LAS VEGAS (AP) — Max Verstappen won his 18th race of the season Saturday night by passing Charles Leclerc in the Las Vegas Grand Prix, which turned out to be one of the most competitive events of the season despite the Formula One world’s most expensive extravaganza’s disastrous start.
“Long live Las Vegas! “Long live Las Vegas!” the three-time world champion sang as he crossed under the flag waved by Justin Bieber. Verstappen had criticized the race at every opportunity, but he raced in an Elvis-inspired motorcycle suit and took victory on the famous Las Vegas Strip.
“I hope everyone enjoys it, we certainly did. I’m excited to get back here next year and try to do something similar,” said Verstappen, who has noticeably changed his stance on the Las Vegas scene.
Verstappen, Leclerc and Sergio Perez were taken in a limousine to a podium located near the Bellagio – “We go straight to the nightclub,” Verstappen told his podium teammates – but instead were treated to the casino’s famous fountain show.
The Bellagio fountains were closed all week and were restarted as part of the victory celebration. None of the participants seemed interested at all as they stood chatting. After receiving their awards, they were treated to a New Year’s Eve-style fireworks display over the Strip.
Martin Garrix then launched into a pulsating DJ set to entertain those who opened their wallets for the most expensive spectator race of the season. Celebrities danced along the grid and everyone seemed delighted with the show. Among the stars in attendance were Brad Pitt, Rihanna, Usain Bolt and Shaquille O’Neal as Formula 1 said the three-day event attracted 315,000 spectators.
The race was the third stop of the season in the United States, more than any other country, and was promoted by F1 and owner Liberty Media. But the event was criticized – especially by Verstappen – for its richness and excess.
Tickets were expensive, hotels along the famous strip raised their prices and the sporting element of the 21st race of the season was overshadowed by everything from celebrities, music acts and countless Elvis impersonators milling around the circuit which included a wedding chapel where the former Formula 1 champion had been. Champion Jacques Villeneuve married earlier in the week.
Liberty had expected to spend $500 million on its first self-promoted Grand Prix, but speculation ahead of Saturday night’s main event was that Liberty had gone well over budget. The entire event nearly collapsed nine minutes into the first practice session when Carlos Sainz Jr. ran over a water drain valve on the track, severely damaging his Ferrari and Formula 1 was forced to close the 3.85-mile (6.2 km) circuit for inspection.
Fans were forced to leave at 1:30 a.m. Thursday night after watching just nine minutes of track action. The second practice started at 2:30 a.m. and continued until 4 a.m. Instead of apologizing, Formula 1 simply offered a $200 credit to its merchandise store to any ticket holder who purchased access on Thursday alone. A class action lawsuit was filed Friday against the Las Vegas Grand Prix.
That made it important for Formula 1 to put on a good race on Saturday night, and although it was Verstappen’s sixth straight win, it was one of the most exciting events of the season. Additionally, the track, which has been likened to a “flying pig” due to its design, has been praised for its racism.
Seven-time Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton, who finished seventh for Mercedes, said the track “delivered better racing than most of the tracks we go to.”
“I don’t think the music stopped all weekend at the track,” said Williams’ Logan Sargeant, the only American driver in Formula 1.
Leclerc and his colleague Sainz had qualified 1-2 on Friday, but Sainz was fined 10 places on the starting grid because Ferrari had to change his car due to damage resulting from the collision with the drain cover. Verstappen moved up to second at the start and Verstappen immediately pounced.
The Dutchman forced Leclerc off the track to take the lead, and despite Leclerc calling for Verstappen to be forced back into position, Verstappen was only given a five-second penalty. He sent it in during a subsequent pit stop, but his Red Bull was so strong that he remained in contention throughout the entire race.
Leclerc passed Perez to take the lead with 17 laps remaining, then three laps later Verstappen passed his colleague to take second place. He and Perez then worked to create a drag that allowed Verstappen to catch Leclerc for the win with 13 laps remaining.
Perez worked his way past Leclerc to take second place, but Leclerc took him back at the end to deny Red Bull a seventh 1-2 finish of the season.
“I wanted this win so bad,” Leclerc grumbled. “But what a race it was. Honestly, there was nothing left. I had a lot of fun. Second place with a lot of battles. There is no better race for the first race in Vegas.
However, with Lewis Hamilton finishing seventh, it is likely that Perez has done enough to ensure he finishes second behind Verstappen in the final driving standings.
Leclerc’s finish helped Ferrari close the gap to Mercedes to four points to take second place in the constructors’ championship ahead of next week’s final round in Abu Dhabi.
McLaren driver Lando Norris was involved in an early accident and was taken to a local hospital for precautionary reasons. He was released shortly after the fireworks display.
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