Max Verstappen took an easy win for the final Sprint race of the 2023 Formula 1 season, beating Lando Norris off the line and driving into the distance.
Norris kept his top grid start for the despite being under investigation for going too slow on his out lap in the Shootout and escaped with a reprimand.
But his joy last just until the first corner as Verstappen nailed the perfect start and drive onto the distance staying out of DRS range for a while managing the tyres.
That was just until his race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase released him from tyre conservation mode as the triple F1 Champion put his foot down and extended his lead to take the chequered flag over four seconds ahead of Norris, despite the latter’s best efforts to chase him down.
Sergio Perez lost a couple of places at the start to the Mercedes drivers but managed to recover and finished the race third.
George Russell was fourth in the #63 Mercedes over 12s behind Perez and less than three seconds clear of Charles Leclerc who was fifth in the Ferrari.
Yuki Tsunoda was sixth in the AlphaTauri ahead of Lewis Hamilton, seventh in the Mercedes, the Briton losing ground in the 2023 F1 Drivers’ Championship to Perez.
Carlos Sainz scored the final point for Ferrari finishing eighth.
Verstappen: It was important to get ahead at the start
Verstappen commented after the Sprint, he said: “It was of course important to try and get ahead at the start.
“The initial launch wasn’t amazing but the second part of the start was very good so we got alongside [Norris]. Then it was all about management.
“Here at this track there is a lot of deg, the tyres are wearing a lot, so 24 laps on one tyre set is very long so just trying to maintain a constant lap time and I think we managed the race quite well out there,” he explained.
Asked of he was caught out by the tyre degradation, he responded: “Last year was very difficult for us around here so today it was much better.
“But it’s still, for everyone out there, you can’t push flat out. It’s about keeping the tyres under control and I think we did that well today,” a content Verstappen added.
As for his chances in the Grand Prix on Sunday, the Red Bull ace said: “It’s a great start, I think we learned a lot during that race, and hopefully we can do something similar tomorrow.”
Second-places Norris reflected on losing the lead to Verstappen, he said: “I have to review it, it’s something to look back at.
“My initial start was good but my second phase of the launch, maybe I was just a bit conservative. I don’t think I had any wheelspin, I was just a little bit on the safe side. So things to improve for tomorrow.
“Nevertheless, caught sleeping a little bit with George on lap one, but the pace was strong after. I tried to go after Max but just didn’t have enough. It was good fun,” he concluded.
Perez, who scored six points compared to Hamilton’s two and now leads him by 24 points, said: “It was not an easy one.
“I had a terrible start, ended up losing a place to George, and then another place to Lewis into Turn Four,” he added. “From then on I was fighting, had to use all of my tyres, and paid the price towards the end.
“Overall it has been a good day, good points there. Unfortunately without the start I think we could have been further up,” he claimed.
As for scoring more points than Hamilton, the Mexican said: “Obviously it’s important but it’s more important to keep the momentum going now.
“We had a very good day overall and hopefully tomorrow, which is the main race, we can consolidate on a strong result,” he concluded.
How the Sprint unraveled
The conditions were clear for the Sprint and while ambient temperatures were 28 degrees Celsius, the track temperatures were up to 54 degrees. That is compared to 25 and 45 degrees Celsius respectively at the start of the Sprint Shootout earlier today.
Both Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon had their cars readied by their teams to take part in the Sprint, as the stewards did not take any action regarding their incident in the Shootout.
Except for Kevin Magnussen, Nico Hulkenberg, and Logan Sargeant who were on Medium tyres, all the other drivers on the grid bolted Soft tyres on their cars.
Verstappen did not waste any time and overtook Norris after a late braking into Turn 1 while Perez was overtaken by both Russell and Hamilton.
Russell soon attacked Norris and took second and set out chasing Verstappen, while in the back, Leclerc made up one position to sixth.
By Lap 3 with the DRS activated, Perez launched an attack on Hamilton who also had DRS on Norris ahead of him, the latter also within DRS range to second placed Russell. Verstappen was not safe from Russell, only eight tenths ahead.
By Lap 4 Perez made it past Hamilton who started an attack on the Mexican with DRS in his arsenal, but could not retake his position, while Leclerc was lurking behind trying to take advantage of the Mercedes/Red Bull fight.
By Lap 5, Norris retook second place from Russell with DRS, while Verstappen put himself outside of DRS range, 1.5s ahead of Norris.
The order on Lap 5: Verstappen – Norris – Russell – Perez – Hamilton – Leclerc – Tsunoda – Sainz.
Tsunoda was complaining about Leclerc over the team radio claiming the Ferrari driver was moving under breaking.
Alonso in the meantime made up three places into 12th and set his sights on Gasly in 11th.
Alonso overtook Gasly briefly by Lap 15, but then the Spaniard retook 11th once again, the next victim being Ricciardo.
In the mean time Russell was complaining about Verstappen, Norris, and Perez ahead of him, as Verstappen was instructed to push more in the fast corners, after the Dutchman asked if he can push…
Order by Lap 15: Verstappen – Norris – Perez – Russell – Hamilton – Leclerc – Tsunoda – Sainz.
In the meantime there was a fight for ninth between Piastri and Ricciardo, the latter under threat from Alonso, as Verstappen opened the gap to Norris up front to over two and half seconds.
Ricciardo tried a move on Piastri on Lap 20 into Turn 1 but couldn’t make it stick after some decent defending from the younger Aussie.
Order by Lap 20: Verstappen – Norris – Perez – Russell – Hamilton – Leclerc – Tsunoda – Sainz.
But Leclerc was closing on Hamilton, and overtook the seven-time F1 Champion for fifth, as Tsunoda fancied a go at the Briton who wasn’t going to make it easy for the Japanese. But it was clear Hamilton was suffering with his tyres sliding all over the place.
And indeed by Lap 22, Tsunoda overtakes Hamilton and makes it stick.