When the 2022 Formula One calendar was announced, the fifth race of the season was the one everyone was keen about.
The bandwagon headed across the Atlantic for the inaugural Miami Grand Prix and the excitement surrounding the event was palpable.
The race in Florida is part of a conscious decision by the sports promoters to take Formula One to what they call ‘destination cities’ and create a festive atmosphere over the weekend centred around the race.
Netflix's ‘Drive to Survive’ — an annual documentary series about the F1 season — has ignited a craze for Formula One in the United States, where it was often seen as a staid European sport.
Miami, added to the F1 calendar this year, is the second venue in US after Austin, Texas. The next year will see three races in the States with Las Vegas joining the circus.
Though the initial plan was to race in another part of the city along the coast, opposition from locals and various other issues resulted in organisers choosing the Hard Rock Stadium as the race venue. From having celebrities like former First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama to hosting concerts and parties, the organisers did not hold back to make it a memorable event.
To illustrate the lengths they went to make it glitzy, they decided to build a fake marina inside the circuit with boats towed over a piece of tarmac painted in aqua blue to resemble a Miami harbour — seeking inspiration from the Monaco Grand Prix where you can watch the F1 cars zoom past from the comforts of your yacht. The sheer ridiculousness of this was the biggest talking point of the race until Max Verstappen walked away with the honours on Sunday with a commanding win.
It was the third win of the season for the reigning champion and he now has been on the top step of the podium in all the races he has finished.
Verstappen was followed by the Ferraris of Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz with Sergio Perez finishing fourth.
Verstappen’s Red Bull has been fragile in this early part of the season and he missed the second practice session on Friday due to gearbox overheating. In qualifying on Saturday, the Dutchman was at the sharp end, trading times with Leclerc and Sainz.
After securing a provisional pole on his first run in the final part of qualifying, Leclerc pipped Verstappen with the fastest time and the Dutchman had to settle for third behind Sainz after making a mistake on his final run.
However, he quickly made amends at the start on Sunday, getting past Sainz into turn one and keeping within striking distance of Leclerc. On lap nine, as Leclerc struggled with tyres, Verstappen seized the moment with an easy pass to take the lead of the race.
From there on it was a relatively straightforward race for Verstappen who had a handy lead of eight seconds after the first round of pit stops. He looked vulnerable briefly after a late safety car reduced his lead over Leclerc. In the first few laps after the Safety Car ended, Leclerc looked to hassle Verstappen but the straight-line speed of the Red Bull was enough to keep the latter ahead.
Behind, Perez fought Sainz hard for the third spot and briefly got ahead into turn one only to outbrake himself and run wide, surrendering the position back to the Spaniard who secured his third podium of the season.
The Mercedes duo of George Russell and Lewis Hamilton rounded out the top six despite showing promise on Friday. Ahead of the race, the struggling team brought in some updates to its car package and it seemed to be working on Friday with both drivers setting competitive times and Russell topping the second practice session.
However, come Saturday, the performance seemingly vanished and it was back to a battle between Ferrari and Red Bull.
While Hamilton out-qualified his teammate, Russell, who started 12th, managed to get ahead in the final classification after he lucked out by pitting under a Virtual Safety Car and losing less time than Hamilton. On fresh and softer but faster tyres, Russell managed to get ahead of his teammate easily.
With another humbling result, Mercedes has once again been left scratching its head about what is plaguing its car and quickly needs to take a call on the development path for the rest of the season.
The dominance of Red Bull in Miami has shown the team has a very fast car under its belt but is still prone to the occasional reliability gremlins. If the team can make it reliable, Ferrari will have a fight on its hands.
Leclerc, who led Verstappen by 46 points after Australia, now only has a 19-point lead and the reigning champion is relishing being the hunter.
“I like the position I am in at the moment, knowing the car is quick and at the end of last year I was being hunted and that wasn’t great because I knew we didn’t have the pace and it was going to be tricky. It depends on how competitive you are as well,” said Verstappen.
While 19 points is still a handy lead, the fact that Verstappen has managed to claw back so many points should worry the Italian team which now only has a six-point lead in the constructors' standings over Red Bull.
“It is going to be a long championship. It seems that they had the upper hand for two weekends now in race pace especially, and we need to take back the advantage as soon as possible,” was how Leclerc summed up the situation after the race.