Las Vegas Grand Prix conclusions: A flawed but promising start for F1’s ‘modern Monaco’

Oliver Harden
Max Verstappen celebrates with his Red Bull team after winning the Las Vegas Grand Prix

Las Vegas Grand Prix: Conclusions from a chaotic weekend

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen claimed a record-extending 18th victory of the F1 2023 season at the Las Vegas Grand Prix. 

The three-time World Champion was joined on the podium by Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc, who produced one of his best performances of the year, and Sergio Perez, who finally saw off Lewis Hamilton in the fight for second place in the Drivers’ Championship.

Viva Las Vegas? Here are our conclusions from F1’s first trip to Sin City in four decades…

Max Verstappen’s Vegas dislike stems from the simplicity of his approach

It was Daniel Ricciardo who came up with the perfect nickname for Max Verstappen.

It took just a couple of months as Max’s Red Bull’s team-mate back in 2016 for Ricciardo to suss him out, describing Verstappen a “racing nerd” – a term that captured the essence of the boy wonder on the opposite side of the garage.

Verstappen is a racing driver; winner of races. A sort of test-tube racing driver as the son of two former racers, he was put on this earth to race.

Practically every move in his youth was made with the purpose of making him the best racing driver he could possibly be. And when he is not racing in real life, he is racing on his simulator at home.

This is not so much an occupation, but an obsession.

It is why his frequent comments throughout this season that he may retire sooner than later have been so hard to fathom. What ever else would he do with his time? And what better stage to race than in Formula 1?

Racing is, always has been, always will be all that matters to Max. Which explains his total intolerance of the sideshow in Las Vegas.

Verstappen did not hold back in his criticism of the event throughout the weekend from the moment he was made to feel like a “clown” during Wednesday night’s opening ceremony.

His interjections were deemed unhelpful by some yet there is a lot to be said for his honesty, which stems from the simplicity of his approach.

While other drivers over the years – including Ricciardo himself – have found themselves drunk on their own fame and led astray, there is no chance of that ever happening with Verstappen.

His passion for racing is so deeply ingrained that nothing – commercial arrangements, celebrity acquaintances, other interests (who’s to say he even has any?) – could ever penetrate it.

That discipline – that restraint, that distilling of everything right down to the absolute essentials – is a key quality when there is so much going on around him and in a modern world in which so many promising young athletes allow themselves to be sidetracked into building the brand.

“I have no desire to be able to hang out with famous movie stars,” Verstappen said ahead of this race in a comment that had the air of a personal statement – a quote that, in its own way, defines his outlook in F1’s Liberty Media era in a similar way to how Ayrton Senna’s famous “if you never go for a gap” soliloquy reflected his.

Rather than being lured in by the notion of this weekend as a special event – “the biggest race in racing history” as Willy T Ribbs, who evidently took all the Kool-Aid for himself, called it – Verstappen simply viewed Las Vegas as just another race to win.

So he went out and won it. No big deal.

Charles Leclerc is still the driver to build Ferrari’s future around

The most impressive moment of Charles Leclerc’s season came on the day that hurt him most.

As Carlos Sainz became the only non-Red Bull driver to win a race in Singapore, Leclerc was 21 seconds behind in crossing the line a distant fourth.

After a difficult mid-season run, and after being outshone by Sainz on the previous two weekends at Zandvoort and Monza, there was a temptation to question Leclerc once again after that race – was all his talent in danger of being wasted? – but then his true contribution to Sainz’s victory became clear.

Having been beaten to pole position by his team-mate, Leclerc accepted that Ferrari’s only chance of winning a race in 2023 lay with Sainz and volunteered to start on the soft tyres to jump George Russell off the line and protect Carlos – knowing full well that it would put him at a huge strategic disadvantage later on.

The constant comparisons with Gilles Villeneuve can be tiresome yet here was an act of selflessness by a Ferrari driver reminiscent of Monza 1979 when Gilles sat dutifully in Jody Scheckter’s slipstream throughout, shepherding his team-mate to the title when there was still a realistic chance to win it himself.

As much as it pained him to watch his team-mate take victory, Leclerc still put Ferrari first. Devotion, loyalty and humility of this kind, in such a ruthless arena as elite sport, should be cherished. Il Commendatore would have approved.

Although Sainz has enjoyed his most impressive season alongside Leclerc in 2023 – and produced one of his best-ever qualifying laps to come within a tenth of his team-mate here – the Las Vegas weekend was a reminder that Charles has a far higher ceiling than most.

Was it just a coincidence that Leclerc seemed to grow in stature after Sainz’s encounter with a drain cover in practice, a 10-place grid penalty taking Carlos out of contention and leaving Charles as the sole carrier of Ferrari’s victory hopes for the first time in months?

A team-mate’s misfortune always brings extra comfort and security to a driver and, on a circuit well suited to the Ferrari, Charles Leclerc was back to being Charles Leclerc again – as aggressive, confident and committed as ever without straying into the territory of desperation.

A weekend of this nature for Leclerc comes at a fascinating time for Ferrari with the futures of both drivers, whose contracts are due to expire at the end of next season, set to be resolved over the coming winter.

Sainz’s performances make him more than deserving of a new deal, no doubt, but might there be a temptation within Maranello to sacrifice him in order for Ferrari to access even more of Leclerc’s potential?

In other words, would Charles produce performances like this more consistently, and potentially rise to a whole new level, with a more classic wingman – think of the Verstappen/Perez and Hamilton/Bottas dynamic – in the other car?

Every driver is allowed one bad season and 2023 has been Leclerc’s lowest point, but still he remains the one around whom Ferrari should build their future.

Red Bull’s rumoured Sergio Perez ‘ultimatum’ never made sense

If you happen to believe everything you read, Sergio Perez has just secured his Red Bull seat for next season.

Over recent weeks it had been rumoured that Perez needed to see off Lewis Hamilton for second place in the Drivers’ standings – ensuring Red Bull secured a one-two in the Championship for the first time in the team’s history – or would find his place alongside Verstappen in serious jeopardy.

Now 43 points clear with just one round remaining, second spot in 2023 belongs to Perez. Never in doubt, etc…

Yet the reports that Perez was facing a so-called “ultimatum” from Red Bull never quite made sense.

Like on the occasions when football managers are given three matches to save their job, the logic that Perez had to finish P2 was flawed when such variables as mechanical failures – or, say, leaving him in the garage at the end of Q2 when the track is evolving rapidly – can so easily skew the picture. recommends

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Perez is either the right driver to be Verstappen’s team-mate or he is not and a team as sensible and organised as Red Bull would surely not allow such a key call to hinge on the events – the lucky breaks – of the final five races of the season.

In typical Perez fashion, his recovery from a poor qualifying result – after a strategic error Red Bull, it must be said, would never make with Verstappen – managed to be simultaneously impressive and underwhelming.

The Safety Car interventions worked in his favour to bring him back into contention but those shortcomings in racing situations exposed so clearly by Fernando Alonso in Brazil last time out resurfaced on the final lap, Perez not only opening the door but rolling out the red carpet for Leclerc to steal second place with a move only Checo himself did not see coming.

It was a race to sum up his season: it wasn’t pretty, not particularly clever either, but he just about managed to do what he needed to.

And with Verstappen winning 18 of 21 races in 2023 and with enough points to win the Constructors’ title all by himself, that’s ultimately all Red Bull really need from him.

James Vowles’ handling of Logan Sargeant has put Guenther Steiner to shame

Compare and contrast James Vowles’ handling of Logan Sargeant at Williams this year to Guenther Steiner’s treatment of another struggling youngster, Mick Schumacher, in 2022.

While Steiner was almost sadistic in his attempts to undermine Schumacher at every opportunity last season, scraping away at his own driver’s confidence until there was none left, Vowles has made every effort to give Sargeant enough rope.

It appeared there was only one way this was heading in those weeks following the summer break as Sargeant smeared his Williams across the walls at Zandvoort, Suzuka and Singapore, yet Vowles – to the amazement of those accustomed to a revolving-door policy in F1 and despite Williams’ precarious grasp on seventh place in the Championship – stood by him.

“Logan has very clear targets to hit before the end of the season and we are working with him continuously,” he said after Japan. “And that’s the important point: we are working with him. We want him to succeed and we want him in the car next year.”

The difference to Steiner – who openly admitted Haas were searching for a replacement for Schumacher after just seven races of last season – could not have been more stark, Vowles equipped with the emotional intelligence that is such an integral element of leadership in modern management.

There are hints of Toto Wolff, Vowles’ mentor, in that regard, Sargeant admitting at that time that it was a “nice surprise” to receive such a vote of confidence from his team principal and now beginning to reward his faith.

After scoring his first point in Austin, albeit only after disqualifications for cars ahead, this was his most impressive weekend to date, Sargeant reaching Q3 for only the second time and easing – easing! – to sixth on the grid, within two tenths of Alex Albon.

See what a young racing driver can be capable of when they’re given support, patience and the right environment to develop?

Just one of many reasons why Vowles is the outstanding team boss of 2023.

A flawed start, but Las Vegas could be modern F1’s answer to Monaco

F1’s contempt for race-going fans has been clear since Spa 2021 and the treatment of the spectators in Vegas on practice day – shuffling them out of their seats before FP2 and not offering a refund, but instead a voucher to spend on merchandise marking an event they would sooner forget – was an insult.

Toto Wolff betrayed the fact that sentiment is shared among the teams too when, during his outburst in the FIA press conference, he let slip that “nobody watches [FP1] in European time anyway.”

So those left bored stiff and kicked out into the cold on Thursday night in Vegas didn’t matter? Noted.

Remember that the next time they bleat those platitudes that this sport is nothing without the fans, a weekly routine when the grandstands were deserted throughout the pandemic…

Yet Toto also had a point when he argued that very few would remember Vegas’s false start once was weekend was over, that it was unfair to judge the event on the opening night of a 10-year deal and that F1’s success in even putting on a race here – taking in all the famous landmarks of America’s entertainment capital – had been taken for granted.

There was no shortage of people wanting Vegas to fail – many whom were actively rubbing their hands when a loose manhole cover ended FP1 minutes after it began – yet after the worst imaginable start it responded well to produce a hugely enjoyable maiden race weekend.

It would be foolish to pretend that validating circuit safety is not among the main purposes of free practice and, for all the inconvenience it caused, it was far more preferable to identify the issue with the drains on Thursday night than to receive a nasty surprise halfway through the race.

It would also be disingenuous to suggest that this is an issue F1 hasn’t encountered before and quite often in the recent past, not only at street circuits in Monaco (2016) and Baku (2019) but at state-of-the-art, purpose-built venues in Malaysia (2017) and Portugal (2020).

The unfortunate truth?

Nothing – no, not even a test event with a minor category weeks in advance of the grand prix – can accurately replicate the forces of a modern F1 car, especially so in this ground effect era when they interact with the track surface in such a unique way.

Perhaps the only real way to ensure a race weekend can be run entirely without these issues is to hold an untimed, untelevised 10-20 minute “acclimatisation” session early on a Friday morning – similar to that seen following the kerb tweaks in Qatar last month – prior to any official running on a new circuit to identify and address potential problems.

Despite initial fears about the track layout itself, meanwhile, it is reassuringly more Baku than Miami – now reduced to a very poor third in the list of today’s US F1 venues – the long straights and hard braking from high speed combining to make this a very modern street circuit.

The best of all? Turn 12, where the challenge of braking hard with load on the car even caught out the usually squeaky-clean Lando Norris after just four laps, with the quick left flick on approach to the finish line making for a spectacular, signature sight too.

It’s the sort of the circuit, city, race, weekend that would make a great season finale if it wasn’t for dear old Abu Dhabi being in the way. But hold on: since F1 itself is the promoter of the Las Vegas GP, might there a deal to be done at some point down the line?

After years of hearing the same old argument that F1 with its huge, heavy, long and lazy cars has outgrown Monaco, the sport has found a place where the modern machines can not only express themselves fully but race well too – and with all the glamour, imagery and pulling power to match.

The Monaco of the modern era? No new circuit could ever match the ultimate, insane driving challenge of Monte Carlo, but as a destination event – a race to win above all the rest – the potential is enormous.

Nearly a century after God carved a racetrack into the Cote d’Azur and called it the Monaco Grand Prix, F1 may just have found a new jewel to add to its crown.

After all, Vegas must have done something right: even Max managed to crack a smile in the end…

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