Max Verstappen became the first driver since Niki Lauda 39 years ago to win a Formula 1 race from ninth on the grid and in the process landed a huge blow to Sergio Perez’s aspirations of gunning for his maiden World Championship.
The Mexican’s double triumph in Azerbaijan the previous weekend had reduced Verstappen’s advantage in the standings to only six points, setting up an intriguing weekend on F1’s second visit to the Miami International Autodrome.
Understandably, a media frenzy was being whipped up that a rejuvenated Perez could compete, that he could bear the current-day answer to Nico Rosberg in providing opposition to another processional, one-sided title duel in 2023. But amid the hysteria, it was forgotten how formidable a competitor Verstappen has developed into over the previous three seasons, with the Miami GP soon offering a reminder of why the man himself currently feels unbeatable.
With Perez starting in pole position and Verstappen down in ninth, the stage had set for the former to claim the championship lead for the first time in his career.
Verstappen had come through to beat his Red Bull stablemate and the rest of the opposition from nine different starting spots last year – an F1 record – but surely a revitalised Perez, boosted by his brace of victories in Baku, would not allow a driver eight places behind to topple him in 2023.
However, achieving a feat previously thought inconceivable is a habit the reigning champion has made of doing and he proceeded to do so once more to register the 38th victory of his F1 career – his 17th in the last 24 races – and tie Sebastian Vettel for the most race wins with Red Bull.
Despite a disappointing qualifying, Verstappen was instantly engaged in race preparation mode, pondering with his engineer the potential to start on the Hard tyre rather than the Medium; his request was granted, setting in motion the wheels for a landmark achievement.
Although he briefly lost a place to Valtteri Bottas, the Dutchman, recognising his superior car advantage, avoided getting caught up in contact to hold position at the end of Lap 1 before seamlessly beginning to pick off the cars ahead.
Regardless of how rapidly he could manoeuvre his way through the field, the blinding speed of Red Bull’s 2023 car meant Verstappen was effectively guaranteed a second-place finish even before the five lights had gone out on the gantry (should he stay out of trouble), having already come from P15 on the grid to finish behind only Perez in Saudi Arabia.
But Verstappen was not inclined to settle for second; he was charging for the win and the way he sliced his way past the slower traffic would become essential to his chances. Alonso had been right on the money with his assessment of how quickly Verstappen would recover to the front in Jeddah, yet even the 41-year-old’s estimations were slightly out this time.
There was urgency in the reigning World Champion’s moves but never a degree of recklessness. Of course, he retained the luxury of having the fastest car and much has been made of the frightening speed differential Red Bull possesses when the slot in the rear wing of its RB19 is open, but the way in which Verstappen tactically took advantage of Kevin Magnussen and Charles Leclerc’s dice to swoop past them both into Turn 1 was expertly set-up.
And it was that sort of clinical approach that paved the way for him to only be 5.5 seconds adrift of Perez by the time he navigated his way past Alonso up to second on lap 15.
Fitted with the more durable hard compound, he whittled the gap to Perez down to just above the one-second mark by the time Red Bull elected to bring the race leader into the pits. While Verstappen had masterfully slalomed his way through, Perez’s overly cautious approach initiated a failure to build a substantial buffer at the stage in which his team-mate was compromised, equated to an equally decisive factor to which Red Bull driver clinched their third win of 2023.
Nevertheless, the victory still remained in Perez’s hands at this tentative stage, provided he could continuously reduce Verstappen’s advantage on fresh rubber and build a big enough margin that the two-time champion would be unable to close down when he made his mandatory stop.
However, over the course of the following 24 laps, the gap largely remained the same as Verstappen produced a tyre preservation masterclass to match his team-mate’s lap times, leaving himself with only a 1.2s deficit to overhaul once he made his pit stop at the end of lap 45. Two courses of the circuit later and the lead was his, dancing round the outside of Perez into Turn 1 with ease and going on to record the fastest lap to extend his championship lead to 14 points.
Ultimately, Verstappen’s route to victory could be defined in two key stages: a combination of calculated race craft in the opening laps and then a demonstration of exceptional pace and tyre management the moment he occupied clear air.
The latter continues to be indisputably one of Verstappen’s most underrated assets. With perhaps the exception of Lewis Hamilton, there is nobody better on the current grid at maintaining a blistering pace in race trim whilst simultaneously caressing the life of a set of tires for a sustained period. Except for two timed runs that dipped slightly above, between laps 23 and 44 Verstappen was repeatedly lapping in the 1:31s, even dropping into the 1:30s on the penultimate lap before his pit stop as a statement of the pace he had in reserve.
Verstappen being capable of showcasing a metronomic level of consistency on ageing tires is nothing new, however. The Red Bull driver – discounting two VSC periods – lapped within a one-second target lap time between laps 27 and 71 in last year’s Mexico City Grand Prix to make a difficult race translate into a straightforward win.
Perez has synonymously been recognised as F1’s unofficial ‘tyre whisperer’ for his long-standing ability to take a set of tires longer than initially anticipated, but even the Mexican appears unable to hold a candle to the delicate feel his team-mate can have on the accelerator pedal without ever suffering from a noticeable drop in lap time.
The Miami GP only served to add another shining example to his ever-growing catalogue of comeback wins. But while the stark contrast in how the Red Bull pair handled the tires proved pivotal in Verstappen landing a decisive victory against his team-mate, Perez’s opportunity to steal a first win in the States always came about through circumstance rather than raw speed.
Fundamentally the disparity between them on the grid wasn’t reflective of their respective pace throughout the weekend, with Perez, who had been encountering troubles all through Friday, never looking as settled as Verstappen in the RB19 cockpit.
Without the mitigating factor of the red flag late in Q3 Verstappen would certainly have been on pole and sauntered away into the distance. But arguably the manner of his victory provided a more emphatic message than if he had started at the front and cruised to a comfortable win.
Perez was magnanimous after the race, accepting that he had been beaten by the better man on the day, but deep down it would have supplied a huge psychological blow after his Baku delight.
While Horner emphasises that there is a long way to go, race day in the Sunshine State felt like a watershed moment in the destiny of this year’s Drivers’ crown.
With his fourth consecutive win on American soil, Verstappen delivered a big statement of intent, and his point to the number one on his car in parc ferme appeared as much a silencing gesture to the pre-race boos as it was to the competition about their chances of displacing him at the top.
Horner’s comments post-race would suggest that Verstappen, wounded slightly by his Baku defeat, was desperate to address the balance of power instantaneously.
“He [Verstappen] definitely came out of Baku I think obviously disappointed,” Horner said. “And Checo was the faster guy there, particularly on Sunday.
“And I think he came here really wanting to reassert himself, and then, of course, he made a mistake in qualy, that then put him on the back foot. His pace in the race was quite outstanding.”
Heading back to Europe and a run of eight races in 11 weeks, Perez will need to hit back and ensure Verstappen doesn’t begin to gather the momentum that puts him out of sight before the summer break arrives.
When Red Bull’s car is so dominant, simply winning the odd race and coming home second on a bad weekend isn’t good enough to prevail, especially against a relentless results machine like Verstappen.
To do so he will need to extract a level of mental fortitude deeper than he’s ever dug before. When Rosberg’s early 43-point superiority turned into a 19-point deficit heading into the mid-season shutdown in 2016, the German responded with three successive wins to claw back the lead.
Although he needed a great degree of luck along the way to realise his childhood racing dream, Rosberg was always capable of challenging Hamilton on raw speed and was an example of an inferior driver pulling out every trick in the book to get one over on a driver whose shadow he had been cast in for multiple years beforehand.
While Perez has been in improved form this year, all five of the Guadalajara-born racer’s Red Bull wins have come on street circuits and he is yet to win without misfortune befalling Verstappen. Baku was his most assured performance in Red Bull colours but even that was slightly clouded by him inheriting the race lead when a Safety Car fell at the optimal time for him to profit.
During that run to the summer break the prestigious Monte Carlo circuit will be the only street course to contest and Horner has challenged Perez to earmark his championship credentials by converting his form onto more conventional venues.
With a Verstappen win next time out assuring him of increasing the points gap to nearly a race win’s worth of points at the very least, Perez desperately needs to conjure up a confidence-inspiring performance at the historic Imola circuit to reboot a title challenge that is showing signs of waning.