Max Verstappen overcame a five-second penalty and front-wing damage to win an action-packed 2023 Las Vegas Grand Prix, battling from fifth to pass Sergio Perez and Charles Leclerc late on.
Leclerc looked the favourite to take victory when he overtook Verstappen for the lead on lap 16 after the Dutchman illegally passed him at the first corner, but was undone by a safety car that allowed the Red Bulls to cheaply pit for fresher tyres.
Though Verstappen dropped positions, Leclerc was held up defending from Perez who produced his best performance since April’s Azerbaijan GP and fought his way up from 16th to take the lead at one stage.
But the Mexican’s performance quickly dropped off after overtaking the Ferrari, Leclerc repassed him for the lead before Verstappen swooped past both drivers and was never seen again.
Leclerc then let Perez by for second, but the Ferrari driver returned that favour on the final lap to claim second by just 0.171 seconds. Neither could challenge Verstappen in the closing stages though, the Dutchman won despite losing a front wing endplate following contact with George Russell that caused the decisive safety car.
It was the second safety car after Lando Norris lost control of his McLaren earlier at the end of the impossibly long Strip straight, suffering a heavy crash that hospitalised the Brit.
The predicted turn one carnage did materialise, very low grip on the inside of the track saw both Fernando Alonso and Carlos Sainz spin out on their own with Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton also caught up in the chaos.
Lance Stroll was the big beneficiary having made up 10 places having started on soft tyres before switching to hards, he finished fifth behind an inspired Esteban Ocon.
Oscar Piastri was running in touch with the podium for most of the race having started 18th, but took hard tyres for his first two stints so was forced to take a late pit stop that sunk him down to 10th.
Meanwhile, Williams‘ race evaporated after superbly locking out the third row of the grid in qualifying, they couldn’t control tyre wear and finished 12th and 16th led by Alex Albon.
Russell‘s morale-boosting performance was somewhat neutralised by the five-second penalty he picked up for hitting Verstappen, he was in the top five for much of the race but dropped to eighth behind his teammate and Carlos Sainz at the death.
That means there’s just four points between Ferrari and Mercedes in the constructors’ championship ahead of the season-ending Abu Dhabi GP.
Inevitable Verstappen lights up Vegas entertainment
Despite the Thursday practice nightmare for Formula 1, the Las Vegas GP itself delivered in spades. The low-grip circuit created bucketloads of action, with overtakes galore and drivers finding themselves really tested despite the simplistic track layout.
The inside of the grid was very slippery from lights out as several cars outbraked themselves and lost control at turn one, though there appeared to be nothing accidental about Verstappen clearly forcing Leclerc off at turn one.
He braked very late off the racing line and went off track himself while giving Leclerc no chance on the outside, Verstappen seemingly admitting he knew what he was doing when the stewards awarded him a five-second penalty.
” Give them my regards”Verstappen’s Red Bull team radio after the stewards give him a five-second penalty
That was the only black mark on his performance though, Verstappen got the bit between his teeth especially after the safety car.
He quickly passed the midfield runners, ruthlessly hunted down Perez and Leclerc and even tried to help his teammate from the lead, giving the Mexican a distant tow that he was unable to benefit from.
Perez will be disappointed to miss out on first or second – he lost out to Fernando Alonso for third place in Brazil by 0.053s a fortnight ago – but secured second place in the drivers’ standings to give Red Bull their first-ever championship 1-2.