MIAMI — In the hours before the Miami Grand Prix, Formula One’s paddock was teeming with VIPs, sport stars and celebrities.
Everywhere you looked, famous faces emerged from the crowd. Tom Brady crossed paths with Michael Jordan in the Mercedes garage. David Beckham greeted the Williams sisters outside Red Bull. Pharrell Williams strolled in the direction of Ferrari. Michael Douglas emerged from Aston Martin. Shawn Mendes stood outside McLaren.
It was an atmosphere unlike any other in F1.
As each superstar moved around the paddock they attracted selfie hunters and camera crews in their orbit. The swelling entourages competed for space with sweating mechanics and impatient engineers as the sport quietly tried to operate around the show.
With the clock ticking closer to lights out at 3:30pm, the Miami International Autodrome felt like the centre of the sporting universe. This was F1’s long-awaited Super Bowl moment and its coming of age in America.
But could the main event ever live up to the hype?
In some ways it didn’t matter. Just bringing F1 to Miami in the first place was enough for the sport to cash in on its growing popularity in the United States. For much of the weekend the on-track action seemed like an afterthought.
“This event was spectacular,” Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said after the race. “The city has been totally hyped around Formula One all week. The fan support is great and honestly I have never been in a race that created such a buzz around Formula One and interest like Miami this time around.
“You can’t cross the paddock because there were so many people here and that’s good. We should be happy that we have such strong support.”
The 57-lap grand prix certainly wasn’t a classic, but it also wasn’t the anti-climax it could have been. Following a dramatic collision between Lando Norris and Pierre Gasly on lap 41, a late safety car period briefly reignited the battle for victory between championship contenders Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc, which had previously looked settled on lap nine when Verstappen took the lead from the Ferrari driver at Turn 1.
Although Leclerc got close to Verstappen, the reigning champion was ultimately too good on Sunday, giving Red Bull a victory and a fastest lap that seemed to carry as much PR value as it did sporting. However, asked what the Miami win meant to him, ever the pragmatist, Verstappen cut through the fanfare and stated the facts.
“I mean it’s another 25 or 26 points, right?” he said. “It’s a nice venue, that’s for sure, but still you have the same amount of points as you can gain anywhere else.”
On the whole, the drivers praised the Miami experience. Over the four days of the event they had been treated like superstars and their personalities, which have been amplified in the United States by the Netflix docuseries “Drive to Survive”, shone through.
“I think it was a mega event,” Carlos Sainz, who finished third, said in the post-race press conference. “It’s not easy on the first event to put such a well-organised venue together. There were so many people coming, so many people in the paddock… for me the paddock was incredibly full!”
Verstappen, who was sat next to him in the press conference, added: “The [American football] helmet we had on the podium, we needed that in the paddock!”
Concerns were raised over the quality of the track surface as early as Friday practice as the asphalt crumbled and created loose gravel off the racing line. However, it didn’t have the impact on racing that some drivers had feared and by Sunday evening there were some people in F1 who felt it added to the spectacle.
“Even the track breaking up at Turn 17, as an example, gave good racing,” Wolff added. “It was very difficult to brake into Turn 17 and if you locked up and lost the line, you lost a position or two.
“It’s clear the drivers are going to say that is not optimal but for racing and entertainment it is great stuff. It’s almost like a gravel bed you have put in there to make exciting action. All in all, for a first race nine out of ten.”
The most consistent gripe among drivers after the race was with the tight chicane at Turns 14 and 15, which sits under a neighbouring highway in the second half of the lap.
“I thought the track was great,” Lewis Hamilton said. “I think the chicane is not spectacular but that’s the only weak point.”
Verstappen added: “I think if I would have been in a go-kart, it would be a nice chicane to take, but not in an F1 car like we have at the moment.
“I remember in the four laps I did on Friday, I almost knocked myself out because I hit the first kerb and your head just bounced from left to right, like at least five, six times, but really bad.
“If you just take it a tiny bit too much kerb, just because the car is so long, so wide, so stiff and super heavy that little bit of kerb is really bad. It’s just not made for these cars to be honest.”
Sainz who had a big accident just before the chicane on Friday, said the cars needed to be slowed at that section of track but the that layout of the chicane could still be improved
“I think it’s still needed because there’s not a lot of space there and you need to be quite slow approaching Turn 16 because there’s no run-off,” Sainz said. “So we need something slow, we need something tight.
“It’s just the nature of the two curves there, the way they’re put together which is the issue. It’s a new track that you’re always going to go through these phases and we’re already in touch with F1, with Ross [Brawn, F1 motorsport director] and his team to actually sort it out and put together a better piece of circuit.”
Verstappen closes the gap to 19 points
Verstappen’s haul of 26 points in Miami means he has cut the gap to Leclerc to 19 points in the standings after it stood at 46 just two races ago. The Red Bull driver has won every race he’s finished this year — an impressive but double-edged statistic that also highlights the two costly retirements he suffered while running in second place in Bahrain and Australia.
A gearbox issue, a hydraulic issue and a brake fire on Verstappen’s car during Friday practice underlined the ongoing concerns about Red Bull’s reliability, while his teammate, Sergio Perez, had a sensor issue on one of his engine’s cylinders during the race that cost him an estimated 27 brake horsepower. After the race, Verstappen put pressure on his Red Bull team to address the problems as soon as possible.
“We’re still having a few issues we have to solve,” Verstappen said. “I mean we are quick, but as you can see, my Friday was terrible, you know, which is not great if you want to have a good weekend.
“And also Checo [Perez] had a few issues in the race, so we have to be on top of that, but clearly there is a lot of potential, we just need to make sure it’s reliable.”
On pure race performance, however, the Red Bull was better suited to the Miami International Autodrome than the Ferrari. The long straights played to the strengths of Verstappen’s car, which generates less drag than Leclerc’s, giving him a higher top speed while still creating enough downforce to make him competitive through the corners.
According to team boss Christian Horner, the better aerodynamic trade-off ultimately won Red Bull the race.
“I think they are very closely matched and it’s just about trying to piece the best race you can together,” Horner said. “Strategically we were very different to Ferrari here. They had a very high downforce, we were very low downforce and the setup worked for us today.
“We had just enough straight-line speed to be able to defend as well, so I think we picked the right balance in terms of setup and straight-line speed.
“It’s horses for courses and this track suited us and we got the result.”
Ferrari agrees that Red Bull holds a slender advantage in race conditions, but also believes its rival has been more aggressive in bringing upgrades to its car this year. Team principal Mattia Binotto is confident Ferrari can level up in the coming races, starting with new parts at the next round in Spain.
“I always said we should wait five races to properly assess the competitiveness between the cars,” Binotto said. “Now five races have gone, we are leading both championships, which is great and we should not be too disappointed.
“But it’s true that Red Bull has improved their car since the start of the season with upgrades and today, if I look at the last two races, maybe they are a couple of tenths faster than us. Now, there is no doubt that in order to keep the pace we will need to develop with certain upgrades.
“Let’s say that at the next races it will be our turn to try and develop the car as much as we can by trying to introduce upgrades. I think it’s not a surprise that we may have a package in Barcelona that is helping us. I hope, as usual, we have a package that is working as expected and that can be a good boost to try and catch up the gap we have got to the Red Bull.”
Binotto has been impressed by Red Bull’s rapid development so far this season but also believes it will be naturally curbed by the budget cap, which is designed to stop teams simply spending their way to success.
“Should we be concerned? I don’t think the difference is huge between Red Bull and Ferrari at the moment, it just a matter of a couple of tenths of a second in the race,” Binotto said. “And we should not forget that yesterday we locked out the front row and in qualifying we had a better performance than Red Bull.
“So I don’t think there is much difference in performance over a weekend. If there is any concern it is how much they are developing considering the budget cap. That is certainly a concern I have got, but it is maybe not a concern but a hope because at some stage it will need to stop.”
Championship leader Leclerc is backing Ferrari to improve his car at the coming races to allow him to fend off Verstappen in the standings.
“Of course they are improving and we all expected they would be improving,” Leclerc said “They are a very strong team and we are aware of this, so it’s not a surprise.
“But I am also confident about my team and I am sure that we will bring upgrades that take us back to the top. I hope so and we are working well and have been working well in the past two years to come back on top.”
After the all-new experience of Miami, F1 returns to action in its European heartland in two weeks’ time with a double-header in Spain and Monaco.