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Sunday, 19 November 2023 11:07

Max Verstappen overcomes early penalty to win thriller in Las Vegas.

By Andrew Benson.

Max Verstappen fought back from a five-second penalty and dropping to fifth to win a gripping Las Vegas Grand Prix.

He complained on Wednesday it was "99% show" but the show was all on track in one of the best races of the season.

Verstappen, his team-mate Sergio Perez and Ferrari's Charles Leclerc swapped and re-swapped places throughout as they fought for the podium positions.

Verstappen moved into the lead with 16 laps to go but Leclerc passed Perez back on the final lap to secure second.

Verstappen was penalised five seconds for forcing Leclerc off track at the first corner, suffered a damaged front wing in a collision with Mercedes' George Russell and made an extra pit stop than Leclerc under a mid-race safety car - the second in an action-packed race.

But the pace of the man who has utterly dominated the season inevitably prevailed and he climbed back up to pass Leclerc for the lead with 13 laps to go for his 18th win of his record-breaking season.

There were battles throughout the field as F1 put on the spectacle its bosses had hoped for when they invested upwards of £500m - including building a pit building on a plot of land the sport bought in the centre of the Nevada city.

The investment - which will take in the region of three years to be repaid - already proved worthwhile as the drivers staged arguably the best race of the season.

A race befitting the hype

The drama began at the beginning when Verstappen, making a better start than Leclerc from second on the grid, got up the inside of the Ferrari into the first corner.

But the Dutchman misjudged his braking and forced Leclerc wide and off track as both cars speared into the run-off area.

It was reminiscent of some of the controversial moves pulled by Verstappen on Lewis Hamilton in their titanic battle for the title in 2021.

He protested that he was ahead at the apex, but that was untrue, and the stewards agreed with Leclerc that the move was worthy of a penalty.

He wanted Verstappen to give him back the position but Red Bull decided to leave their driver where he was and take the penalty, which the world champion served at his first pit stop on lap 16.

But that pit stop was from second place, not the lead. Rather than waltz off into the distance after taking the lead, Verstappen found it impossible to shake off Leclerc, and as Verstappen struggled with his tyres after lap 10 the Ferrari closed in and was able to pass the Red Bull at the end of the Strip on lap 16, triggering the Red Bull stop.

That put Leclerc in the lead and he stayed out for a further five laps, now with Perez behind him.

The Mexican had dropped to the back when he was involved in a melee at the first corner involving several cars and needed a pit stop for a new front wing.

But he moved up the field, helped by not stopping under the first safety car, triggered by a heavy crash for Lando Norris' McLaren.

Leclerc's pit stop on lap 21 put Perez into the lead, and his race was aided enormously by a safety car shortly afterwards, called to recover debris from the track following the Russell-Verstappen collision.

The debris was Verstappen's front wing endplate but its loss seemed not to slow him down.

At the safety car, Perez pitted for a second set of hard tyres, as did Verstappen, while Leclerc, on tyres only five laps old, did not.

The stops dropped Perez and Verstappen to second and fifth, Verstappen also behind the Alpine of Pierre Gasly and Oscar Piastri's McLaren.

At the restart, Leclerc managed to hold Perez off, despite the five-lap tyre offset, for three laps before the Red Bull got him on the straight.

Rather than dropping away, Leclerc hung on to Perez and re-passed him with a stunning late-braking move at the end of the Strip on lap 34.

By now, Verstappen had picked off Gasly and Piastri and homed in on the leaders and he passed Perez down the Strip two laps later.

Leclerc fought as hard as he could but the inevitable happened on lap 37 as Verstappen steamed past into Turn 14 with the help of the DRS overtaking aid.

Perez then chased Leclerc and took back second place, and Red Bull looked to be on for a one-two.

But Leclerc had other ideas. He hung on to Perez and as the race neared its climax he was on the Red Bull's tail as they started the final lap, and down the straight he made another great late-braking move to clinch second into Turn 14 at the end of the Strip.

He admitted after the race that Ferrari had not pitted under the second safety car because they did not know what the others would do, and said: "We got a little bit unlucky there," but said he had "really enjoyed the race even though I wanted to win".

Verstappen, after his criticisms of Las Vegas throughout the weekend - one for each day - said: "It was a lot of fun. The DRS helped a lot with good racing and the tarmac you could push on the tyres. It was a lot of fun.

"I hope the fans enjoyed it and already excited to come back here and hopefully do something similar."

Intense battles everywhere

The top three were not the only drivers providing entertainment in Sin City as there were similarly intense battles throughout the field.

Esteban Ocon's Alpine took fourth place with a single stop, the same strategy as Leclerc.

Lance Stroll was fifth for Aston Martin, while Carlos Sainz and Lewis Hamilton fought up from 12th and 11th on the grid to take sixth and seventh places.

Hamilton's team-mate Russell was eighth, serving a five-second penalty for the collision with Verstappen mid-race at Turn 12, while Fernando Alonso was ninth for Aston Martin after a spin at the first corner, which gave him damage and a first-lap pit stop.

Hamilton was unlucky. A puncture after a collision with Piastri on lap 16 cost him 15 seconds because he had to do a full lap with the deflating rear tyre - only realising the problem as he passed the pit entry.

That forced him off the one-stop inverted hard-medium strategy Mercedes had chosen and required a second pit stop.

Russell was the architect of his own demise, turning in on Verstappen in their collision and not only earning himself the penalty but causing a safety car that allowed Perez to jump up into the top-three fight from a position that would otherwise have been significantly lower.

Piastri took the final point. Norris was taken to hospital for further check-ups after initially being assessed at the medical centre, but was walking away from his car after his crash.

Norris was later discharged when all checks came back clear.