Max Verstappen will be hunting a “fun” 50th career victory from sixth on the grid in Sunday’s United States Grand Prix after cruising to victory for Red Bull in Saturday’s sprint race.
The newly crowned three-time world champion led from pole position to the chequered flag to finish 9.465 seconds clear of revitalized seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes. Charles Leclerc came home third for Ferrari, 17.997 adrift.
“The pace of the car was really good today,” said the 26-year-old Dutchman, who wrapped up his third consecutive drivers’ title with victory in Qatar earlier in October.
“But I’m going to need it tomorrow because starting P6 is going to be a bit more difficult and different from today.
“It makes it more interesting and hopefully we can have a bit of fun out there with quite a bit of passing… It won’t be easy because I need to pass five cars to win.”
Verstappen admitted he had to survive a real challenge from Leclerc at the first corner where the Monegasque driver tried to find a way through on the inside and then when Hamilton sought to maintain close contact in the opening laps.
“It was quite tight, but luckily there was a lot of space going into turn one so that definitely helped, but after that we could settle and do our own race and control the pace a bit.
“It was always around eight- or nine-tenths (to Hamilton) for a few laps, but that was controllable and once I had cleared the Drag Reduction System (DRS) zone, we settled into a rhythm.”
Verstappen might face a challenge from not only Hamilton and Mercedes, who showed much improved form with their major update package, but also Ferrari and McLaren in a race where tyre degradation and strategy are certain to be key factors.
Leclerc’s Ferrari teammate, Carlos Sainz, was the only driver to choose soft tyres, a decision that ensured the team gathered valuable data ahead of Sunday’s Grand Prix, in which Leclerc starts from pole with Verstappen sixth after he had a lap deleted in Friday’s sprint shootout for exceeding track limits.
“We need to work to try and understand everything better to be a step ahead tomorrow,” said Leclerc. “We have quite a lot of data to analyze after having the two cars on two different strategies.
“I think this will be quite a bit of a help for us because we know how the soft tyre is behaving for tomorrow so I hope we can take advantage of that and hopefully we can win tomorrow.”
Ferrari inflicted Red Bull’s only defeat of the season when Sainz won the Singapore Grand Prix and they will bid to repeat that feat, but will face fierce competition from Mercedes and McLaren.
Lando Norris finished a close fourth for McLaren behind Leclerc and was optimistic of a strong race Sunday in his 100th Grand Prix start.
“We have the speed in the car,” he said. “And I’m happy that we can be right in this race.”
Hamilton said his sprint effort will help for Sunday.
“We will try to keep Max behind,” Hamilton said. “But ultimately I think he will be breathing down our necks before too long, with the pace that he had today.”