Verstappen closes in on Leclerc with Miami win
By Tom Cary senior sports correspondent in Miami
Hamilton left frustrated by the Mercedes pit strategy Sainz joins Ferrari team-mate on podium with Perez fourth Red Bull’s Max Verstappen cut the lead of Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc at the top of the drivers’ standings to just 19 points after taking victory and the fastest lap bonus point at the end of yesterday’s inaugural Miami Grand Prix that attracted plaudits and brickbats in equal measure. A “frustrated” Lewis Hamilton criticised his Mercedes team for coming onto the radio and asking him whether he wanted to pit during a late safety car at the end of the race. Hamilton was left exasperated again after losing a place to teammate George Russell after the safety car came into play when McLaren’s Lando Norris collided with the AlphaTauri of Pierre Gasly and lost a wheel. Russell, who had gambled on just such an incident occurring and had held off pitting, was able to dive into the pits and get fresh rubber, before catching Hamilton up. When the safety car retired, they had a brief scrap for position, with Russell initially forced to give the place back to Hamilton after gaining an unfair advantage from leaving the track. But he got the job done the second time. The seven-time champion, who had already lost points because of safety cars in Saudi Arabia and Melbourne, was not best pleased when his race engineer Pete Bonnington came on the radio to ask him whether he wanted to pit. He shouted over the radio for the pitwall to make the decision. “When you are out there, you don’t have a clear picture of the race, so when you are given responsibility to take the decision it feels like gambling and I don’t like that,” he explained later. “That’s what you rely on the guys for. “I am waiting for a change in fortune, but until then I will keep working as hard as I can. We got good points for the team today.” Russell, who kept up his run of finishing in the top five at every race this season, admitted he had got lucky, joking that you “sound like a bit of a genius” when you decide to stay out for a safety car and then one appears. But he said the weekend was a mixed bag, with Mercedes never able to recapture the pace they displayed in practice on Friday, when Russell was fastest. “We don’t really understand why. I think my race pace was two tenths off Leclerc on Friday, and today it was back to half a second to a second. So I don’t know. “We still don’t really understand why it’s so unpredictable. Toto has been throwing the word diva around a lot. I think that’s a bit of an understatement. Five and six is where we deserve to be. For sure, this weekend is where we’ve showed the most promise, but we’re still a long way off.” This was not a race for the traditionalists, who prefer motor racing to take place at historic European venues rather than in American car parks. But if the goal of the week was to prove that F1 has ‘cracked’ America, it certainly did that. The build-up was a heaving, groaning, hugger-mugger mash-up of Hollywood stars, reality television stars, sporting stars and their coteries of hangers-on. Formula One will be accused of pandering to the celebrity world with the prerace going to lose the position to George, for sure.” His prophecy was prescient, Russell sweeping past with seven laps to spare. It is Hamilton’s worst nightmare at a time when, confounded by the pace of Ferrari and Red Bull, he has already given up any chance of seizing a record eighth title this year. The greater the shadow cast by a team-mate, the more fragile his temperament tends to be. When Bonnington asked him whether he wanted to pit under the safety car for fresh tyres, he replied, irritably: “You tell me.” In the aftermath, Hamilton only added to the impression that he blamed Mercedes for a serious tactical miscue. “Make the decision for me,” he lamented. A once-harmonious picture is fracturing by the day. The theory is that Russell, scrupulously deferential grid positively through-thelooking-glass stuff; celebrities taking selfies with other celebrities. In the middle of all the preening, a motor race did break out, although it was not the most exciting. Verstappen was straight up to second with a bold move around the outside of Carlos Sainz into turn one. Hamilton, starting sixth, had a tougher time, rear-ended by the Alpine of Fernando Alonso at the first corner, about the elder man so far, represents the perfect team-mate. But Hamilton’s past form suggests there is only so long such a dynamic can last. The only reason he kept matters civil with Valtteri Bottas for five years was because he knew he had him beaten. When Rosberg usurped his alpha-male status in 2016, the atmosphere in the garage was as sour as curdled milk. It is not just Hamilton’s position at Mercedes that appears precarious, but his relationship with the sport. His attitude towards the FIA over his jewellery offers a compelling illustration. While race directors are insistent that he strips away all his adornments on safety grounds, arguing that piercings and neck chains reduce the protection offered by drivers’ flameproof clothing, Hamilton turned up to his press dropping two places and reporting damage to his left rear. He was able to make it back past Alonso and Pierre Gasly in the AlphaTauri before the race was 10 laps old. By then, the race had a new leader. Verstappen, who had been glued to Leclerc’s tail for the first eight laps, was clearly weighing up when to make his move. When the Dutchman’s engineer came on the radio to tell him they had spotted damage to conference wearing three watches and a ring on every finger. For a figure who often speaks in code, it was as brazen a show of defiance as could be imagined. He knows he faces a ferocious intra-team duel, as Russell streaks ahead with 59 points to his 36. The issue is how well he copes with such an affront to his pride. Perhaps the greatest worry for Hamilton, aside from Russell’s stellar form, is his dwindling relevance in the championship equation. Even during his relatively fallow years, from 2009 to 2013, he won at least one race every season. But prospects of extending that remarkable consistency of victories look remote to fanciful. Up the road in Miami, Max Verstappen might as well have been contesting a different race, vaulting into the lead with the Monegasque’s front right tyre, Verstappen decided to pull the trigger, drawing up alongside the Ferrari on the pit straight and making the move stick into the first right-hander. Leclerc stuck with his rival for a lap before Verstappen sailed off into the distance, with the Ferrari man soon complaining that his car felt “so difficult to drive”. Given all the talk of dodgy tarmac and dangerous kerbs – Hamilton compared one section to a “B&Q car park” – there were relatively few incidents. Norris’s late crash after being hit by Gasly’s AlphaTauri on lap 40, the wheel bouncing off down the track, at least enlivened the last 10 laps. The first ever Miami Grand Prix will attract mixed reviews, but Verstappen, at least, was happy. “It was an incredible grand prix, very physical, but we kept it exciting until the end,” the Dutchman said. “I’m incredibly happy winning in Miami. It was an incredible Sunday for us.” his impeccably-judged overtake on Charles Leclerc. Naturally, Hamilton’s worth to his sport remains incalculable. There was nobody better to sell a second F1 race to a ravenous United States audience than the person who has made a home in Malibu and flaunted any number of extravagant selfdesigned creations at the Met Gala. He was at ease appearing on the set of Good Morning America as he was trialling his rusty golf swing in the company of NFL legend Tom Brady. For all that he remains peripheral in the title standings, organisers ensured he was front and centre of every billboard. So many had come to salute Hamilton, the icon of this generation, only to see him mired in mediocrity once more. It is a question of when, not if, his patience finally snaps.