Las Vegas GP driver rankings: Leclerc class of the field on the Strip Circuit

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LAS VEGAS — The Las Vegas Grand Prix started with a potentially dangerous scenario when the concrete framing around a water valve cover failed, but ended on a high when the sporting side delivered. That being said, changes are needed next year.

It was another Max Verstappen win, but it wasn’t as clean as his other victories — and he had to fight for it. Charles Leclerc nailed a critical last lap overtake on Sergio Pérez to secure second, while other drivers, like Esteban Ocon and Lance Stroll, made major climbs from near the back of the pack to strong points finishes.

Meanwhile, the second safety car became a curveball and wrecked some teams’ strategies, like Williams’. The FW45 had the pace for points, but struggled with tire graining. Alex Albon said, “I think everyone who was on the same strategy to me struggled in the midfield, like Pierre (Gasly), myself. And then the ones that pitted on the safety car were, I don’t want to say lucky, but they were a bit more suited. It was tricky.”

After a spectacle-surrounded grand prix, here are our top 10 drivers for Las Vegas. Let us know your thoughts on the ranking in the comments section at the bottom. — Madeline Coleman, Luke Smith and Jordan Bianchi

1. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari)

Start: P1

Finish: P2

This was Leclerc’s best chance of winning a race in 2023 — and at one stage, it looked to be his to lose. He had the pace on the mediums to fight Verstappen, ensuring the Dutchman could not pull away in the opening stint.

Leclerc pitted a bit later to build a tire delta over Verstappen, who was four seconds down after serving a time penalty and behind George Russell on-track. But the Ferrari wasn’t as comfortable on the hard tires, allowing both Verstappen and Pérez to close the gap. The decision not to pit under the safety car would hurt Ferrari, but given Leclerc had only pitted a handful of laps before, there was sense behind the decision.

There was little else Leclerc could have done to won the race. He didn’t have the pace to live with Verstappen, but his lunge to get back past Pérez on the final lap was superb. Huge credit must also go to the Monégasque for his performance in qualifying to get pole. Yes, this was a missed opportunity. But he was still the class of the field in Las Vegas.

2. Max Verstappen (Red Bull)

Start: P2

Finish: P1

At this point it’s becoming obscene how Verstappen continues to rewrite the record book, this being his 18th win in 21 races. A look at the final rundown would indicate that this was just another rote victory for the three-time world champion.

Except there was nothing ordinary about how Verstappen won on Saturday, in a race filled with the kind of hurdles he’s not had to face often in 2023. It’s these setbacks that cost Verstappen a spot in this week’s rankings, as he turned in anything but a flawless performance in Las Vegas.

In qualifying, Verstappen couldn’t unseat Leclerc for the pole. Then, he got into the Ferrari driver in the first corner in the race, drawing a five-second penalty. Further problems came in the form of Russell chopping him off as they fought for position, damaging the Red Bull car — avoidable contact that Russell was penalized for.

Nonetheless, through all the adversity, Verstappen found a way to win the 53rd grand prix of his career, tying Sebastian Vettel on the all-time list. In doing so, he displayed a level of tenacity he hasn’t had to exhibit too frequently this season.

3. Esteban Ocon (Alpine)

Start: P16

Finish: P4

After a roller coaster season, Ocon caught a break in Las Vegas.

His Friday featured a rough qualifying outing, where a squabble with Verstappen may have cost him a chance at Q1. Instead, the Alpine driver qualified P17 and lined up for Saturday’s race at 16th due to Stroll’s penalty. “That was probably at the lowest point of the season (Friday night), very, very disappointed,” Ocon said. “It’s been six races, I would say Singapore, we don’t seem to catch very much of a break.”

But come Saturday night, Ocon reversed his recent bout of bad luck. He avoided the Turn 1 chaos and navigated his way to eighth by the end of the lap. Alpine’s pace was competitive throughout the weekend when it counted, and Ocon’s climb continued to finish fourth.

LAS VEGAS, NV - NOVEMBER 18: Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz (55) of Spain prior to the inaugural Formula 1 Heineken Silver Las Vegas Gran Prix on November 18, 2023 on the Las Vegas Street Circuit in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Speer/Icon Sportswire)

Carlos Sainz performed admirably after a gutting penalty that dropped him 10 grid places. (Jeff Speer/Icon Sportswire)

4. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari)

Start: P12

Finish: P6

How different Sainz’s weekend might have looked without the water valve cover wrecking his car eight minutes into practice on Thursday night. The damage was huge and required a monumental effort from the Ferrari mechanics to fix it up, remarkably getting the job done for FP2.

It didn’t stop the FIA sticking diligently to the rulebook, handing him a 10-place grid drop for the extra power unit component required due to the damage. A really harsh decision that undid Sainz’s fine performance in qualifying, where he narrowly missed out on pole, dropping from P2 to P12 on the grid.

It only got worse at the start when Sainz was caught in contact and dropped back, but his recovery was impressive. Struggles with graining meant he couldn’t climb any higher than seventh by the flag — sixth after Russell’s penalty — but he appeared to have the pace to contend with the leaders had he started with them. A rough break.

5. Sergio Pérez (Red Bull)

Start: P11

Finish: P3

Coming into the weekend, Pérez’s goal was to lock up second position in the world championship, giving Red Bull its first 1-2 finish. That task became harder after he was bounced in Q2 due to a miscommunication with the team over how much time remained in the session.

Like quite a few drivers, Pérez capitalized on a topsy-turvy race by exercising patience and moving forward. It nearly paid off with his third victory on the season, only for him to get passed by Red Bull teammate Verstappen and Ferrari’s Leclerc late in the race.

Still, by finishing third, Pérez was solidified his runner-up spot in the standings. That’s quite an accomplishment for someone who’s faced scrutiny for his performance, leading to some wondering if Red Bull would be wise to jettison the Mexican driver. It may not totally quash the speculation, but it can’t hurt. And Pérez should be proud that he’s largely done what’s been expected of him in being the ideal wingman to Verstappen.

6. Lance Stroll (Aston Martin)

Start: P19

Finish: P5

Coming off a strong all around effort in Sao Paulo, it was a disappointment for Stroll to start 19th, in part due to a five grid penalty for overtaking under a yellow flag period. It seemed to set the table for a long race where scoring any points would be a longshot.

Stroll adeptly avoided the Lap 1, Turn 1 pileup in front of him to where he quickly moved inside the top 10. His race was aided by a safety car for the incident between Verstappen and Russell that allowed him to pit, plus a penalty issued to Russell, but Stroll took advantage by driving a smart, patient race that awarded him a fifth-place finish for the second consecutive race.

With Alonso coming ninth, Aston Martin scored double points. The team is now just 11 points behind McLaren for fourth in the constructors’ championship, giving Aston Martin a fighting chance to get ahead in the finale at Abu Dhabi.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - NOVEMBER 18: Nico Hulkenberg of Germany driving the (27) Haas F1 VF-23 Ferrari leads Oscar Piastri of Australia driving the (81) McLaren MCL60 Mercedes and Yuki Tsunoda of Japan driving the (22) Scuderia AlphaTauri AT04 on track during the F1 Grand Prix of Las Vegas at Las Vegas Strip Circuit on November 18, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Oscar Piastri had good pace, but was foiled by bad luck and strategy. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

7. Oscar Piastri (McLaren)

Start: P18

Finish: P10

The rookie’s weekend looked bleak after he qualified P19 for Saturday night’s race, a stark contrast to his last five races that saw him line up in the top 10. But he managed to navigate his way through the grid, finding himself as high as third after the second safety car period.

But tires ended up contributing to his fall to a 10th-place finish.

The rules stipulate that drivers need to use two different tire compounds during the race, and during Piastri’s first two stints, he stuck with hard tires, meaning he needed to pit a second time. He was the last driver to pit, coming in on lap 43 of 50. While others pitted during the second safety car period, Piastri stayed out, which saw him jump from ninth to third. But having to pit later one made him drop out of points contention, until he passed Gasly. He also set the fastest lap, so earned himself two points on the day.

He had the pace, but his fall boiled down to bad luck and strategy.

8. George Russell (Mercedes)

Start: P3

Finish: P8

This was another missed chance for Russell in a season filled with missed chances. He qualified excellently and, had Verstappen pushed Leclerc a little wider at Turn 1, could well have been leading on the opening lap.

Russell got the jump on Verstappen when the Red Bull driver served his penalty, but the resulting battle would prove to be his downfall. Russell admitted Verstappen was simply in his blind spot and took the blame for not realizing he was there on the inside, with the resulting penalty and safety car ending all hopes of a podium. Good pace, but paid the price for his own error.

9. Pierre Gasly (Alpine)

Start: P4

Finish: P11

Gasly looked poised to be Alpine’s leading driver after qualifying fifth (his best of the season), but a tire change ended up being unlucky.

The Frenchman was sitting third after the Lap 29 safety car restart, but soon began sliding backwards because of his hard tires. He said, per, “I grained the tires quite early on, and just had no pace for the majority of the second part of the race. I tried to defend as much as I could but it’s quite frustrating, I must say, after such a good [qualifying].”

10. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)

Start: P10

Finish: P7

Like Russell, Hamilton’s race held great promise and could even have yielded a podium, only for things to unravel due to contact. Despite the Q2 exit and slipping back at the start, Hamilton recovered well to get in the train behind Alex Albon that included Ocon and Piastri.

Contact with Piastri would leave Hamilton with a puncture that ruined his race. He limped home for a fresh set of tires, then went on a charge in the second half, picking his way through from 17th to eighth in the final 20 laps, which became seventh after Russell’s penalty.

Without that, on the basis Russell had the pace to catch and pass Ocon, it’s feasible Hamilton would have been fourth at the flag. A missed opportunity, but in light of Pérez’s result, not one that will cost him in championship terms.

(Lead image of Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen in the Las Vegas GP: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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