While the Miami Grand Prix as an event kicked off on Wednesday in spectacular fashion and felt like it never let up, the race was a slow burner but came alive late on as familiar foes went to battle once again.
For all the massively impressive A-list names that brought the spotlight to Hard Rock Stadium — as David Beckham, Tom Brady, Michael Jordan and LeBron James mingled among countless other stars — the race itself carried the same importance as any other.
Max Verstappen was riding his Red Bull team hard after a trouble-hit Friday of practice, but after coming so close to pole position it was clear he would still be a force to be reckoned with in race trim, and Carlos Sainz found out very early.
As 18 cars barrelled into Turn 1 in front of a hyped-up Miami crowd — the Aston Martins starting from the pit lane after fuel issues pre-race — Verstappen sized up Sainz around the outside and forced his way into second with an impressive move, taking advantage of some slight hesitancy from the Spaniard.
“I didn’t even do a [practice] start so I didn’t know what to expect in the actual start,” Verstappen said. “But we had a good launch and I saw the opportunity to go round the outside at Turn 1 so I tried and luckily it worked.”
It was more skill than luck, and it put Verstappen in a position to follow Charles Leclerc early on and see some telling signs that would prove crucial to the race’s outcome.
“I tried to see the pace of Charles in front of me and from the start it was very close. I couldn’t get into the DRS initially but then at one point Charles started to struggle a bit more with the front tyres and it seemed like our car was very good on the medium compound.”
Leclerc had pulled out of DRS range initially but slowly slipped back towards Verstappen, who was focusing on protecting his tyres. No sooner had the radio message come that the Ferrari was in a bit of tyre trouble, Verstappen was through down the inside into Turn 1.
At that point, it looked like game over. Verstappen pulled away with relative ease and while the top four — Verstappen, Leclerc, Sainz and Sergio Perez — were covered by just 7.2 seconds after 18 laps, the Mexican soon lost power for a lap and dropped back from Sainz by over seven seconds.
“I think it was a sensor issue,” Perez said. “It was working well but then when we had this sensor issue we lost like seven seconds in two laps and then yeah, it was just a poor race.
“It was never the same [after that]. I was losing too much time. It was like 10km/h down on the straights.”
Leclerc was first to pit of the frontrunners and two laps later Verstappen followed suit, both switching to hard tyres and the leader coming out with a buffer of eight seconds. While Leclerc then matched him stride-for-stride, it seemed a done deal.
But a twist was to come, and it was one that had been hinted at for much of the race. Despite a relatively tame front battle, there was plenty of action in the midfield, with Fernando Alonso in the heart of a lot of hit. Light contact with Lewis Hamilton at the start cost the Mercedes driver two spots, but once DRS was activated Hamilton cleared Alonso and Pierre Gasly with ease.
On lap six, Mick Schumacher pulled a lovely move around the outside of Yuki Tsunoda at Turn 1 to move into the points, and Daniel Ricciardo did similar soon after, showing the track was good for racing despite fears going off-line would prove too costly.
A lunge from Sebastian Vettel on Kevin Magnussen was another highlight at the Turn 17 hairpin, although the German then dropped behind both Haas drivers a lap later as the fight for the lower points grew in intensity.
Gasly was leading that fight but Alonso had endured a slow stop and was trying to make progress. He went for the inside at Turn 1, tapped Gasly’s right rear and sent the AlphaTauri wide, earning himself a five-second time penalty and triggering a downward spiral for the Frenchman.
As Gasly dropped through the field, he ran wide at Turn 8 and lost out to the Haas pair. Slow on the exit, Gasly was on team radio to say “I have a problem the car doesn’t turn…” when Lando Norris was coming by. AlphaTauri left front met McLaren right rear – drawing an “Oop!” from Gasly on the radio – as Norris was sent spinning at high speed, his tire completely detaching and the car coming to a rest in the middle of the track.
The virtual safety car was deployed before the full safety car was sent out, and it was the perfect timing for George Russell who had risen to fifth after starting 12th on hard tyres. Russell had already outlined the strategy on team radio, stating he would keep running to see if there was an interruption, and he duly emerged on fresh medium tyres in seventh, ready to attack.
The top three stayed out – Ferrari’s lack of action surprising Christian Horner – but Red Bull called Perez in for more mediums, suddenly putting him in the fight for the win. Of more interest was Verstappen v Leclerc, having been so closely matched in the second stint, but previously over seven seconds apart.
“I was not very happy with that safety car – of course it was fully understandable with what happened and you can’t be too disappointed about it because also in the past it has benefitted me in some other races,” Verstappen said.
“I knew it was going to be a tough one to the end because it was quite physical out there. So I knew the next ten laps we would have to be flat out, which on a track like this is not easy. I was struggling a bit initially with the tyre temps, I was sliding around a bit too much for my liking, but once the tyres came back up to temperature I think I had a little bit more pace and pulled him out of the DRS which was very crucial around here.”
Leclerc admitted he fancied his chances when the race restarted, and on multiple occasions he had a look to the inside of Turn 11 but was too far back for a lunge.
“After the safety car I really thought that we will have a shot to actually take back the lead but it wasn’t enough. We will have to analyse the end of the run on medium which is the weak point of this race.”
Verstappen held on and added the fastest lap for the full haul of points, but he had to work hard for it. Sainz took third as Perez lacked the top speed to overtake given his earlier issue, but there was more frustration for Hamilton who was unable to defend from Russell on fresh tyres and slipped to sixth behind his team-mate.
“George did a great job,” Hamilton said. “It was fair, he had fresh tyres, so I was a bit of a sitting duck…
“He was on the better tyre to start with. The hard was the best tyre so hindsight, maybe we could have started on the hard tyre but again, he did a great job to recover from his position and get the points. So we’ve got fifth and sixth today, it’s great points for the team.”
It could have been worse for Hamilton but for a mistake by former team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who had enjoyed a quiet and trouble-free run in fifth until he ran wide at Turn 17 and tapped the wall. In the end he only dropped two places to the Mercedes pair, leading home Esteban Ocon – who also benefitted from the safety car after a long first stint on hards – the impressive Alex Albon and Lance Stroll.
Alonso had crossed the line eighth but a time penalty for hitting Gasly was added to by another for cutting the chicane twice, and he dropped to 11th. Ricciardo picked up a similar penalty in a dramatic closing few laps in the midfield, as Magnussen was penalised for hitting Stroll, and Schumacher wiped out Vettel at Turn 1.
The race took a while to warm up in the Miami heat, but by the end it provided an exciting finale to what was a massively impressive first event in South Florida.
2022 Miami Grand Prix results
|1||Max Verstappen||Red Bull||57 laps||26*|
|4||Sergio Perez||Red Bull||+10.638sec||12|
|7||Valtteri Bottas||Alfa Romeo||+25.073sec||6|
|12||Lance Stroll||Aston Martin||+37.026sec|
|15||Mick Schumacher||Haas||+1min 13.305sec|
|17||Sebastian Vettel||Aston Martin||DNF|
*Includes additional point for fastest lap