Max Verstappen wins late duel over Charles Leclerc to capture Saudi Arabian GP

Max Verstappen Leclerc Saudi
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JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Formula One champion Max Verstappen overtook Charles Leclerc three laps from the end of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix for his first win of the season and 21st of his career on Sunday.

The race under floodlights was held two days after an attack on a nearby oil depot by Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

Leclerc was aiming for back-to-back victories after winning the season-opener in Bahrain from pole position last Sunday. But Verstappen overtook him on Lap 47 of 50 after some thrilling wheel-to-wheel racing between them in a repeat of the battle they waged in Bahrain.

Leclerc remains top of the standings after two races.

Carlos Sainz Jr. finished in third place to make it another podium double for Ferrari after he was second in Bahrain where Leclerc had brilliantly repelled three attacks from Verstappen, who retired right near the end of that race with teammate Sergio Perez.

Perez bounced back with a superb pole position on Saturday but finished fourth, while seven-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton could manage only one point for Mercedes in 10th place after starting 15th.

His teammate George Russell fared better in fifth, but Mercedes again looked off the pace.

Fernando Alonso fell out of the race with mechanical problems, as did Daniel Ricciardo and Valtteri Bottas.

There only 18 cars taking the green flag as Yuki Tsnoda had an engine problem on the formation laps and was unable to start.

Haas F1 already had held out the entry of Mick Schumacher, who endured a wicked hit during qualifying Saturday. The son of seven-time Formula One champion Michael Schumacher was airlifted to a local hospital for precautionary scans, but he was unhurt in the incident.

Mick Schumacher was back in the F1 paddock Sunday for interviews.

The race capped a turbulent weekend for F1, which was under heavy scrutiny for continuing its race weekend following an attack by rebels Friday on a nearby oil depot. The attack during the first practice Friday could be heard at the track and smoke could be seen billowing in the background of the circuit.

Drivers met several times on Friday for more than four hours discussing safety concerns and whether or not they should compete. F1 and the FIA, the ruling body for the series, assured the competitors that safety measures were in place.

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

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Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
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Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.