Charles Leclerc versus Max Verstappen is a battle we haven’t had enough of so far in Formula 1. We had a taste of it in 2019 with epic battles in Austria and Silverstone, before an early title race in 2022 soon disappeared when Ferrari crumbled.
Leclerc is on pole position for the 2023 Las Vegas Grand Prix and will have Verstappen alongside him. However, he has failed to convert his last 11 poles into victory – a streak which stretches back to the 2022 Australian GP.
Normally, Red Bull is significantly faster than Ferrari but the red team have been superb all week and that could continue into Saturday night’s race at 22:00 in Vegas, or Sunday morning for those in the UK and Europe.
Chaos at the start?
It’s possible the majority of drivers will start on the soft tyres simply to get some heat into their tyres after a few laps. That’s right, it will probably take three or four laps to generate enough heat from the softest compound Pirelli offer, as the track temperature will be around 15 degrees Celsius.
But, the soft will definitely degrade a lot and the top teams will be eager to do the medium-hard strategy with just one pit stop. Expect Leclerc and Verstappen to do this as they have no new softs, but George Russell does from third.
Cold tyres at the start in any motorsport event can only mean one thing. Chaos. The drivers will be understeering and sliding everywhere, so contact is inevitable.
Verstappen could be vulnerable here and Russell from could have a big go from the outside as he starts on the racing line, whereas the three-time world champion is on the dirty inside line.
“I think it’s a bit like Austin, when it was the first race, it was also very bad on the inside,” said Verstappen. “So that’s not ideal.
“I was actually hoping maybe to be P4 because I would have been promoted to P3. But that’s how it goes. We’ll just deal with it. Luckily, the run to Turn 1 is not too bad. But if you have a bad start, you can still lose a lot of positions. So we’ll work with that.”
How will Leclerc vs Verstappen pan out?
Las Vegas is most similar to Monza in terms of the track layout and Ferrari were also on pole there with Carlos Sainz. Sainz was able to hold Verstappen off for 15 laps at the Italian GP in September and it’s probably going to be a similar story in Vegas with Leclerc.
The only difference is Ferrari seem to be stronger than they were in Monza and Leclerc can produce some special performances. Think how hard he fought against Verstappen at the 2022 Saudi Arabian GP in their brilliant duel for the win as they tried to play with each other to have DRS on the home straight. Leclerc was very smart back then, even though he lost the race.
It’s a shame Leclerc won’t have a wingman in Sainz, who will start 12th for going over the limit for control electronics – even though his second one was damaged in first practice due to the failure of the framing on a manhole cover.
Having both Ferraris up there would have given them a real chance of victory but Leclerc up there alone is going to take something tremendous you would think, even if Verstappen loses ground at the start.
“The confidence is high because we are starting first, so it’s the best position to start from,” said Leclerc. “On the other hand, we know that Red Bull is going to be very strong, and Max obviously is going to be very strong in race pace.
“But I feel like we’ve had positive signs this weekend on the high fuel, more than other races. So I hope we can convert that pole position into a win.”
Mixed up grid behind
The fight for the final step on the podium is going to seriously be on with Russell favourite from third, but then you have Pierre Gasly in fourth, both Williams of Alex Albon and Logan Sargeant on row three, then Valtteri Bottas, Kevin Magnussen, Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, Sergio Perez and Sainz behind.
Those last four names alone are not going to exactly leave each other a lot of room on the opening lap as they know the importance of track position in the midfield.
The Williams are very quick in a straight line, so Albon and Sargeant will be difficult to pass and are likely to lead a DRS train.
Overtaking should be relatively easy, although the slipstream effect is not as big as normal because the teams are running skinnier rear wings.
There are chances to get a move done though into Turn 5 at the end of the first DRS zone, Turn 11 perhaps, Turn 14 at the end of the second DRS zone and on the run to Turn 1 – though you will need to be at least alongside by the flat-out final corner.
Hamilton, who suffered his third Q2 exit of the season, will start 10th and isn’t too optimistic about his chances of coming back through the field.
“My guess is as good as yours,” Hamilton told Sky Sports F1. “One with the car and two, the tyre graining. Everyone has had tyre graining.
“We had massive graining like everybody. We had some rear graining in P3 so I think how you manage it, how you progress, where you push and where you don’t is going to be key.”
Those that can keep their tyres in the optimal working window should be flying, but drop out of that window, and you could be in big trouble as Russell explains.
“Going into tomorrow, it’s a total unknown,” said Russell. “These tyres are just not working around this circuit in the race conditions.
“They are totally falling apart because they are so cold. The tyres aren’t designed to work in these cold conditions. The team that comes out on top will be the team that manages to keep them alive.
“I think if you’re able to keep it [the tyres] within the threshold, it will be an easy one-stop. As soon as you go over that threshold it’s unrecoverable and you might need to do two or three stops.
“Right now we are all scratching our heads, thinking how are we going to approach the race. We haven’t ran the hard tyre yet. Maybe the hard tyre is just much better than the medium and you won’t be entering that graining that we have seen on all the teams.
“You’re going to have to push the tyre to find out, but if you push it and go over the limit, you’re probably doomed. It’s a real strange one, I don’t really know how to approach the race.”