pérez. As the end of the race neared, a Red Bull 1-2 finish certainly looked on the Las Vegas cards, but during the very last lap, Leclerc again passed Pérez to claim the runner’s-up spot behind the victorious Verstappen. Russell reached the chequered flag in fourth place ahead of Ocon and Stroll, but the application of his time penalty dropped him to eighth, one position behind his teammate Hamilton. Piastri finished 10th, but picked up the extra point for the fastest lap of the race.
Lando Norris’ evening ended in the hospital for precautionary checks
Well, after all that Las Vegas ultimately delivered in such a high-profile way, next up comes the final weekend of the season in Abu Dhabi, which could hardly be more different. It will again represent one of the sport’s mightily impressive logistical achievements, with everyone and everything needing to be ready and raring to go in the Middle East just days after the conclusion of the action in Las Vegas.
2023 Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship
1 Max Verstappen 549
2 Sergio Pérez 273
3 Lewis Hamilton 232
2023 Formula 1 Constructors’ Championship
1 Red Bull 822
2 Mercedes 392
3 Ferrari 388