A familiar Max Verstappen victory might be the headline, but that masks how Ferrari's Charles Leclerc defied the odds and challenged the 2023 champion. The battle between the two delivered a race that saw three leaders and an unknown podium order until the final trip down the Las Vegas Strip.
After a false start on Thursday night, when a loose drain severely damaged Carlos Sainz's car in FP1, Ferrari were down a front-running driver for the race. Leclerc lined up on pole position and had Verstappen alongside, rather than the sister Prancing Horse, despite Sainz's P2 qualification. A 10-place penalty for the Spaniard meant Leclerc was alone to defend from the charging Dutch Red Bull driver.
The short run down into Turn 1 was all it took for Verstappen to snatch the lead. A controversial late-braking move meant he and Leclerc ran off the road, leading to a stewards' investigation. Although the lead of the grand prix was at stake, race control first had to clear up the messy behaviour from those behind after multi-car turmoil at the Turn 1 left-hander.
Fernando Alonso was the chief antagonist of the disruption after losing the rear of his Aston Martin on a narrow approach to the opening corner. With a car full of fuel, the Spaniard did a 180-degree spin and halted Alfa Romeo's Valtteri Bottas in his tracks. The cascading effect then had Sergio Perez breaking his front wing when hitting the suddenly-stopping Finn and needing to pit for Lap 1 repairs. Finally, the already-dismal weekend got worse for Sainz, who span after hitting Lewis Hamilton when out braking himself.
The Virtual Safety Car ground the race to a crawl to allow the marshals to clear the resulting debris, but the 20 drivers wouldn't go flat out for long once the green flag waved. A bump in the road unsettled Lando Norris' McLaren on the run into Turn 11. Unable to control his fishtailing car, Norris slammed into the wall and skittled down an escape road in a heavy-hitting crash that left the Brit with a hospital trip as a precaution. This time, the full Safety Car hit the track, and the remaining racers had to wait even longer to vie for the Vegas victory.
So many slowdowns did allow those that required repairs from Lap 1's incidents the chance to reach the back of the pack, though. Perez, Bottas, Alonso, and Sainz visited the pit lane to jump onto Pirelli's hard tyre, hoping strategic options would open up as the race progressed.
Once the Safety Car returned to the pit lane, the remaining drivers set about an onslaught of overtaking. The long DRS straights generated plenty of action as the slightly out-of-order grid jostled for position. Hamilton and McLaren's Oscar Piastri were some of the standout midfield overtakers, with brave moves on the competition, but there was side-by-side running anywhere you looked.
Out front, the stewards ruled that Verstappen had illegally overtaken Leclerc off the line and handed a five-second penalty to the leader. Undeterred, his team simply told him to extend the gap to mitigate the problem, but Leclerc kept close. Appearing fuelled by the injustice, the Ferrari driver took matters into his own hands and swept by Verstappen past the Bellagio fountains to take the lead in a rare on-track overtake over the triple champion this year.
Verstappen pitted, emerging into traffic as Red Bull looked under pressure. However, the Vegas odds soon switched in their favour, even though Leclerc remained in P1 after his stop. As he made his way through the midfield, Verstappen hit George Russell, with the Brit seemingly unaware of the RB19 car on his inside. The resulting debris triggered another Safety Car slowdown — and a five-second penalty for Russell.
Perez, who had advanced to the lead by now, albeit a pit stop behind, was free to make a 'cheap' tyre change and found himself thrust into the fight for the win. He had five-lap fresher Pirelli rubber than Leclerc and was right on his tail as the Safety Car pulled in, with Verstappen in P5 and rapidly closing the gap. That tyre advantage soon paid off, and Perez made the same move to snatch P1 as Leclerc did earlier in the race.
The overtake kickstarted a flurry of podium-position changes at the Turn 14 chicane. Leclerc fought back, retaking P1 from Perez, who then fell into DRS range of Verstappen, who had reached the lead pair. The Mexican next lost out to his teammate, dropping to P3, and Verstappen closed in on Leclerc, passing the Monegasque one lap later; the Ferrari wasn't as rapid on the hard tyre as earlier in the race on mediums. To make matters worse, Leclerc next outbraked himself, handing P2 back to Perez.
One last twist in the tail remained, though. Leclerc didn't let his chin drop and kept close to Perez over the remaining laps. Even with Verstappen slowing down a little to help give his teammate a slipstream, Leclerc honed in and lunged down the inside of Turn 14 on the last lap. It wasn't the victory, but that overtake with just four corners remaining had Leclerc regaining P2 on a busy day of racing.
The finale at Abu Dhabi will close out the season this coming weekend, with Verstappen seeking his 19th victory of the year to end 2023 in style.