Las Vegas GP preview: Leclerc takes his shot at a win, Williams bids to cash in

Keep up to speed with all our coverage from the Las Vegas Grand Prix right here.

After all the hype, all the build up, all the chaos of FP1 and the surprises of FP3, we finally got to see Formula One cars racing down the Las Vegas Strip. And based on this morning’s qualifying session, we’re in for an interesting race come Saturday night.

McLaren, the comeback kid of the second half of the season, lost both cars in Q1. Williams put both cars in Q3. Charles Leclerc secured his best shot of the year at winning a race, while Carlos Sainz, Sergio Pérez and Lewis Hamilton have proper fights ahead of them if they plan on bagging serious points.

Beyond the nature of the race itself, we’ve got a bigger question going into the grand prix: We’ve been talking all year about what this race means for F1, what would qualify it as a success or a bust. Saturday night, we get our answers.

Here’s what we’re looking forward to from the Las Vegas Grand Prix.

Leclerc’s best chance of winning a race in 2023

Each of the four times he’s taken pole this year, Leclerc has downplayed his chances of converting it into a race win. Although Ferrari has given Leclerc a car capable of fighting Max Verstappen and Red Bull over a single lap, the long runs in the race have been a very different story.

Ferrari proved in Singapore how strong it can be on street tracks when Sainz took a hard-fought victory — Red Bull’s only loss in 2023 — but Leclerc was reluctant to use it as evidence he had a chance to win in Las Vegas. The wider track and longer straights make for more overtaking opportunities, meaning he thought it would be “very, very different.”

Yet he was still optimistic about his chances. He won’t have Sainz as a wingman at the front due to the Spaniard’s harsh, 10-place grid penalty, but Verstappen will start on the dirty side of the grid — off the racing line, meaning less rubber has been laid down — which is likely to hinder his getaway.

Leclerc said his long-run pace so far in Las Vegas looked “stronger than other races, not to say we are stronger in race pace compared to Max, but I think we are closer than other races.”

“So if there is one race to win since Singapore, it’s this one. I’ll obviously give it all.”

Verstappen isn’t the biggest fan of street tracks, and he conceded Red Bull hadn’t been feeling as comfortable as usual so far in Las Vegas. The Dutchman anticipated it could be a tactical race where tire management is key.

For Leclerc, this is the chance he’s been waiting for all season. He’s not won a race since Austria in July 2022, often powerless to beat Verstappen even after taking pole. Las Vegas may be a different story. — Luke Smith

McLaren’s chances of a recovery

McLaren suffered its first double Q1 knockout since the Miami Grand Prix, but it had a completely different car back then. After that miserable race in early May, Lando Norris was ninth in the driver standings and Oscar Piastri was tied for 13th.

Six months later, Norris is fifth in points — just three behind fourth-place Fernando Alonso — and the rookie Piastri is ninth. That’s a reflection of the team’s surge in performance, which has seen Norris score points in 12 straight races.

After the team qualified toward the back of the field, though, Las Vegas will provide a challenge to keep that streak alive.

“Just been struggling with the car on this circuit,” Norris said. “We said it before this weekend and I’d say it’s painful we didn’t even get through to Q2.”

McLaren’s car isn’t suited for Las Vegas, which has a combination of slow corners and long straightaways. As McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown told the TV broadcast, its car performs better on tracks with fast, sweeping corners.

But Piastri said the poor qualifying result resulted from a misplayed tire strategy rather than something related to the speed of the car, which could set the table for a decent comeback effort on Saturday night.

“The pace of the car is still not a concern,” Piastri said. — Jeff Gluck

A challenging climb ahead for Sainz, Pérez and Hamilton

Three big names – Hamilton, Pérez and Sainz – will have their work cut out for them in the Las Vegas GP. Hamilton and Pérez will start outside the top 10 after not making it into Q3. Hamilton couldn’t get his six-lap-old tires into the right window and will start P11. Pérez was a victim of track evolution, as Red Bull pitted him early with two minutes left in the session. Meanwhile, Sainz placed second but will start P12 thanks to his 10-spot grid penalty as part of the FP1 shenanigans on Thursday. All three will have a tough time climbing through the field – the top speeds on the Las Vegas Strip Circuit look impressive, but hopes aren’t very high that overtaking will be easy.

But all three have the uncertainty factor in their favor. The possibility of a safety car is always higher on street circuits like Las Vegas or Jeddah, where the speeds are super and the walls on either side are quite narrow. Drivers are also still learning where they can push the limits around this circuit, especially in a proper race. They’ll be running Monza-level speeds on a slippery surface, since the regular day use by Las Vegas traffic will keep the track from rubbering in. There’s an excellent chance things go awry up front on Saturday night. The long game could pay off – as long as they can navigate the tricky tire conditions. — Patrick Iversen

Can Williams convert a double top 10 start into points?

The Grove-based team became one of the top stories in qualifying as Sargeant and Albon took advantage of key opportunities to secure a double top 10 start for Saturday’s race.

The straights played in Williams’ favor given the FW45’s strengths, and third practice showed the team’s potential with Sargeant finishing P3 and Albon sixth. It’s clear that Williams could be competitive, and the lower temperatures play in the team’s favor, team principal James Vowles told Sky Sports.

“I think that was a dream actually before the weekend coming here. We knew we’d be quick here, there’s some elements of the track that definitely suit our car,” Vowles said. “One of them is the temperature. To actually have both cars in the top 10, nicely in the top 10, within six-tenths of pole, that’s a great achievement.”

Albon has been a consistent force for Williams this season while Sargeant has been more of a wildcard. The potential has been clear, but mistakes have overshadowed that. Friday’s qualifying session, though, showed signs of him putting together a full weekend — something he has been building towards in recent race weekends.

“For Logan, this is now a blank sheet for everyone. No one has done a lap around here. For a rookie, that means everyone is on equal pegging, a lot more than on other tracks, and that’s allowed him to get into it,” Vowles said to Sky. “The second is Logan across the last four or five weekends, you’ll see he’s really been building up into it across the weekend, no mistakes, just gently building into it. From here in FP3, you saw laps where Alex was in terms of performance, and he didn’t put a foot wrong in qualifying.”

Williams sits seven points clear of AlphaTauri heading into this weekend and stands a chance to clinch seventh in the constructor standings before the paddock flies to Abu Dhabi for the season finale. But to do so, it needs a clean Saturday night. — Madeline Coleman



Logan Sargeant’s first F1 point came at the perfect time for his 2024 seat chase

Can Las Vegas provide a quality race?

Considering the mess in FP1, this is a loaded question. After all, who would’ve predicted that just eight minutes into the first on track session a drain cover would come loose and severely damage a handful of cars, prompting the session’s cancellation?

But since that chaos, there haven’t been any issues with the track. So it feels like this issue can be put to bed, creating the expectation that the race runs smoothly.

As for whether the Las Vegas Grand Prix will be “good,” that largely depends on whether the speed Ferrari has shown throughout the weekend carries into the race. Four times this season, Leclerc has won the pole, only to be unable to back it up in the race with Red Bull’s overall superiority shining through. Is Las Vegas really going to be all that different?

That Verstappen is starting next to Leclerc on the front row heightens the difficulty, affording Leclerc little time to build up a gap between them. Should Leclerc be able to get away at the beginning, Verstappen will have to shift into attack, thereby creating the dynamic where the winner doesn’t feel like a foregone conclusion.

We’ll see — though thinking Las Vegas won’t be another Verstappen runaway feels unwise.  — Jordan Bianchi

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

‘Lesson learned’: The utter failure of F1’s first Las Vegas grand prix

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

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

(Lead image of Charles Leclerc, F1 fans and Logan Sargeant: David Becker – Formula 1, Clive Mason – Formula 1 via Getty Images)

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