Max Verstappen fights back to win Las Vegas thriller as F1’s gamble pays off

After a difficult week for Formula 1, days of fear and loathing in Las Vegas, the sport finally took to the streets of the city, with such effect that what was a big gamble really paid off.

The house always wins here, so naturally Max Verstappen took the flag for the first Las Vegas Grand Prix, but he had to fight hard for it, which meant the racing matched the show and provided the spectacle F1 craved.

It was excellent. Verstappen had to come back from both a penalty and an on-track collision with George Russell to take the win. The world champion competed in thrilling fashion with Ferrari’s second-placed Charles Leclerc and his Red Bull teammate Sergio Pérez, who finished third.

The lead up to this meeting, the anticipation and the hype has been relentless. For F1, which reportedly spent $700 million to stage the event – ​​for the first time as promoter and organizer – this was their showcase, their Super Bowl; a step forward in selling the sport to the US, the market it wants to break into more than any other.

They had gone hard, insisting that there would be no race without it being in the heart of the city, including Las Vegas Boulevard, the iconic Strip, which they had both achieved. They had the backing of the casinos and the backdrop that made this one of Vegas’ standout shows: Caesars, the Bellagio, Paris, the Venetian. They are located along the Strip and the track and the cars looked beautiful as they sped past these landmarks at over 200 mph. It also made it one of F1’s biggest stages. A failure here would have been very, very public.

It wasn’t ruled out either. The weekend had started with no small amount of resentment after fans watched just eight minutes of action in Thursday’s first training session and were then unable to watch a second session that was delayed by five hours and held behind closed doors. They were extremely disappointed and angry, and in many cases had paid a small fortune for it. A class action lawsuit has already been filed.

Worse still, Verstappen was highly critical of the associated hoopla, repeatedly saying he felt it was unnecessary and that the most important thing was the racing, which he believed the sport paid little attention to.

Fireworks explode behind the podium after the night race in Las Vegas. Photo: Hollandse Hoogte/Shutterstock

When I entered the race, there was genuine fear that Vegas, if it really mattered, might turn out to be a broken flush on the track. There were concerns that the 6.8km circuit would be a dud, offering few overtaking opportunities and heralding a procession of cars circling the city while maintaining their tyres. A conservative cavalcade for fans who had paid big money for F1 to fulfill its promise of being the pinnacle of motorsport.

The tension only increased as the evening progressed. The grid, a heaving mass like no other, where movement was barely possible. Usain Bolt stood head and shoulders above the crowd, but even the fastest man in the world could only move at a snail’s pace in the swamp.

When the lights went out, F1 held its breath, but it soon became clear that they had finally backed a winner. The track was a belter, the grip was sufficient to be able to drive aggressively and without too much worry about the tires, they attacked. Pass after pass followed across the field, sometimes three abreast, ducking and diving as they weaved with abandon through the city, which certainly calmed the nerves of the sport’s hierarchy that had been as tight as violin strings all weekend.

Verstappen had taken the lead from the start into the first corner, pushing polesitter Leclerc off track – for which the world champion was given a five-second time penalty, dropping him into the field. He came back nicely, as did Pérez with a fortuitous pit stop under the safety car, while Leclerc was a warrior for the Scuderia. He wrenched his Ferrari’s neck, regained the lead from Verstappen, lost it to Pérez and then won it back.

Yet Verstappen was relentless as ever, flying back towards them both, being teased by Russell’s Mercedes as he passed. By lap 37 he had regained the lead, with Leclerc delivering a denouement worthy of the race of the season. On the very last lap, the Monégasque driver threw his car into the inside of Turn 14 – the end of the Strip – in a last-ditch attempt to pass Pérez for second. It was the breathtaking bravado that the race deserved for a final.

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Max Verstappen passes the Sphere on his way to victory in Las Vegas
Max Verstappen passes the Sphere on his way to victory in Las Vegas. Photo: Antonin Vincent/DPPI/Shutterstock

This was exactly the point: the early misery of the weekend was wiped away with a sensational show that for once lived up to the hype. Verstappen may not have enjoyed the whole spectacle, but in the end he couldn’t resist participating. As the team played “Viva Las Vegas” on his radio, he sang along with enthusiasm.

Only at the business end of the weekend, behind the wheel, did Verstappen finally find time for the city. “It was a lot of fun out there,” he said. “I hope they enjoyed it, we certainly did. I’m already looking forward to coming back here next year.”

By his standards, that was a resounding endorsement this weekend and an F1 will accept it wholeheartedly. Fireworks exploded all over the city as the casinos showed their appreciation at the end, and they too will likely feel like they are part of something that has legs for the future.

As the King himself noted in Viva Las Vegas: “If you see it once, you’ll never be the same…” So on to F1, which may well have provided the catalyst to change the game in the US . Viva indeed.

Esteban Ocon finished fourth for Alpine and Lance Stroll fifth for Aston Martin. Carlos Sainz finished sixth for Ferrari. Russell and Lewis Hamilton were in seventh and eighth place for Mercedes. Fernando Alonso finished ninth for Aston Martin and Oscar Piastri tenth for McLaren.