Verstappen earns 18th win of F1 season in spirited Las Vegas Grand Prix

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 the checkered flag waved by Justin Bieber. Verstappen had slammed the race at every chance, yet raced in an Elvis-inspired fire-suit and took the victory on the famed Las Vegas Strip. 

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, a myriad of Elvis impersonators roaming the paddock and 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 that utilizes a long portion of the Strip 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 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. 

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 at the start. 

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 Sergio 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. Oh my God.” 

Even so, with Lewis Hamilton finishing seventh, Perez likely did enough to ensure he will finish second to Verstappen in the final driver standings. 

Verstappen, Leclerc and Perez were then driven in a limousine to the victory podium. 

“We go straight to the nightclub,” Verstappen told his fellow podium finishers during the limo ride. 

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.

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