Max Verstappen continued his trend of winning every race he finishes in the 2022 Formula 1 season to make further inroads into Charles Leclerc’s World Championship lead in the maiden Miami Grand Prix.
Here are our conclusions from F1’s newest race…
Miami: America’s answer to Sochi
What’s the difference between a great F1 venue and a poor one? Increasingly, it seems, it is a simple matter of perception, of the hype it can generate.
For years the Sochi circuit was lambasted for its unimaginative layout, which snaked around the stadia of the 2014 Winter Olympics and rarely, if ever, produced exciting racing.
The original proposals for a Miami GP back in 2018 centered around a circuit based in the city’s port, but in building a track around the Hard Rock Stadium – home to the Miami Something Or Others apparently – has F1 made the same mistake again?
Like Sochi, which at least had real water in the vicinity instead of a fake marina so ludicrous it almost seemed specifically designed to cause a commotion on social media, Miami ultimately proved to be an event to be endured rather than enjoyed.
Mick and Seb tangle at Turn 1 😖
— Formula 1 (@F1) May 9, 2022
As with Liberty’s other masterstroke, the divisive sprint race format, those with a vested interest in its success were determined to focus only on the positives, which seemed to begin and end with the scale of the event, but as the weekend progressed the negatives became harder to ignore.
Lewis Hamilton liked parts of the track to a car park – an assessment likely to send a shiver down the spine of anyone old enough to remember the Caesars Palace track of the early 1980s – while Sergio Perez, describing the surface as “a joke”, was among those to predict the problems when it came to wheel-to-wheel racing.
Elsewhere, and on a more serious note, calls from Carlos Sainz and Esteban Ocon for safer barriers to be installed at the scene of their identical crashes into the same concrete wall on Friday and Saturday respectively were ignored.
For a part of the world oozing with personality there is a certain, Sochi-esque soullessness to this identikit concrete bowl of a venue, leaving the lasting impression of Miami as a missed opportunity.
And when F1 arrives in Vegas – for a Saturday night race on a circuit taking in all of the city’s major landmarks – next season for the latest US-based grand prix on the calendar, Miami is almost certain to be reduced to a poor third in the ranking of F1’s American races.
It is a race not to be seen but to be seen at – a symbol of everything unpalatable about the Liberty era.
F1’s owners don’t do grand prizes; they do events, the grand prix only a small part of the show.
Max overcomes ‘messy’ Friday to produce one of his best performances yet
Verstappen was simmering at the end of qualifying in Miami, frustrated that his title defense was being made harder than it necessarily needed to be in 2022.
Having retired from two of the first three races, leaving him “miles behind” Leclerc in the Drivers’ standings, the reigning World Champion was struck by yet more unreliability on the opening day in Miami, a gearbox change and a hydraulic issue limiting him to just 15 laps in Friday practice.
“It’s just been incredibly messy, and we make it super difficult for ourselves,” Verstappen said, convinced a cleaner weekend on F1’s newest track would have seen him claim pole position.
Lesser drivers might have hidden behind that lack of track time and allowed it to dictate the nature of their weekend.
Goal Verstappen? It was just another hurdle to be overcome.
—PlanetF1 (@Planet_F1) May 9, 2022
It is in that context in which his race day performance in Miami must be viewed, Max’s natural touch and feel for a racing car more than enough to fill the gaps in his knowledge of the circuit itself.
His recovery was helped by the fact the other interruptions in FP2 – the red flags for Carlos Sainz’s crash and Nicholas Latifi’s stoppage – meant the longest of the long-run simulations stood at just five lapses.
And as Verstappen passed Sainz and Leclerc within the opening 10 laps to build a commanding lead, driving with the serenity of a World Champion, it was as though Friday never even happened.
The only time he came under threat was after the Safety Car, Red Bull’s straight-line speed advantage – combined with that immunity to pressure that became a hallmark of his in 2021 – shielding Verstappen from attack by Leclerc as he initially struggled on cold, old tires.
It may have looked like a routine win but, considering where he’d come from at the close of play on Friday, this was one of Verstappen’s best yet.
Mercedes fast approaching decision time over car concept
It appeared Mercedes had finally cracked the code of the W13 on Friday as George Russell returned the Silver Arrows to the top of the timesheets in FP2, having been within a tenth of Leclerc’s Ferrari in the morning session.
Had their range of updates, including new front and rear wings, unlocked all that potential they firmly believe is in the zero-sidepod concept?
Both Russell and Hamilton were bemused by Mercedes’ upturn in form on the opening day in Miami, and the former was just as perplexed when the team reverted to type in qualifying as he was eliminated from Q2 with a lap slower than he managed in FP2.
As in Australia, Russell benefited from the Safety Car to beat Hamilton in the race and continue his run of finishing in the top five in every race in 2022.
We maximized the result that was possible today and both drivers did a good job to score good points for the Team – but we have to feel for Lewis who had even more bad luck with the Safety Car.
Onward to Spain. And another chance to make a step forward. 👊 pic.twitter.com/qwKeeLD41R
— Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS F1 Team (@MercedesAMGF1) May 8, 2022
But at this stage, with Mercedes almost certainly out of title contention, results have become almost secondary to signs of performance and potential.
With Mercedes struggling to understand things when they’re fast and when they’re slow, this race has come at an interesting time for their plans going forward, with teams tending to commit to a concept for the following year’s car at the start of summer .
As reported by F1 journalist Mark Hughes over the weekend, the W13 has excelled in simulations, convincing Mercedes that if its porpoising problems could be eradicated and its true performance realized on track the team would return to dominating – not just winning – races overnight.
Yet the team’s patience – having won the last eight Constructors’ Championships stretching back to 2014 – is finite, and the time is fast approaching for Mercedes to decide to stick or twist and return to what team boss Toto Wolff has referred to as “simpler solutions .”
Whatever the reason behind it, might those hours when their world briefly righted itself on Friday persuade Mercedes, for better or worse, to persevere with the current concept a little longer?
Schumacher’s quest for points is increasingly reminiscent of Russell at Williams
It was as if the apprentice had turned on the master in the closing stages in Miami as Mick Schumacher misjudged a move on his mentor, Sebastian Vettel, into Turn 1.
Vettel was predictably protective of the driver he has come to regard as a son – later stressing “we”, not “he”, should have done better – but his radio message in the immediate aftermath of the incident, in which he claimed there was no gap on his inside, revealed his true feelings.
Schumacher’s latest error left a stain on what had arguably been his strongest F1 weekend to date, with Michael’s boy outqualifying team-mate Kevin Magnussen for only the second time this season (by a margin of three tenths) and in contention for a maiden points finish for much of the race.
Still, though, the wait goes on.
Mick and Seb tangle at Turn 1 😖
— Formula 1 (@F1) May 9, 2022
Schumacher’s struggle to score his first points is beginning to have shades of Russell’s long run without scoring, the Mercedes protege famously having to wait until midway through his third full season to finish in the top 10 for Williams.
Schumacher’s ceiling was dictated by Haas’s detached position in the pecking order during his debut season in 2021, but with Magnussen scoring points in three of the opening five races of this year – including a fine drive to P5 in Bahrain – it is not as though Mick hasn’t had a chance.
And with the team’s current form not guaranteed to last, just how many more opportunities will he get this season?
Following his qualifying crash in Saudi Arabia, Schumacher seemed certain his first points would come in Australia, yet his improved performance relative to Magnussen came on a weekend Haas struggled for pace.
Schumacher started a grand prix from the top 10 for the first time at Imola, but a messy race saw him finish a lowly 17th as Magnussen came away with two points having qualified as high as fourth for the sprint race.
Miami represented another missed opportunity, and the longer Schumacher’s wait for points goes on the greater the risk of it becoming a psychological block, his desperation to score potentially skewing his judgment in key moments.
As with Russell, when he finally scores the first point, you suspect the floodgates will open.
Albon is Williams’ best asset right now
With five races of his F1 comeback completed, it is already abundantly clear that Alex Albon put his year on the sidelines to good use.
He was a valued if typically understated member of Red Bull’s triumphant 2021 campaign, and through his work with esteemed driver coach Rob Wilson has smoothed the rough edges of his driving style that only increased the pressure of being Verstappen’s team-mate in 2020.
Albon is a far more complete driver than he was two years ago, his performances in the opening rounds of 2022 proving there is indeed life after Russell at Williams after all.
His 56-lap stint on hard tires in Australia – a feat unheard of in dry conditions in modern F1 and one only possible for a driver of touch, feel and great mechanical sympathy – came with the reward of a point.
And if his P9 finish in Miami owed much to the mistakes and misfortune of others, Albon had threatened to do something special all weekend.
— Alex Albon (@alex_albon) May 9, 2022
In an upgraded Williams, albeit still the slowest car in the field, he was a fixture in the top 10 across the practice sessions – as high as seventh in FP1 and P9 on Saturday morning – with only a tire preparation issue preventing him converting that pace into a higher grid position.
“I feel a lot of support from the people close to me, we’re on the rise,” Albon said of his personal development after the race.
“I feel like myself as well. I’m more prepared now than I ever was, I’m more experienced now than I ever was and I’m feeling good.”
With team-mate Latifi a lost cause, he is Williams’ best asset right now.