Max Verstappen holds off challenge of Charles Leclerc to win Miami F1 GP

The tequila has flowed freely this weekend in Miami as Formula One threw its all into hosting the party it wanted in order to celebrate its inaugural race here. By the time the chequered flag flew, Max Verstappen was unequivocal that he and his Red Bull team deserved a drink of their own having edged Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc into second place.

The Dutchman had to come back against the odds after a trying weekend to deliver with consummate skill a victory that again proved beyond doubt just what a level he is operating at when he has the car he wants beneath him and a race by the scruff of the neck.

In control at the Miami International Autodrome, he delivered an ice-cool performance on an afternoon baking in the Florida sunshine and amid huge expectations for this first race here, a key part of Formula One’s efforts to break America.

To that end, after a weekend of showbiz, of wanting to present an entertainment spectacle right down to the construction of a fake yacht marina within the circuit, they finished it off by having Dan Marino handing out a trophy and the traditional winning caps replaced by American football helmets. All of which felt fitting: there are 23 races this season and F1 certainly has room for one of this flavour if, as it appears to do, it pleases the fans in the US.

Certainly Verstappen felt like celebrating. “I think I need a drink, and I think you also need a drink,” he said to the team as he crossed the line. He had had to execute flawlessly to seal another ominously strong win and imbue his assault on the title with further momentum. With this, his third win of the season, Leclerc’s lead to Verstappen was cut from 27 to 19 points.

Carlos Sainz was in third for Ferrari, with Mercedes enjoying an improved afternoon after recent travails with George Russell and Lewis Hamilton taking fifth and sixth. But Hamilton was unhappy with his team for offering him the chance to choose strategy options during the race.

“In that scenario I have no clue where everyone is,” he said. “When the team says ‘it is your choice’, I don’t have the information to make the decision. That’s what your job is. Today they gave it to me and I didn’t understand it. I am excited at some stage to take a step forward, which we haven’t yet.”

The victory for Verstappen had been far from a given over the weekend. He lost an enormous amount of time learning the new track after mechanical problems in practice and subsequently made a small error in qualifying that meant he could manage no better than third on the grid.

Come the race his work was cut out but he proved from the off that he intended to be as feisty and decisive as ever. Starting from pole, Leclerc had held his lead into turn one but behind him Verstappen made his mark immediately, launching himself up the outside of Sainz in a superb move to claim second place. It was a vital pass for Verstappen to split the two Ferraris.

The two title protagonists were once more quickly into a race of their own but Ferrari and Leclerc were under the cosh. With Leclerc’s tyres taking a pounding and having made an error in turn 17, Verstappen with dominant race pace once more made a decisive move up the inside of turn one on lap nine. Just as he had at the last round in Imola he had a lead that he never looked like surrendering.

He enjoyed a more than two-second advantage by lap 12 and held his lead through the only pitstops. Ferrari were simply not in the fight and Verstappen was proving he is rarely prone to error when given freedom to dictate in clean air.

Crucially however, the reigning champion showed his mettle once more in the dying stages. He held his place after a late safety car and while Leclerc stuck with him and pressured hard to the flag, he duly closed it out. This was recognisably the control and calm of a champion. Hamilton, watching after an afternoon when he was once more disappointed to be passed by Russell after his teammate was the beneficiary of a fresh tyres under the safety car, would be all too familiar with Verstappen’s serene delivery.

Red Bull’s team principal Christian Horner paid tribute to the achievement. “Well done mate, you really made that work,” he said. “Well done for hanging on and we got fastest lap as well.”

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It was not perhaps quite the spectacle Miami had been hoping for but on this form Ferrari and Leclerc need to find more to take the fight to Verstappen. F1 will nonetheless consider its first outing in Miami a hit, certainly the sold-out event with 82,500 fans was embraced by them with huge enthusiasm. The grandstands roared to every move being made on track.

Verstappen played the leading role in that success story and indeed now in F1’s racing history in the sunshine state. This was the first time a GP has been held in Florida since 1959, when Sebring played host and Jack Brabham clinched the title by pushing his fuelless car over the line to take fourth place.