F1 Las Vegas GP takeaways: Riveting race ends tough Sin City debut on a high

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LAS VEGAS — After a difficult start caused by the concrete framing around a water valve cover, many wondered what they could expect from the Las Vegas Grand Prix: a success or a messy Saturday night?

It turned out to be one of the best races this season, proving the doubters wrong. Plenty of battles unfolded up and down the track as Max Verstappen didn’t exactly pull away en route to his 18th win of the season. Charles Leclerc nailed a crucial last-lap overtake to edge past Sergio Pérez for a second-place finish, which helped bring Ferrari even closer to Mercedes in the battle for P2 in the constructor standings. Just four points separate the two camps heading into the final race of the year.

Meanwhile, Esteban Ocon and Lance Stroll both had mega climbs up the grid. The Alpine driver went from a P16 start to a fourth-place finish, while the Aston Martin driver powered from P19 to fifth. But not everyone was fortunate enough to have a positive weekend. Lando Norris’ day ended with a major crash, and Williams saw the potential of double-points finish slip through its fingertips.

Before we head to F1’s season finale in Abu Dhabi, here are our takeaways from the Las Vegas Grand Prix.

That was some fight up front

Even in a race with seven lead changes among three different drivers, the most thrilling moment came during a battle for second place on the final lap.

Charles Leclerc pulled a “Did you just SEE that?” move on Sergio Perez at the end of the Strip straightaway and was able to hold off the Red Bull driver for the runner-up spot.

It capped an all-around great race between Leclerc, Perez and Verstappen – who each had moments when it looked like they could perhaps become the inaugural Las Vegas winner.

“Once I went for it, I was pretty confident it would work out,” Leclerc said. “It was basically the only opportunity I had. It’s the only place where you can really go for an overtake.”

Leclerc had noticed Perez had made a “small mistake” four or five laps earlier and figured Perez would be a bit cautious under braking after that. So Leclerc decided to recharge his battery on the penultimate lap to prepare for the move, then pounced when the time was right.

“It was obviously very, very tight,” Leclerc said. “But I was really happy and really enjoyed the fight.” – Jeff Gluck

A rejuvenated Checo clinches P2

For all the talk of Perez making mistakes and underperforming this year, which led to speculation about his future at Red Bull, the 33-year-old Mexican driver still managed to clinch second place in the standings on Saturday night.

In other words, Perez ultimately did exactly what he was supposed to do this season. Yes, his results fell off after he had started the year with rapid pace – Saturday was just his fifth podium in the last 16 races – but he helped Red Bull win another constructors’ championship and led the Non-Verstappen category of drivers this season.

“It’s been a really challenging year,” he said after finishing third on Saturday night. “It started really well fighting for the championship, but in Barcelona, we had such a dominant car, and I just couldn’t set it up properly. It was just getting out of my hands. The confidence was going down.

“To manage to come back and really pull together a strong result and later in the year to be able to constantly be fighting at the top, that is really a highlight of my year.”

It might not have seemed like Perez was the “Best of the Rest” at times this season, but the stats indicate he was. With one race to go, he has the second-most wins (two), the second-most podiums (nine), the second-most laps led (146) and the second-best average finish (5.95).

– Jeff Gluck

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These two put on quite a show late in the race. (Dan Istitene – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images)

Estie Bestie’s best race since May

Esteban Ocon was forced to start 16th in Saturday’s race after his qualifying session went down the drain.

Ocon got caught up in the water valve cover incident in FP1 and, though not as badly impacted as Carlos Sainz, the Alpine driver was still staring at another potentially disappointing weekend in a frustratingly inconsistent year.

But Ocon went from his almost-at-the-back starting spot all the way to fourth, earning his best result since a podium at May’s Monaco Grand Prix.

“What a sport, really,” he said. “It’s crazy. You can go through all the emotions in one weekend.”

Ocon said he and his team were at a “very low point” on Friday, which only seemed to add to a string of setbacks (which included five DNFs in the last 11 races). But the race played out to his advantage; as others’ tires fell off, Ocon’s stayed consistent, and he sliced through the field.

“We never stopped believing in ourselves that we are doing a good job,” he said.

Jeff Gluck

Williams’ case of bad luck

The Grove-based team looked poised to potentially fight for a double-points finish after Alex Albon and Logan Sargeant qualified in the top 10. But the safety car became a curveball for Williams on Saturday night.

“I think everyone who was on the same strategy to me struggled in the midfield, like Pierre (Gasly), myself,” Albon said. “And then the ones that pitted on the safety car were, I don’t want to say lucky, but they were a bit more suited. It was tricky.”

Albon struggled with his tires graining, which he knew how to stop. “But you can’t do it because you’ve got a train of seven cars right behind you. You’re fighting every lap, you’ve having to defend every corner. You’re getting the dirt on your tires. It’s like an endless cycle of pain.”

Sargeant also felt the second safety car “honestly killed our strategy” when he was in the middle of his hard tire stint. “Could we have tried to come in and put in a new medium? Possibly. I don’t think it would have made a huge difference.” The rookie sat P12 before the safety car and had a faster pace than a few competitors ahead of him. But “once everyone was able to box for new under the safety car and we didn’t, it was just really the end of it.”

Strategy doesn’t always play in your favor.

“I don’t think we really did much wrong from a team side, from my side. At the end of the day, we both came around at the end of one lap fifth and six, which is where we started,” Sargeant said. “We did our job there. From there, it didn’t go our way.”

Madeline Coleman

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On-track entertainment from start to finish. (Dan Istitene – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images)

F1 put on the Vegas race it promised

Every reason existed to question if the Las Vegas Grand Prix could deliver. So much hype surrounded F1’s return to Nevada that it felt near impossible that it actually could, especially after an inauspicious start on Thursday followed by a suboptimal acknowledgment by race organizers on Friday over how F1 and the race organizers handled the preceding day’s events.

Some even wondered, though unlikely, if Las Vegas would be a “one-and-done.” The thinking was that nearly everything surrounding this race had gone poorly to where it would be in the best interests of all involved to walk away.

However, the heightened pessimism that reached a crescendo on Friday afternoon gave way Saturday night to an entirely different feeling after the grand prix. Thanks to a stirring race that was easily the best of the 2023 season, it’s hard not to feel like the Las Vegas Grand Prix not only fulfilled expectations but actually overdelivered.

By no measure was the race weekend a smashing success — the drain cover episode on Thursday offers proof of that — but in terms of the racing itself and whether F1 could actually stage a race that the American public would appreciate, then it’s hard to quibble with what unfolded Saturday night. That happens when the outcome is in doubt until the very end – multiple drivers had a legitimate chance to win, entertaining racing existed throughout and came with the kind of drama that is often lacking this season.

“This provided a better race than most of the tracks we go to,” said Lewis Hamilton, who finished seventh. “So hats off to the people that run the show, and [I] can’t wait to come back and be able to put on a better race next year.”

Of course, things weren’t perfect. Rarely is it that a first-year event is. There is some fine-tuning organizers can do so that the encore can improve upon the inaugural event.

The most common refrain among drivers was tweaking the fatiguing schedule. The start times for the on-track sessions, while favorable to those watching in Europe and Asia, were puzzling to those subjected to them here in Las Vegas. Drivers expressed a desire for the next Las Vegas race to not start at 10 p.m. PT, or have a practice in the middle of the night.

Crafting a schedule that suits everybody’s well-being and fulfills commercial objectives is especially difficult for a sport that crisscrosses the globe. But if the idea is for the Las Vegas Grand Prix to evolve into the kind of event F1 desires for it to be, then you’d hope they can make some adjustments.

“Three A.M. FP2 just doesn’t work for me, past my bedtime,” Stroll said. “I think maybe we got to pull everything a little forward next year.”

It’s a fair critique. But considering how the weekend began, that this was a talking point post-race and not something of more consequence means F1 deserves credit for moving past the events on Thursday and Friday. It provided the kind of race it said it would.

“I am especially happy to see that we finished this weekend on a high note because it was hurting me to see the sport that I love so much starting from the wrong foot on Thursday,” said race runner-up Charles Leclerc. “But the fact that we had an amazing race I think makes it all up and I’m happy with that. So yeah, not much more to change apart from the timing.” — Jordan Bianchi

More from The Athletic’s Las Vegas Grand Prix coverage:

F1 news live updates: Lewis Hamilton excited by Las Vegas GP ‘opportunity’

F1’s Sphere takeover: From traffic snarl to Las Vegas GP’s ‘incredible backdrop’

Why F1’s first Las Vegas grand prix was an utter failure — and a ‘lesson learned’

Las Vegas GP hotels go all-in on F1, from Bottas haircuts to ‘Shoey Bars’

Our turn-by-turn breakdown of the Las Vegas Strip Circuit

Why the F1 Las Vegas Grand Prix starts at 10 p.m. PT

F1’s ‘unacceptable’ night in Las Vegas: How a water valve cover halted practice

(Lead images: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images, Mario Renzi/Formula 1 via Getty Images, Kym Illman/Getty Images; Design: Eamonn Dalton/The Athletic)

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