Despite every driver finishing the race and not a single yellow flag being waved, this past weekend's GP was pretty good.
After last year's inaugural Miami Grand Prix, the Formula 1 traveling circus touched down in Florida again this past week for the fifth race of the 2023 season. We're going to focus on the racing and ignore the continued existence of the fake marina and other cheesy elements. While there's much to discuss below, the race ended in a familiar fashion, with two Red Bulls up front.
Following several complaints of "trains" of racecars following each other closely but being unable to pass in 2022, the Drag Reduction System (DRS) operation zones have been shortened at several tracks, including Miami.
In Saturday qualifying, several drivers had brushes with the wall, and Ferrari's Charles Leclerc had a shunt that ended the day's competition prematurely. Navigating the street circuit around the Hard Rock stadium would be a test of precision, cunning, and tire management, and that last point is what ultimately decided the finishing order of the top three.
The early end to qualifying on Saturday meant that defending Champion Max Verstappen would start down in 9th position while his closest rival in the race to the title so far this year, teammate Sergio Perez, would lead the pack away when the lights went out on Sunday.
Miami was expected to be a one-stop race if all went smoothly, and although Nyck de Vries channeled his inner Latifi, once again forgetting that his tires and brakes would be cold at the first corner and rear-ending McLaren's Lando Norris at Turn 1 on Lap 1, the damage was minimal. No other major clashes occurred, and the yellow flag was not waved a single time over 57 laps (although Fort Lauderdale-born Sargeant sustained some front wing damage in a separate incident). With Sunday's race proving to be free of chaos, the Aston Martin DBX707 Medical Car spent the entire day in the pits alongside the Vantage Safety Car.
All of the drivers seemed to attack the race with a touch of apprehension. The night before, a storm washed all the racing rubber accumulated during qualifying off the track, and after seeing Leclerc spin out on the tricky and still-novel circuit, nobody wanted to be the first to take a chance that could end in disaster.
Nobody but Max Verstappen, who by Lap 4, had pulled off one of the moves of the day, passing both Leclerc and the Haas of Kevin Magnussen in one fell swoop. It was a brilliant double overtake that required a full understanding of the surface's grip limits, but Verstappen made it look like he was playing the new F1 videogame on easy mode.
Leclerc, on the other hand, looked like a novice playing on advanced mode. He was doing well, but the overtakes were taking too long. Shortening those DRS zones makes no difference in a car that both Ferrari drivers later described as "very inconsistent." Supposedly, heavy winds affected the balance, but Leclerc and Sainz experienced different things, and neither of them was particularly confident on either tire option.
The biggest slap in the face of the tifosi came when they watched a Ferrari-powered Haas trade places with a factory Ferrari on several occasions. The most painful was on Lap 37, when Leclerc pulled a move at the end of the back straight, using DRS to overtake Magnussen at Turn 17. But with another DRS zone looming, Magnussen didn't fight Leclerc hard. Instead, he waited for the sweep from Turns 18 to 19 to sit on the #16 car's rear diffuser, regaining the position by the first corner of Lap 38. Leclerc learned his lesson and waited for the second DRS zone to make a move on the new lap, and this time it stuck.
Being schooled by Magnussen's slower car summed up Leclerc's weekend: it was a good performance under the circumstances, but we were all expecting more of the Monegasque. This is the same team and driver that, at this point last year, looked like real challengers to the might of Red Bull. This year, Ferrari is sitting where Alpine finished last season.
Homeboy Logan Sargeant finished where he qualified (dead last); both he and Alex Albon were unable to capitalize on the impressive straight-line speed of the Williams. Albon finished in 14th, for the record.
Magnussen, who scored a point in 10th at the home race of his Haas team, was never going to hold onto his qualifying position of 4th but ran at the front of a DRS train that kept Yuki Tsunoda, Lance Stroll, and Valtteri Bottas at bay; Magnussen did well to hold on to a point in a slow Haas. Nico Hulkenberg finished his first Miami GP in 15th, followed by Alfa Romeo's Zhou Guanyu. Norris came home in 17th ahead of Nyck de Vries, teammate Oscar Piastri, and Sargeant.
Piastri was hindered by an issue to do with the braking system or the energy recovery system, and he had to manage the entire race with what was described as a long brake pedal. That he finished the race is impressive, but McLaren needs to bring meaningful upgrades to the 2023 package soon. We suspect anything below a top-five finish for the Woking-based team at the end of the season may mean the end of Zak Brown's career at the British outfit.
Elsewhere, Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly scored points, but the race could have gone a little better, particularly for Gasly, who finished in 8th, ahead of his compatriot. The Frenchman out-braked himself on Lap 53 after doing a mighty fine job of keeping Leclerc honest for a few laps, but once the mistake was made, the Prancing Horse pounced, and the Alpine retreated into Leclerc's rearview until the end.
Gasly's defensive driving meant that Leclerc was under pressure from part-time movie producer Sir Lewis Hamilton, who pulled a sublime move to take 6th with two laps remaining, eking out enough speed to cross the line almost two seconds ahead of the Ferrari.
Earlier, Hamilton graciously moved over for his teammate when Russell was on faster tires, but he's clearly still hungry. The car remains too slow to challenge for regular podiums this season, but he and Russell seem to be finding a groove. Russell managed not to choke up as his seven-time World Champion teammate waved him past, and he promptly set off for more points, passing Carlos Sainz Jr's Ferrari without too much drama.
Fernando Alonso once again had a brilliant but boring race. He finished over 30 seconds behind the race-winner and over 30 seconds ahead of Russell in 4th. He played his usual mind games in the race's early stages, hypothesizing about potential strategy changes. But after a while, it became clear that he could manage the gaps ahead and behind without putting too much strain on his tires.
At one point, he got so comfortable that he got on the radio to congratulate his teammate on a move made at Turn 1. Alonso was several corners ahead, but he was so relaxed that he could watch his apprentice on the big screens aimed at grandstands. The man is dominating race reviews and tabloids all at once.
Interestingly, Red Bull doesn't seem to take distractions too well. Verstappen tried to discuss a potential wing setting change, and his engineer told him to focus on driving. On a tight track like this, we understand why the pit wall wants its best chance of victory to stay focused, but as we said earlier, Verstappen seemed to be on autopilot and could have stopped for lunch if he really wanted.
That leaves just Sergio Perez to discuss. He was a victim of his own success. Qualifying on pole meant he had no choice but to equip his fully fueled car with medium tires to have a good chance of a solid launch. All of the top seven drivers started with a yellow stripe on their rubber, so Perez had to go aggressive at the start to have a chance of holding onto his position. If he could win, he would become the first Mexican to lead the Championship since the Sixties, and according to Red Bull's Christian Horner, all of the simulations suggested that the medium compound was the right choice for the front-runners, even with the baking Florida heat contributing to increased tire wear.
However, the lack of rubber on the surface meant that there was still a lot of sliding going on, and those mediums fell out of their optimum performance window earlier than Perez would have liked. Verstappen, starting in 9th, could risk a slow getaway on hard tires and work his way back up, but his win was down to more than just luck.
During the middle of the race (around laps 20-40), Verstappen realized that his car was managing the hard tires better than expected. As the track got grippier and faster and the car got lighter with less fuel, Verstappen was able to continually improve on his lap times, and even when his teammate was on newer and supposedly better rubber, Verstappen found more performance over and over.
By the time he finally made his first pit stop at the end of Lap 45, he had built up a lead of 19 seconds over his teammate. He slapped on a set of mediums, came out a couple of seconds behind Perez, bided his time a little, and then took an unorthodox line around the outside of Turn 1 on Lap 48 to storm his way to the checkered flag (which wasn't waved until his car had long passed, weirdly). Clean team battles are a joy, even if Max makes them short-lived.
Interestingly, Verstappen was lifting off the throttle earlier, coasting more, and braking later than his teammate - even when both were on hard tires and Verstappen's were older. Verstappen seems to have an innate understanding of track conditions and where to find grip and create speed, and Perez simply can't match the Dutchman's eerie pace.
Verstappen's win was his 38th, tying him with Sebastian Vettel for the most Red Bull victories. With a record number of races this season and a long career ahead of him, the Flying Dutchman's name will undoubtedly be etched into the annals of history several more times over the coming years.
We go into a two-week break with Verstappen leading the Championship. Red Bull has a 100% win record this season (VER 3x, PER 2x), but Aston Martin will look to break that. Fernando Alonso believes that the Mercedes-powered machine will perform well on tracks with slower corners, like the upcoming triple header of the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix (21 May), the Monaco Grand Prix (28 May), and the Spanish Grand Prix (4 June).
Adrian Newey has designed a wonderful Crimson Cow, Aston Martin is living up to the hype it created early on, and Mercedes is slowly making progress. Ferrari's race pace is inconsistent, McLaren is struggling to advance, Alpine seems to have a decent package, and Haas is beating Alfa Romeo. Meanwhile, AlphaTauri and Williams seem to be taking up space that Andretti-Cadillac may better fill, but it's still early in the season.
Editor's note: Gerhard is ill today but has pledged to return as your faithful F1 correspondent when we head to Italy in a fortnight.
Join The Discussion