How Max Verstappen took Miami GP win with Red Bull’s ‘worse strategy’

Thomas Maher
Red Bull driver Max Verstappen leads Sergio Perez at the Miami Grand Prix. Miami, May 2023.

Red Bull's Max Verstappen leads Sergio Perez at the Miami Grand Prix. Miami, May 2023.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen came through to win the Miami Grand Prix with a strategy that simulations suggested wouldn’t work, according to Christian Horner.

Verstappen came through to win at the Miami International Autodrome by overtaking Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez with seven laps remaining, having utilised an alternate tyre strategy that had team boss Christian Horner singing his praises afterward.

After a late red flag ruined Verstappen’s Q3 on Saturday, dooming him to a ninth place grid start as Perez took pole position, the signs were there for the Mexican to continue his recent strong form to pile more pressure on the Dutch driver in the Drivers’ Championship.

But, with Perez equipping himself with the Medium tyre, as eight drivers from the top 10 starters all opted for, Verstappen decided to take on the Hard tyre for the race start – a brave choice as he was mired in the midfield at a point where getting his tyres up to temperature would be more difficult than for the cars around him.

Indeed, the start of Verstappen’s race didn’t go particularly smoothly, with the reigning World Champion falling down to 10th as he played a cautious game to start. But the benefits of the Hard tyre kicked in after only a handful of laps as the Medium-shod runners failed to sprint away, and Verstappen began to pick off the cars in front.

A particular highlight of this was a double-pass on Kevin Magnussen and Charles Leclerc as the Ferrari driver tried to clear the Haas – Verstappen positioning himself perfectly to swoop past both in one effortless moment to really bolster his victory chances from early on.

By Lap 14, Verstappen was up to second and past Fernando Alonso, and began closing down the three-second gap to Perez – the Mexican driver having failed to open up a huge gap in the opening phase.

Perez dived into the pits on Lap 20, just as Verstappen latched on for an attack, swapping to the Hard tyre to get him to the race. Emerging 16 seconds behind his teammate, the question mark was whether Perez could use his fresher tyres to close the gap to Verstappen and keep him in with a chance in the closing stages after Verstappen pitted.

But the gap barely budged over the next 10 laps, with Perez unable to make an impression and, indeed, the gap even began to extend out towards the mark Verstappen needed to clear Perez outright as the laps ticked by – helped greatly by Perez making an error at the end of the first sector.

Verstappen pitted on Lap 45, coming out 1.5 seconds behind Perez. From there, his fresh Mediums vs. aging Hards meant it was inevitable that Verstappen would clear his teammate – it took him just two laps to catch and pass, before sailing off into the distance and setting the fastest lap en route to the chequered flag.

Sergio Perez left frustrated by the Medium tyre’s performance

Reflecting over his race, Perez pointed squarely at a weaker than expected Medium tyre performance as being the catalyst of his defeat.

“I think the Medium was weak early on, and I ended up boxing earlier than I wished because I was pushed by Max,” Perez told Sky F1 after the race.

“He was very strong in that first stint, and I think that probably compromised our race. Max was stronger than us today and we have to understand why and hopefully get back to our normal level for Imola.”

With eight of the top 10 cars going for the Mediums, only for the Hard tyre to prove the correct choice, Perez believed the weather conditions and cooler temperatures might have helped shift the balance away from what was initially expected.

“I don’t know if the rain overnight did affect more the Medium than it did to the Hard,” Perez pondered.

“But yeah, it just felt quite fragile, quite easy to make some damage on it and that’s my thoughts at the moment. I don’t know more.

“I wasn’t able to look after them properly. I don’t know how different it would have looked, the race, for Max, if he was on the same strategy as myself, but he was clearly the fastest car out there.

“I have to understand what went wrong today. And it’s pretty simple: when you don’t have the race pace then it’s really hard to win the race.”

Christian Horner: Max Verstappen’s middle stint won him the race

Red Bull team boss Christian Horner outlined how, in the build-up strategy meetings ahead of the race, the simulations had suggested that Verstappen’s strategy choice should have been the inferior choice – particularly once early race traffic was added into the mix.

The simulations suggested it would only have been a beneficial strategy had a Safety Car interruption saved Verstappen time in the pits at a fortunately-timed point of the race – an interruption that didn’t come, and Verstappen ended up not needing.

“Max starting on the hard tyre – there was more risk with that – our simulations were telling us it was actually a worse race but where it potentially gained was if there was a Safety Car later in the race,” Horner explained.

“So his engineering team wanted to take that choice, and he made it work without the Safety Car and the crucial part was probably from Lap 20 to 42, where his pace on that worn tyre when he was able to match, and better at times, Checo’s pace.

“Checo knew exactly that 19.8 [seconds] was the magic number to keep him behind. But then, in the end, it was an easy pass for him [Max].” recommends

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Did Sergio Perez have any specific problems?

Horner denied that Perez had had any issues during the early stages, when the Mexican driver appeared to be having trouble opening up a gap to the pursuing Fernando Alonso and Carlos Sainz.

“He didn’t really have a problem, he was managing the tyres,” Horner said.

“It must be a really hard discipline to drive within the car and look after that front-right tyre, because he knew it was going to be vulnerable and then, once the tyres had all nicely come up to temperature, then he started to push and he started to extend that gap where the car was heavy on fuel and moving around a lot and he did a great job of managing that.”

Could Perez have pushed harder in those early laps to give himself a bigger margin over Verstappen, which would have allowed for a later pit stop?

“It’s so easy with 20/20 hindsight and knowing how far the tyres went into the stint, I think the nervousness was what were they going to do on that surface?” Horner explained.

“Were they going to open up, were they going to grain? With hindsight, Checo will look at that and think ‘Maybe I should have pushed harder in the first stint to put more air between me and him’ by the time Max emerged after the stop.

“But, of course, you don’t know that at the time and I thought the two of them raced each other fairly, which is what we asked this morning.”

Horner then explained that Red Bull’s simulations revealed Verstappen’s race would likely have been overall quicker had he started on the softer compound.

“Everybody around us [in the top 10] with data was coming up with the same answers,” he said.

“The highest probable point score was actually for Max to start on the Medium. But with the pace he had, I think it wouldn’t have mattered if he just started on the Medium or the Hard tyre. It made it an interesting race because he had to manage that tyre early on and but his pace, as it has been all weekend, has just been outstanding.”

Sergio Perez: Starting on the Hards was a gamble of a strategy

Despite his visible disappointment at having missed out on the win in front of a large Spanish-speaking contingent of fans in Miami, and overtake Verstappen in the Drivers’ Championship, Perez had no qualms about his strategic decision as he labelled starting on the Hards a ‘gamble’.

“When you are starting on pole, starting on the Hard is much more like a gamble that can go right or wrong with Safety Cars,” he said.

“I think at the time, none of us were expecting the Medium to be… because pretty much the whole grid went for the Medium start, I think none of us realised how weak of a tyre it was. I think once we did a few laps on it, we realised that it was quite a poor tyre.

“That was more of a gamble strategy. I think it turned out to be the right strategy in the end, but when you’re starting on pole, it’s quite a gamble to go for the Hard.

“The performance Max has shown today was not reachable for me. So I have to understand why. I think there was some tyre-related as well. But overall, he was the stronger driver today. I’ve been stronger in other places, today he was the strongest one. Well done to him. I just have to understand what went wrong for us.”

Max Verstappen explains how the race came to him

Speaking at the post-race press conference, Verstappen said patience had been the key to his victory as he kept his nose clean in the early laps.

“It was just really staying out of trouble at the beginning,” he explained.

“Because, of course, the people around me, they tried to gain positions as quickly as possible on Lap 1. But knowing that you have a quick car, then once it all settles down, you just try to pick them up one by one. And that worked out quite well. I had even a three-wide on the straight, which was quite entertaining.

“Then we had good pace, I could look after my tyres. Once I was in clean air, it was just about getting to that lap number we targeted. That’s why maybe in the middle of that stint, I was not entirely sure if I was going to make it. But then I was getting close to the number and I said ‘OK, this is good’.

“So then I started pushing, and I could extend the gap again, which really made my race today, I think, because once we pitted, then I had the fresher tyres to the end. But also the tyres, which also were a bit more fragile today, so then I had a good battle with Checo. We were free to race, which was said before, and we had a good go at it. But of course, most importantly, is that we don’t touch but that all worked out really well.”