MIAMI (Reuters) -Formula One world champion Max Verstappen won the inaugural Miami Grand Prix for Red Bull on Sunday, slashing Ferrari rival Charles Leclerc’s overall lead from 27 to 19 points after five races.
Leclerc finished a fighting second, 3.786 seconds behind after starting on pole position, with Spanish team mate Carlos Sainz completing the podium at the Miami Dolphins’ Hard Rock Stadium.
The victory was the Dutch driver’s third of the season, and second in a row, and he made it happen with a crucial overtake around the outside on Sainz at the start to seize second place before blasting past Leclerc on the ninth of the 57 laps.
Verstappen, who also made sure of the bonus point for fastest lap, had looked to be cruising to victory until McLaren’s Lando Norris collided with AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly and crashed on lap 41, triggering the safety car.
That allowed Leclerc to close the gap and get back into contention over the final 10 laps.
“It was an incredible Grand Prix,” said Verstappen, who has won every race he has finished so far this season and was handed his winner’s trophy by Dolphins NFL quarterback great Dan Marino. “(It was) very physical but I think we kept it exciting until the end.”
The race drew a cast of A-list celebrities, sporting greats and a sellout crowd as Formula One basked in a wave of popularity fuelled by the Netflix docu-series “Drive to Survive”.
“It’s been insane. I’ve never known such interest, such passion and a huge, huge event,” said Red Bull boss Christian Horner. “I think it’s been great for the American public to tune into Formula One. … it’s been a great event and an exciting race in the end as well.”
What was a slow burner in the energy-sapping humidity provided some fireworks at the end with the safety car bunching up the field, putting Leclerc right on Verstappen’s tail with five laps remaining.
“On the hard (tyres) we were very competitive and towards the end I thought I could get Max at one point but today they had the advantage in terms of pace,” Leclerc said.
Verstappen’s Mexican team mate, Sergio Perez, finished fourth, with Ferrari retaining the lead in the constructors’ standings on 157 points to Red Bull’s 151.
Perez, who lost speed with a sensor issue that the team fixed, tried to pass Sainz on lap 52 but overcooked his move, with the Spaniard forcing his way back in front and staying there despite the Mexican’s fresher tyres.
George Russell continued his record of finishing every race so far in the top five, with Mercedes team mate and seven-times world champion Lewis Hamilton sixth after a brief battle between the two.
Russell, starting 12th but helped by pitting during the virtual safety car phase and having the advantage of fresher tyres, passed Hamilton twice on track.
He handed back position after the first overtake because he had benefited from going wide but re-passed him immediately afterwards.
Valtteri Bottas was seventh for Alfa Romeo with Alpine’s Esteban Ocon eighth in a stirring fight back after being unable to take part in Saturday’s qualifying due to a practice crash that forced the team to change his car’s chassis.
Double world champion team mate Fernando Alonso was demoted to 11th place after receiving a five-second penalty for causing a collision with Gasly.
Alex Albon moved up to ninth and Aston Martin’s Stroll 10th as a result of Alonso’s penalty.
There was heartbreak for Mick Schumacher, who had been having his best race to date and looked like taking his first point in Formula One until he collided with Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel.
Vettel and team mate Stroll had both started from the pit lane after a fuel temperature problem stopped them from going to the grid.