Max Verstappen won the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix but had to work hard for it in what was a thriller on the streets of the city.
The world champion had to fight back after a five-second penalty and make a series of passes before beating Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc into second and his Red Bull teammate, Sergio Pérez, into third.
After fears the race would be something of a procession dictated by tyre management, at its first time out the street circuit that winds through the heart of Las Vegas delivered a genuine contest lit up by the landmarks and the lights and a series of superlative drives across the field.
Verstappen had taken the lead off the start but was given a penalty for forcing Leclerc off track in doing so. It dropped him down the field, while Pérez did well out of a pit stop under the safety car to join the fray at the front. Leclerc too showed great spirit in refusing to yield to the quicker Red Bulls without a fight.
The Ferrari looked more competitive than it has done for some time, and he fought for second to the very death, overtaking Pérez in the final moments of the race. Third place was still enough to confirm Pérez as the championship runner-up – the first time Red Bull have sealed a one-two in the drivers’ standings.
The race still ended with Verstappen on top of the podium, though. The Dutchman now has 18 wins this season and he could finish it with a 19th from 22 meetings next week in Abu Dhabi, an extraordinary achievement that it is hard to imagine ever being matched.
In a race starting at 10pm local time, Verstappen just managed to slide up the inside of the pole-sitter Leclerc into turn one and both drivers went wide, but the Dutchman had the lead by the time they headed into turn two.
The race stewards looked into the incident and Verstappen was given a five-second penalty for forcing his Ferrari rival off-track, having clearly taken too much pace into turn one. Told of the penalty when he already had over two seconds on Leclerc, Verstappen was entirely unperturbed. “That’s fine, give them my regards.” he said.
A safety car was deployed when Lando Norris had a major crash on lap four at turn 12. The McLaren driver appeared to suffer a failure at the rear of the car and spun into the barriers at high speed, fortunately ending up in the run-off area. Norris got out of the car himself but was taken to hospital for a check up.
Verstappen held his place at the restart on lap seven and tried putting distance on Leclerc to overcome the five seconds he would lose at his first pit stop. Leclerc, however was sticking with him, matching fastest laps. By lap 16, the leader’s tyres were done and Leclerc caught him and passed, just as Verstappen was told to pit and took his penalty.
Leclerc stayed out, opening his lead, with the Ferrari proving easier on its tyres in the cooler temperatures than it has almost anywhere all season. He finally pitted on lap 21 and emerged in third place, still with four seconds on Verstappen.
The Dutchman was not wasting time in coming back through the field, though, executing a series of decisive moves. It was a dangerous game nonetheless, and while trying to pass George Russell at turn 12, the British driver turned in on him and they clashed.
There was debris to be dealt with, prompting the safety car on lap 26. The incident was investigated and this time it was Russell who was given a five-second penalty.
Racing resumed on lap 28 with Leclerc leading from Pérez, who had gained a huge amount of time taking his stop under the safety car. On fresher tyres, the Mexican driver passed Leclerc for the lead on lap 32.
Verstappen remained very much in the fight and was chasing down the leaders, moving up to third place by lap 33, while Leclerc came back at Pérez. The Monégasque driver then dived back up the inside of turn 14 to retake the lead as the front three vied to thrilling effect.
Pérez was reeled in and overtaken by his teammate on lap 36 and Verstappen immediately set off after Leclerc, catching him on the Vegas strip and once more retaking the lead at 14.
It looked like a Red Bull one-tow when he reclaimed second from Leclerc but the fight was far from over. On the final lap, the Ferrari man was fearless in throwing it up the inside of 14 to retake second place with an absolutely bravura move that ensured the race was gripping to the final turn.
Esteban Ocon was fourth for Alpine and Lance Stroll fifth for Aston Martin. George Russell and Lewis Hamilton were in seventh and eighth for Mercedes. Carlos Sainz was sixth for Ferrari, Fernando Alonso was ninth for Aston Martin and Oscar Piastri tenth for McLaren.
Verstappen’s win means he has equalled Alan Jones’s achievement of winning at three different US meetings. Jones won the 1980 US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, the 1981 Caesars Palace GP, and the 1981 US GP West at Long Beach.
The Dutchman has won three times at the Circuit of the Americas, twice in Miami and now in Nevada. He has now also equalled Hamilton’s record of six victories in the US.