Winners and losers from the 2023 Las Vegas Grand Prix qualifying

Oliver Harden
Charles Leclerc, Ferrari

Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc celebrates after setting pole position for the 2023 Las Vegas Grand Prix.

Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc claimed his third pole position in four F1 2023 races at the Las Vegas Grand Prix on Friday night.

Leclerc’s Q3 lap of 1:32.726s was good enough for pole ahead of team-mate Carlos Sainz and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. Sainz will serve a 10-place grid penalty for Saturday night’s race, promoting Verstappen to the front row and Mercedes driver George Russell to third.

Here are the main winners and losers from Vegas…

Winners

Charles Leclerc

Only one person at Ferrari would have taken a grain of satisfaction from the situation which befell Carlos Sainz in FP1 in Las Vegas.

His name? Charles Leclerc.

As Fred Vasseur raged about the damage done by a drain cover and a 10-place grid penalty for a new energy store, Leclerc could take comfort from the fact that his team-mate – the driver who beat him to pole at circuits as different as Monza and Singapore not long ago – was out of the equation.

One less rival to worry about. That’s how the brain of a racing driver works.

On a weekend when Ferrari were already expected to excel – the long straights, low temperatures and slow corners of Vegas almost tailor-made for the SF-23 car – Leclerc was elevated to a greater level through the confidence that comes with being Ferrari’s main focus.

Every time someone dared to challenge him in qualifying, be it the diminished Sainz or Verstappen, he would respond by raising the bar even higher still, soaring to a third pole in four races.

Can he stay there this time to claim a first win since Austria 2022?

It will be tough to contain Verstappen – even more so now he starts from the front row as a result of Sainz’s penalty – and the quick tyre warmup that helped Ferrari in compared to Red Bull in these cold conditions in qualifying could hinder them over a long run.

Graining is bound to be the buzzword on Sunday, but now is the time to enjoy the moment.

After the most difficult season of his career, Leclerc – back to being the centre of Ferrari’s world again – has been waiting almost all year for a day like this.

Williams

With AlphaTauri coming back to life since a transformative Austin upgrade, these have been nervous weeks for Williams.

Having held seventh in the standings for so much of this season, would they be denied a best Championship result since 2017 right at the finish line?

Would James Vowles’ loyalty to Logan Sargeant – with just a single points finish to Alex Albon’s seven in 2023 – ultimately prove costly against an AlphaTauri team scoring points with both Yuki Tsunoda and Daniel Ricciardo?

All roads led to Vegas, where the combination of long straights and low temperatures would provide the opportunity to effectively finish the job.

A third-row lockout for Williams, with just two tenths between their Albon and Sargeant, is a dream start to the weekend that could define the team’s season.

The challenge facing both drivers now? To maintain concentration over what will be a long and challenging race.

Albon’s collision with the wall late in FP3 was a reminder of how quickly things can go wrong here, while Sargeant didn’t take long to smear his car across the wall the last time F1 visited a tricky street circuit in Singapore.

Pierre Gasly

Having been evenly matched with Esteban Ocon for much of his first season at Alpine, in recent weeks there have been signs that Pierre Gasly is beginning to establish a small but decisive advantage in F1’s closest inter-team battle.

His run to sixth in Austin last month was one of the great underrated drives of 2023, with Gasly rising from 15th on the grid to a very convincing seventh in Brazil last time out.

Qualifying only a tenth away from Verstappen and George Russell to claim fourth on the grid in Vegas represents another fine effort, Gasly – like Leclerc – also potentially boosted by the demise of his team-mate (more on him later…).

Valtteri Bottas

Anyone who has followed the career of Valtteri Bottas to any great extent will not be surprised by the sight of him in the top 10 in Vegas.

Master of the low-grip surface, Bottas was the FP1 king for much of his Mercedes days – his slightly spikier inputs generating tyre temperature where Lewis Hamilton often could not.

For many years Sochi was his playground for that very reason and, on the evidence of this session, Vegas and its shiny, polished surface could fill that hole nicely.

Kevin Magnussen

Haas’s Austin upgrade may not have brought the great leap forward the team had hoped for, but it has at least resulted in a Kevin Magnussen revival.

With team-mate Nico Hulkenberg reverting to the previous specification for this race, feeling robbed of the groove he had before the upgrade, Magnussen declared himself happy with the so-called “white Red Bull” and used it to good effect here to secure his first Q3 result since Singapore.

He will line up eighth as a result of Sainz’s penalty.

Losers

McLaren

McLaren have followed the Red Bull route with the design of their car, improving the MCL60 across the season to the point where it now sits comfortably as the second-fastest car behind Red Bull on most days at most circuits.

The main difference between them now? Aero efficiency.

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While Red Bull can take downforce out of the RB19 and still remain competitive at high-speed circuits with long straights, McLaren continue to approach weekends like Monza and Vegas with a sense of dread, their poor top speeds – Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri were both in the bottom five through the speed trap in qualifying – costing the team dearly.

With Piastri and Norris – who is developing a habit of track limits breaches (potentially as a result of taking more risks in the corners to compensate for McLaren’s weak straight-line performance?) – out in Q1, their prospects for this weekend are in tatters already.

McLaren cannot afford to write off these weekends so easily if they are to pose a serious and sustained threat to Red Bull in 2024.

Sergio Perez/Red Bull

If Verstappen felt it necessary to be out on track in the closing minutes of Q2, Sergio Perez probably should have been too.

Yet there he was sat in the garage, helplessly watching his name tumble down the qualifying order until it landed in 12th.

Out early. Again.

In a session in which track evolution was crucial, Red Bull’s decision to send Perez out early for his final run – in attempt to avoid traffic at the end of Q2, according to Christian Horner – was puzzling and, it must be said, not the sort of error they would make with Verstappen.

Perez has been his own worst enemy for much of 2023, but there have been times – think also of Silverstone qualifying, when he was sent out to sit at the end of the pit lane for so long before a restart that icicles nearly appeared on his tyres – when Red Bull haven’t given him enough rope either.

This was another of those occasions.

Lewis Hamilton

“Just struggled with grip, the car just wasn’t working for me.”

Lewis Hamilton tends to say that quite a lot these days, totally unable to coax performance from a car that George Russell managed to manhandle to third on the grid.

A couple of tenths slower than his team-mate in Q1, the gap between the Mercedes drivers ballooned to half a second in Q2 as Hamilton made another meek early qualifying exit.

Esteban Ocon

Esteban Ocon: an angel outside of the car, a devil in it.

It has long been known that a so-called gentleman’s agreement exists among the F1 drivers, who come down hard on anyone who pushes the queue before the flying laps begin.

Yet that it what Ocon did on the back straight in the closing minutes of Q1, so Verstappen got him back – overtaking his old rival and making sure to edge him wide at Turn 1.

How does 17th on the grid sound, Esteban? Take that.

Curious, wasn’t it, that although that incident ruined Ocon’s final lap and denied him a place in Q2 a stewards’ investigation against Verstappen was not launched?

Confirmation, probably, that Ocon had it coming.

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