Verstappen dominates inaugural Miami Grand Prix

by AFP

MIAMI GARDENS (United States) – World champion Max Verstappen roared to an authoritative victory for Red Bull on Sunday when he beat Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc in sweltering conditions at a celebrity-packed inaugural Miami Grand Prix.

The 24-year-old Dutchman took the lead from the pole-sitting Monegasque driver on the opening lap and remained in control throughout a largely processional contest.

He came home 3.78 seconds ahead of Leclerc for his third Grand Prix win this year and the 23rd of his career.

Carlos Sainz finished third in the second Ferrari after holding off a late charge from Sergio Perez, on fresh tyres in the second Red Bull, and George Russell came home fifth ahead of Mercedes team-mate seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton.

“What a race,” said Verstappen, who had missed most of Friday’s practice sessions when he had a gearbox replaced after an early brush with the barriers.

“It was nice, but it was a tough one, but really good. The team did an outstanding job – a good recovery we can be proud of… I think I need a drink and I think you need a drink!”

On a hot day in southern Florida, the track temperature was 48 degrees Celsius (118 Fahrenheit) and the air 32 degrees Celsius as a pre-race grid dotted with celebrities was cleared before the lights went out.

Valtteri Bottas finished seventh for Alfa Romeo ahead of Esteban Ocon and his Alpine team-mate Fernando Alonso, with Alex Albon taking an excellent tenth for Williams.

Leclerc made a good start to lead from his third pole position of the year, but behind him Sainz struggled to resist Verstappen who forced his way past on the outside of Turn One to split the Ferraris.

Hamilton locked up at Turn One, dropping to eighth after a wheel-banging clash with Alonso, but regained a place when he passed the Spaniard at Turn 11 on lap three.

It remained close and tense through the opening laps, with Hamilton passing Gasly for sixth before Verstappen passed Leclerc with ease to lead into Turn One at the start of lap nine.

The Ferraris were struggling with early tyre wear and Leclerc fell 2.7 seconds adrift of the Dutchman on lap 13.

Yuki Tsunoda was the first man to pit, switching to hard tyres on lap 11, soon followed by Magnussen and Schumacher as the heat took its toll on the unforgiving surface.

Verstappen built his lead to more than 3sec by lap18 with team-mate Perez fourth, behind the two Ferraris, ahead of Bottas and his erstwhile Mercedes team-mate Hamilton.

After a slow start, Russell recovered from 15th as his tyres came alive and he rose to seventh by lap 20, 14 seconds off Hamilton. The front three had pulled clear of Perez, who grumbled his Red Bull had lost power, as the field stretched out.

At the end of lap 22, Hamilton pitted for ‘hards’ and re-joined seventh, Russell taking sixth. Bottas, still fifth, was 20 seconds ahead.

Leclerc came in after 24 laps, switching to hard tyres and dropping to fourth, a move that made Verstappen do the same, gifting Sainz a lap in the lead before normal order was restored.

The Dutchman extended his lead to eight seconds by lap 34.

Drama on lap 41

Russell, still on his original medium tyres, remained fifth, aware that a Safety Car might give him a ‘free’ pit stop.

“Why don’t we just keep going?” he asked the team as rain clouds loomed, promising rain to enliven a largely processional affair.

His question was answered with an explosion of drama on lap 41 when Norris collided with Gasly, his McLaren clipping the Alpha Tauri’s rear right wheel and spinning into the barriers.

He lost a wheel, but he was unhurt and Russell pitted as a Virtual Safety Car was deployed before the actual Safety Car intervened.

Perez also pitted for fresh mediums but stayed fourth while Mercedes elected not to bring in Hamilton for a late charge on softs once the racing resumed.

The final 10 laps produced much welcome action with Bottas, running too deep into Turn 17, being passed by both Mercedes before Russell passed Hamilton for fifth and Perez, pushing hard, trying to overtake Sainz.

Leclerc moved close to Verstappen, but was unable to pass him while Russell, told to give position back to Hamilton, was soon racing past him to stay fifth.