Miami GP conclusions: Verstappen reasserts Red Bull dominance, Leclerc approach

Oliver Harden
Max Verstappen, Red Bull, points at number '1'.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, points at number '1'.

Max Verstappen claimed his third victory of the 2023 Formula 1 season at the Miami Grand Prix to extend his lead in the World Championship to 14 points.

The two-time World Champion was stuck in ninth on the grid after qualifying when Charles Leclerc’s crash left Sergio Perez on pole position, but Verstappen drove a brilliant opening stint on hard tyres to defeat his Red Bull team-mate. Aston Martin driver Fernando Alonso completed the podium with his fourth top-three finish in five races.

With F1’s second visit to Miami over and done with, here are our conclusions from the most toe-curling day of the entire season…

Only freak misfortune will see Verstappen dethroned by Perez

In the aftermath of Perez’s victory in Baku last weekend came the conversation that always occurs whenever an F1 wingman starts to have ideas above their station.

This, they announced, is his best, last, only chance of becoming World Champion.

Just six points behind Verstappen after four races – ignore that thing about there being 19 still to go – he must do everything he possibly can to unsettle and unnerve him.

Time to be more selfish, more ruthless. Time to seize the day.

Time to embrace the Nico Rosberg role.

Most are familiar by now with the stories from Rosberg’s success over Lewis Hamilton in 2016 – switching to the same helmet manufacturer as his team-mate to ensure total parity of equipment, for example, and giving up cycling mid-season, the minor lap-time gain through his loss of leg muscle weight just enough to secure a slender pole position at Suzuka.

Rosberg went to extreme lengths that year, no doubt, and was ultimately rewarded. But it would be foolish to pretend that his triumph over Hamilton didn’t also owe a great deal to luck.

That was the season, remember, where Hamilton suffered a quite unbelievable proportion of Mercedes’ reliability problems – affecting him in consecutive qualifying sessions in China and Russia and, memorably, in Malaysia where he suffered an engine failure while leading comfortably.

For all the talk of a new-and-improved Rosberg, his eventual margin of victory – five points – was a gap that could have so easily swung in a single moment.

It is undeniable that Perez has made the most impressive start to a season of his career, partly assisted by Red Bull’s focus – as previously mentioned here – on bringing the bottom up and designing a car suited to both drivers, having missed a rare opportunity to have them finish first and second in the standings last year.

It is also true to say, though, that he has been slightly flattered by circumstance in these early weeks of 2023.

It was not his car, after all, that suffered a broken driveshaft halfway through qualifying in Saudi Arabia, suddenly leaving him 15th on the grid having topped every practice session by at least two tenths.

It was not he who, as the lead Red Bull, was instructed to pit in Baku just as the yellow flag was upgraded to a Safety Car.

And it was not he, on Saturday in Miami, who was denied a second attempt in Q3 by matters outside of his control.

Verstappen was happy to admit after qualifying that it wasn’t all luck – he simply paid the price for failing to get the job done on his first lap – but his starting position of P9 belied the underlying pace advantage he held over Perez in Miami, never smaller than three tenths across practice and Q1/Q2.

His comeback drive to take his third victory in five races, then, not only had the feel of Verstappen reasserting his dominance over Perez but putting his team-mate’s recent successes into some kind of context.

Unlike Rosberg in 2016, Perez does have an obvious strength in the driving department against his team-mate, yet tyre management is an area in which Verstappen himself has come to master in recent times too – the subtlety and precision of his inputs stretching 45 laps out of a set of hards here.

It was the kind of performance to cut through the post-Baku hullabaloo and remind us that the dynamic at Red Bull, as at Mercedes back then, is of a very capable driver alongside an exceptional one.

When people urge Perez to “be more Rosberg”, what they really mean is to cross both fingers and hope for an unprecedented amount of bad luck to derail Verstappen.

It is, let’s face it, his only chance of winning the title.

All-out attack is the only way for Leclerc in current situation

Should he still be making these mistakes in his sixth full season in F1 and his fifth with Ferrari? Shouldn’t he have matured by now? Shouldn’t he have developed a little bit more?

Leclerc in 2023 is at the same stage of his career as Verstappen was in 2020, when he was just beginning to blossom from boy wonder into the man who would be king in 2021/22.

With one crucial difference.

While Red Bull were on a clear upward trajectory back in 2020 – Verstappen’s victory at the final race of that season was effectively Race Zero of his 2021 title charge – Ferrari remain some way short of competing for regular victories, placing the emphasis on Leclerc’s genius to bridge the gap.

If two pole positions in consecutive days in Baku was Leclerc at full flight, the spectacular sight of him spinning into the barrier on his final Q3 lap in Miami saw him cross the other side of the line.

It is in these moments that Leclerc resembles a mercurial batsman in cricket – think Kevin Pietersen – for whom all-out attack is the only way he knows no matter the situation. See ball, hit ball.

Sometimes he is great; other times he is reckless. When it works he is often the match winner; when it doesn’t he is usually the one to cop the blame.

The worst thing anyone can possibly do – and Fred Vasseur surely understands this – is to try to change him.

Rather than messing with his mojo, the all-consuming focus must instead be on providing him with the car to lessen the need for such extreme risk taking.

His performances in the early months of last season in a Ferrari capable of regular victories acted as confirmation that this is a driver of a similar calibre to Verstappen just waiting to be handed the right machinery.

Until that time comes, better to have someone with a higher ceiling than most – capable of quite amazing feats but also, yes, of overreaching – than someone who merely drives to the car’s level and not a millimetre beyond.

For better or worse it is he, Leclerc.

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Everything riding on Imola upgrade for Hamilton and Mercedes

Farewell then, maybe, to one of the weirder F1 car designs of modern times.

If the major upgrade Mercedes have planned for Imola is only half as “radical” as they have been promising since the start of the season, Miami is likely to have been the final sighting of the zero-pod concept on a grand prix weekend.

If this really is the end, the car signed off in the only way it really could – leaving the team as bemused, and the drivers as exasperated, as ever.

Since Mercedes were knocked off their perch at the beginning of last season, Friday has become the time for Hamilton to vent his frustration and there has been many a post-FP2 interview – Canada last year, when seemingly believing himself to be off camera he was captured muttering “this car is so bad”, sticks in the mind – in which he has cut a lost figure.

Invariably, however, Hamilton has somehow then reinvented himself as Mr Positive for the remainder of the weekend, emphasising his faith that the pain will ultimately all be worth it and the team will get there in the end.

It has been a theme of the last 18 months of his career, his willingness to accept the reality of his situation on Friday night and then readjust his expectations for Saturday and Sunday deeply impressive at this stage of his career and considering everything he has achieved.

Not this time, though.

On Friday in Miami, Hamilton had the air of someone nearing the end of his patience – “the same as every weekend: we’re a second down… a kick in the gut” – and qualifying 13th did little to improve his mood.

Lewis pointed to being released into traffic late in Q2 but his body language the previous afternoon left the impression that making the top-10 shootout would have proved a challenge, at least for him, regardless.

George Russell, in the other car, qualified sixth but a full second away from pole and an improved performance in the race – a typical trend with the car in its current condition – did not paper over the cracks.

Mercedes’ latest head-scratching weekend only piles on the pressure to get their next move right, having initially committed to persevering with the zero-pod for 2023 against all the evidence and, as he was quick to point out back in Bahrain, Hamilton’s own advice.

With Hamilton still yet to agree a new contract beyond the end of this season, it is no exaggeration to suggest that the future of the most successful driver in grand prix history could hinge on the success of this upcoming upgrade.

Will it finally clear the path back to the front? Or merely add another layer to the confusion, signalling to Lewis that his golden days are over?

All roads lead to Imola. Run for cover if the new-look Mercedes does not bring a tangible and instant improvement.

Dark days for McLaren

For a warning sign for Mercedes that a single upgrade is no panacea for a team’s problems, look no further than customer team McLaren.

The new floor introduced in Baku had been eagerly anticipated since the launch of the MCL60 in February, reversing the team out of the path recently departed technical director James Key – with a reputation for producing draggy designs stretching back to his Toro Rosso days – had taken them down over the winter.

Its impact in Azerbaijan appeared instant with both cars in Q3, Lando Norris qualifying a season-high seventh and racing to two points before commenting that the true effect of the update would only begin to be felt in Miami.

A weekend in which both cars fell in Q1 and finished a lap down was surely not what he had in mind.

It was a punishing weekend, the car said to be struggling in the hot conditions and pushing the team into starting Norris and Oscar Piastri on soft tyres – a plot they abandoned within five laps.

With Zak Brown doing the rounds once again this weekend, outlining his hopes for the new wind tunnel and defending his decisiveness in reshaping the technical structure, the thought occurred not for the first time in 2023 that McLaren are badly missing the calm and steady leadership of Andreas Seidl.

Without him around, there is little trust in McLaren to make the right calls both on and off track. Without him around, this is a team stumbling around in the dark.

F1 in Miami: Sochi meets the Super Bowl

Forty years ago, Formula 1 raced around the car park of a hotel and everyone agreed it was a terrible idea and that they should never do it again.

Today, Formula 1 races around the car park of a football stadium and everyone, or at least those deep within the F1 bubble, say it is the best thing ever.

The Liberty Media effect.