Max Verstappen scored a hard-fought victory over Charles Leclerc and Sergio Perez at the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix, despite a first-lap penalty and a mid-race crash leaving him with damage.
Verstappen pinched first place from pole-getter Leclerc off the line, but he sailed way off track when he hit the brakes at the first turn from the dirty inside line, taking the Ferrari driver with him.
They rejoined with Verstappen still in the lead, but Leclerc was immediately fuming over team radio.
“This needs to be addressed now,” he said. “He pushed me wide, so he needs to give that position back.”
The stewards noted the incident and slapped the Dutchman with a 5s penalty.
At first it appeared an academic punishment, with Verstappen out to a 2.5s advantage less than 10 laps into the race, but Leclerc began reeling him in as the Red Bull Racing car’s medium tires expired.
By lap 16 the Monegasque driver was through on the brakes at the end of the Strip, sending Verstappen directly to pit lane for a tire change and to serve his penalty.
Leclerc saved his first stop until lap 21, switching his mediums for hards. He emerged with a comfortable lead over Verstappen, whose race appeared to be going from difficult to painful.
The Dutchman’s stop had dropped him down to 11th, and he tangled with George Russell into Turn 12, the tight right-hander leading onto the Strip, in his haste to recover.
Verstappen hit the brakes from a long way back to pull alongside the Mercedes, but Russell turned in all the same. They made contact, damaging both cars and earning Russell with a 5s penalty.
But the altercation ironically aided Verstappen’s recovery, with the debris on track triggering a safety car, and gifting him a cheap second stop.
Ahead of him at the restart was leader Leclerc and a super Sergio Perez, who was executing a rousing recovery from 11th on the grid.
The Mexican’s race started off disastrously when he was caught up in a hapless Fernando Alonso first-turn spin that damaged his front wing attempting to take evasive action.
He had to pit for repairs, switching onto the favored hard tires to run long, but a safety car on lap 3 gifted him a second chance.
Lando Norris lost control of his car through the fast sweeps of Turn 10-11, crunching against the barrier and careering into the run-off zone.
The Briton walked away from the wreckage but was sent to a nearby hospital for precautionary checks.
Perez restarted 16th in the pack, but his pace through the middle of the race was tremendous – so much so that he was shuffled into the lead of the race once the rest of the field made their first stops, albeit he was out of sequence with the leaders. The second safety car to clean up Verstappen and Russell’s debris brought him back onto equal terms and set him up in second for the lap-29 restart.
He wasted little time putting a move on Leclerc, his DRS wide open to sweep past at the end of the Strip on lap 32.But he couldn’t shake the Ferrari, which was faster in a straight line, and Leclerc busted back three laps later with a late-braking move into the chicane.
The scuffle helped Verstappen haul himself back into play. He’d quickly passed the out-of-sequence Oscar Piastri and Pierre Gasly, and with his fresher tires he made clinical moves on the slowest Perez and Leclerc back to back on laps 36 and 37 to finally take back a lead he wouldn’t relinquish again.
“It was a tough one,” Verstappen said. “I had to pass quick a few cars.
“There was a lot going on in the race.
“It was definitely a lot of fun.”
The battle for second appeared to settle with Leclerc’s tires expiring, being five laps older than Perez’s set after Ferrari opted not to stop behind the second safety car.
But the Leclerc’s better straight-line speed kept the Mexican in sight, and a last-gasp move on the brakes into the chicane on the final lap set up a drag to the line.
For the second time in as many races Perez was defeated by less than 0.2s at the flag.
“What a race,” Leclerc said. “I enjoyed it so much.
“I’m of course disappointed to only finish second, but at the end it’s the best we could do.”
Perez was pleased to have executed a strong recovery drive and net second in the drivers championship, cementing Red Bull Racing’s first one-two finish in the individual standings.
“In the end with Charles I wasn’t expecting him,” he said. “But then in the braking zone he was there.
“Well done to him and to Max.”
Russell finished fourth on the road but was demoted to eighth with his penalty, promoting Esteban Ocon after an excellent rise from 16th on the grid.
The Frenchman made up nine places in the opening laps and the rest with a one-stop strategy that left him defending against the faster Lance Stroll, Carlos Sainz and Lewis Hamilton in the final stint, holding them off by just 1.4s.
Alonso finished ninth despite his clumsy first-lap spin, the Spaniard capitalizing on the timing of the safety cars to recover.
Oscar Piastri scored the final point of the race in 10th. The Aussie rookie looked good for a heavy score after rising from 18th to 11th in the early laps, but light contact with Hamilton on lap 16 through the chicane sent him into the pits with a puncture.
He switched to another set of hards and was running as high as third late in the race, but the requirement to run the medium tire forced him back down the order, from where he rescued a single point.