LAS VEGAS (AP) — Max Verstappen won his 18th race of the season Saturday night with a pass of Charles Leclerc at the Las Vegas Grand Prix, which turned out to be one of the most competitive events of the season despite a disastrous start to Formula One's expensive extravaganza.
“Viva Las Vegas! Viva Las Vegas!” sang the three-time reigning world champion as he crossed under the checkered flag waved by Justin Bieber. Verstappen had slammed the race at every chance, yet raced in an Elvis-inspired firesuit and took the victory on the famed Las Vegas Strip.
“I hope everyone enjoyed it, we definitely did. Excited to come back here next year and try to do something similar,” said Verstappen, who had markedly reversed his position on the Las Vegas spectacle.
Verstappen, Leclerc and Sergio Perez were driven in a limousine to a podium located near the Bellagio — "we go straight to the nightclub,” Verstappen told his fellow podium finishers — but they were instead treated to the casino's famed fountain show.
The Bellagio fountains had been turned off all week and restarted as part of the victory celebration. None of the participants seemed remotely interested as they stood chatting. After receiving their trophies, they were treated to a New Year’s Eve-style fireworks show over the Strip.
Martin Garrix then launched into a throbbing DJ set to entertain those who opened their wallets for the most expensive spectator race of the season. Celebrities danced along on the grid and everyone seemed thrilled with the show and the stars in attendance included Brad Pitt, Rihanna, Usain Bolt and Shaquille O’Neal as F1 said the three-day event drew 315,000 spectators.
The race was the the third stop this season in the United States, more than any other country, and was promoted by F1 and owner Liberty Media. But the event has been lambasted — especially by Verstappen — for its opulence and excess.
Tickets were expensive, hotels along the famed Strip hiked their prices, and the sporting element of the 21st race of the season was overshadowed by everything from celebrities, musical acts and a myriad of Elvis impersonators roaming the paddock that included a wedding chapel where former F1 champion Jacques Villeneuve was married earlier in the week.
Liberty expected to spend $500 million on the first grand prix it self-promoted, but paddock speculation before Saturday night's main event was that Liberty had gone well over budget. The entire event nearly imploded nine minutes into the first practice session when Carlos Sainz Jr. ran over a water drain valve on the track that badly damaged his Ferrari and F1 had to close the 3.85-mile (6.2-kilometer) circuit for inspection.
Fans were forced to leave at 1:30 a.m. Thursday night after witnessing just nine minutes of track activity. The second practice started at 2:30 a.m. and ran until 4 a.m., and instead of an apology, F1 simply offered $200 credits to its merchandise store to any ticket holders who had only purchased Thursday access. A class-action lawsuit was filed Friday against the Las Vegas Grand Prix.
It made it critical for F1 to deliver a good race Saturday night and, even though it was Verstappen's sixth consecutive victory, it was one of the most spirited events of the season. Additionally, a track that had been likened to a “flying pig” because of its layout was praised for its raciness.
Seven-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton, who finished seventh for Mercedes, said the circuit “provided a better race than most of the tracks we go to.”
“I don't think the music stopped this entire weekend in the paddock,” said Logan Sargeant of Williams, the only American driver in F1.
Leclerc and teammate Sainz had qualified 1-2 on Friday but Sainz was handed a 10-place penalty on the starting grid because Ferrari was forced to change his car because of the damage from hitting the drain cover. That pushed Verstappen up to second for the start and Verstappen immediately pounced.
The Dutchman forced Leclerc off track to take the lead, and although Leclerc demanded that Verstappen be forced to give the position back, Verstappen was only handed a five-second penalty. He served it during a later pit stop, but his Red Bull is so strong, he remained in contention the entire race.
Leclerc passed Perez for the lead with 17 laps remaining, and then three laps later Verstappen passed his teammate to take second. He and Perez then worked to create a tow that allowed Verstappen to catch Leclerc for the win with 13 laps remaining.
Perez had worked his way past Leclerc for second but Leclerc grabbed it back at the finish to deny Red Bull its seventh 1-2 finish of the season.
“I wanted that win so bad," Leclerc moaned. “But what a race. Honestly, there is nothing left. I enjoyed it so much. Second place with a lot of fights. There is no better race for the first race in Vegas.
Even so, with Lewis Hamilton finishing seventh, Perez likely did enough to ensure he will finish second to Verstappen in the final driver standings.
The Leclerc finish helped Ferrari cut its deficit to Mercedes to four points for second in the constructor championship headed into next week's finale at Abu Dhabi.
Lando Norris of McLaren was involved in an early accident and taken to a local hospital for precautionary reasons. He was released shortly after the fireworks show.
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