Dutchman Max Verstappen won an exciting Las Vegas Grand Prix, despite being handed a time-penalty for overtaking off track.
The World Champion extended his record-breaking season with an 18th victory in 2023, and his fifth in a row, which equals ex-Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel’s total of 53 career wins.
The Red Bull driver also had to contend with damage sustained during a collision with Mercedes driver George Russell on his way to eventual victory.
In a race with three Safety Car periods (one a Virtual Safety Car (VSC)), Verstappen found himself coming from fifth after the third caution period on Lap 29, taking the lead on Lap 37.
Speaking to F1’s David Coulthard after the race, the 25-year-old said: “I had to pass quite a lot of cars. Already there was quite a lot going on. The DRS was very powerful, even when you took the lead, the guy behind could come back at you. It’s never ideal [to carry damage] but luckily we could still win the race.”
Verstappen beat pole-sitter Charles Leclerc, who produced a spectacular overtake on Sergio Perez during the final lap to snatch second place from the Mexican, who secured the runner’s up spot in the Drivers Championship with third place.
Ferrari had looked in a strong position before the final Safety Car, but kept Leclerc out while the Red Bull duo both stopped, giving them an advantage later in the race.
Verstappen finally happy after drama-filled race
Ahead of the weekend, Verstappen had been vocal in his dislike of the “show” around the Las Vegas GP and of the circuit, which did come in for criticism on Friday after the manhole cover debacle.
But the Dutchman had changed his tune following his victory, saying he “had fun” and the racing was “good”.
Having taken the lead at the start, where both he and Leclerc ran wide, the stewards handed the World Champion a five-second time penalty for overtaking off the track.
There was chaos further back, as Fernando Alonso spun in his Aston Martin, which meant drivers behind were forced to scatter, with Alonso, Valtteri Bottas and Perez all picking up damage and a VSC was deployed.
Perez pitted at the end of the first lap, a move which would later pay huge dividends.
The first full Safety Car arrived on Lap 4 when McLaren’s Lando Norris crashed heavily at the start of the Las Vegas Strip straight, the Brit being taken to hospital later on for precautionary checks.
Verstappen opened a two-second lead before being informed of his penalty for the lap 1 incident, and it seemed it would be something of a non-penalty as the Dutchman was comfortable out front.
But Leclerc’s Ferrari had the pace on the medium tyres to catch and pass the Red Bull, before Verstappen pitted early to serve his penalty.
Leclerc looked to be in a great position when he pitted on Lap 21, which now handed Perez the lead, although the Mexican was committed to another stop.
And when a second Safety Car was deployed for debris on the track after Verstappen’s tangle with Russell, Red Bull took their chance to stop both drivers for fresh hard tyres, which performed well once up to temperature.
For the final 20 laps Leclerc battled the two Red Bulls, initially losing the lead to Perez on Lap 33, before re-passing his rival on Lap 36.
But Verstappen, who had resumed the race in fifth, had caught the lead pair, and grabbed P1 on Lap 37.
Perez looked set to round out a seventh Red Bull 1-2 finish of the year after Leclerc ran wide, but the Monegasque stole the position on the final lap with DRS, despite Verstappen’s best effort’s to offer a slipstream to his team mate.
Despite Verstappen’s scorn earlier in the weekend, the circuit had lived up to the hype, delivering an intriguing race throughout, even if it was a familiar name taking the chequered flag first.
A win for F1, despite controversy
The action wasn’t limited to the drivers at the front, with the likes of Sainz, Alonso and Lewis Hamilton all fighting back through the field after issues during the race.
The strip provided the best overtaking opportunity, but we saw brave overtakes through the near-200mph final corner.
And with the Safety Car’s mixing up strategies, drivers had different speeds at different points of the race.
The race will have done much to heal the pain caused by the farcical scenes on Friday during practice, although fans are still owed more than the $200 F1 Store voucher that they’ve been offered.
Mercedes driver Hamilton described the track as “Baku, but better”. saying he hadn’t expected it be as good as it was.
Vegas will always feature a lot of show when F1 returns, but we now know the racing will be able to match it.