Barring any last-minute penalties, the grid is set for the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix.
Ferrari showed their power on Friday night, as Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr. finished one-two at the front of the field. However, a ten-place grid penalty handed down to Sainz as a result of a collision with a loose manhole cover in FP1 — a rather unfair penalty that the FIA would be smart to revisit for next season — denied Ferrari their front-row lockout. As a result, Leclerc will start alongside Max Verstappen, with Mercedes driver George Russell right behind him.
That gives us a starting point to dive into the key points to watch in the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix later tonight.
Who leads Lap 1?
Leclerc has the most powerful car, at least given what we have seen to this point.
But Verstappen is, Verstappen. He is a three-time World Champion, and has been in the cockpit of the most dominant car this season. (He has also been on fire this week with the media).
And he might have an advantage on Lap 1. Verstappen will be starting on the inside line into Turn 1, which might give him a chance to take the lead.
Whether he can take it — and then hold it — are two different questions.
Oh, and there is one more thing, and that is the lurking Russell behind the two. If Leclerc and Verstappen are tangling on Lap 1, could that open the door for the Mercedes driver?
How high can Sainz climb?
As Ferrari Team Principal Frederic Vasseur noted following qualifying, Sainz deserved to be on the front row. He and the SF-23 have been strong all week long, and it is only because of the ten-place grid penalty that Ferrari does not have the front row locked out.
But how far can he climb through the field?
If Ferrari gets their tire strategy right — something else Vasseur noted following qualifying — he could climb rather far.
Is a big day from Williams on tap?
There are lot of reasons to believe that Williams could put in a massive performance in the Las Vegas Grand Prix.
As has been noted here and elsewhere, the FW45 has been impressive on long straights this season. We saw that during qualifying. Take, for example, the telemetry data from Logan Sargeant’s best lap of qualifying, and the best lap from Sainz, courtesy of F1-Tempo:
Even though Sainz had the faster lap — by .787 seconds — Sargeant was faster over almost the entire long straight down the Vegas Strip.
Both Sargeant and Alexander Albon are starting in the top ten, as they have locked out the third row with Albon in P5 and Sargeant in P6. Can they work together to deliver a massive haul of points for the team, and perhaps lock up P7 in the Constructors’ Championship?
Their strength on the straights might give them a chance to do just that.
How good will the racing be?
Race promoters behind the Las Vegas Grand Prix made a few promises regarding the track. One of them is speed, and we have seen that already during practice and qualifying. Particularly along the main straight as drivers roar down the Vegas Strip.
But something else they promised?
Whether it is the quick chicane at the end of the long straight as drivers wind through Turns 14, 15, and 16, or perhaps at Turn 5. A number of drivers have struggled with that sharp right-handed turn coming out of another of the layout’s straights. Albon himself hit the wall during FP3, drawing the final practice session to a close.
That could offer fertile ground for overtaking.
Now we wait to see if the potential lives up to the actual.
Can McLaren salvage something?
If there was one team that probably started thinking about flights to Abu Dhabi Friday night, it was McLaren.
While they have been red-hot since Austria, things have been much different for them in Sin City. Other than a lap from Oscar Piastri late in FP3, the pace has just not been there. Both Piastri and Lando Norris were eliminated in Q1, the first time the duo suffered that fate since way back in May, at the Miami Grand Prix.
When I talked with Piastri earlier this week, the rookie driver hinted that the layout might not be the best for the MCL60, as impressive is it — and the two drivers — have been in the second half of the season. “I’m not sure it will be our most competitive weekend as a team,” Piastri told me on Tuesday night. “I think the slow corners and long straights are still not our strongest areas.”
Also, consider this graphic from Formula Data Analysis:
Each car’s performance explained
⬆️Up: better top speed
➡️Right: better overall performance
— Formula Data Analysis (@FDataAnalysis) November 18, 2023
Down and left is not where you want to be on that graph.
Can McLaren salvage something? They might need to, because with Fernando Alonso starting inside the top ten, McLaren’s advantage in the battle for P4 in the Constructors’ could be razor-thin come that flight to Abu Dhabi.
Does Sin City have one more twist to the tale?
Las Vegas is a city filled with twists and turns, where lives are changed in the blink of an eye or, more accurately, with the turn of a card.
Does one more twist — or more — await the field later tonight?
Could we see a red flag shake up the grid? A surprising charge through the field from someone like Sainz? A driver get distracted by something on the Sphere which creates a big overtaking opportunity for someone behind them?
Okay maybe not that last one, but you get the point.
The story has not yet been written for the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix and there is time for one more twist, or more, to be woven into the tale.