Written by Traber Burns
Image Credits: NurPhoto/Getty Images
The Las Vegas Grand Prix has been shrouded in controversy and debate ever since rumors of its existence started circulating. As we got closer to the event, the conversation amongst fans has only gotten more polarizing. Formula One's best case scenario was for a completely smooth weekend of on-track action. Instead, we had nine minutes of on track action before the night's schedule was completely altered.
Not even 10 minutes into FP1, a yellow flag came out on the strip's straight without any obvious issue. A few moments later, Carlos Sainz came to a stop with his steering wheel's dash displaying the message "Stop the car; Engine off." Replays showed a violent impact with something on the track, and it was later revealed that he had hit a loose drain cover. The result was damaged to the chassis, battery, and suspension, and all three components had to be replaced. Despite the extremely unusual circumstances, the FIA upheld Sainz's grid penalty for Sunday for the replaced parts. Martin Brundle wasn't too pleased by the decision, saying "The sporting code is 107 pages, and there isn’t a mention of common sense in it."
Sainz wasn't the only one to pick up damage, as Zhou Guanyu was behind him during the incident. The Alfa Romeo driver picked up light damage from Sainz's debris field, but there's no major changes expected. Unfortunately, Alpine can't say the same. Minutes after the incident, Esteban Ocon also hit the drain cover on the way back to pits, necessitating a chassis change.
With 40 minutes left, officials decided to not resume the session in order to inspect and fix any other drain covers that could cause issues. This ended up being the right call. The FIA found multiple drain covers that needed attention. The fix was to simply place fresh asphalt over all the drain covers, but the cold temperatures made this process more difficult and time consuming than usual. The scheduled midnight start time for FP2 became 2am, which then became 2:15, and then 2:30. At 1:30am, it was announced that the fans - who had only seen nine minutes of green flag running - would be required to leave the grandstands for "logistical concerns." It's not the first time F1 has encountered a problem with a drain/manhole cover. Still, with the divisiveness and polarity amongst fans caused by the event, this entire night was a black eye that F1 could ill-afford.
Image Credits: Jim Watson/Getty Images
This season’s theme of wacky conditions continues, but this time the problems are mostly self-imposed. The scheduled local start time for FP1 and FP2 was 8:30pm and 12:00am respectively, with qualifying also taking place at midnight. With the 2:30am start time in FP2, ambient temperatures were as low as 13.8℃ (56℉), but more crucially, track temperatures were 15℃ (59℉). This isn’t expected to change dramatically throughout the weekend, either. In tire talk news, Pirelli have brought the softest compounds. This, combined with the new track surface and low track temperature will likely result in graining. Even with the softest compounds, it’s unlikely we’ll see too many problems with overall tire degradation, but the graining could still cause some headaches for the strategists. The best teams will be the ones who can generate temperature without sliding and/or locking up their tires. In regards to qualifying, teamwork could play a big role in the results. The long back straight provides a big opportunity to give teammates in tow - something we should expect to see a lot of.
So who's at the top? Red Bull doesn't look like the runaway leader just yet. The session leaderboard shows a Ferrari one-two, and in regards to qualifying pace, this is somewhat representative. The gap won't be anywhere near it was for FP2, but the Ferraris have had an advantage through each round of qualifying practice runs. Charles Leclerc finished with a massive half-second advantage in his final qualifying run over his teammate as well. P2 for Carlos Sainz is still an extraordinary effort from the team considering the events of FP1. As long as they can keep the graining under control, Charles Lerclerc could force a small sweat from Verstappen. Speaking of Verstappen, he was bested by his teammate in this session. That's not exactly respresentative however, as Perez's lap was set later than Max's on a high evolution track. Don't count him out though. Checo has a history of getting the tires in the right window during abnormal conditions, so the cold weather on this brand new street circuit could play into his favor.
Image Credits: Angela Weiss/Getty Images
McLaren started the session with some minor cooling issues, but when they got on track they had a quiet day. Both drivers weren't as they weren't high up on the leaderboard as they usually are and they were one of the last to bolt on the soft tires. From the papaya team to the mean greens, Aston Martin isn't one that can be counted out of a podium just yet. The circuit layout isn't one that suits their car's strengths, but Fernando Alonso was putting in some consistently competitive times during qualifying runs. The final result shows a P3, just 0.011 off of the second-place Ferrari of Sainz. Mercedes also had a say in the battle for the top five. Lewis Hamilton once again had a leg up on his teammate and was putting in some very competitive times early in the session. It's a little surprising to see considering the Merc isn't one to fire up cold tires too well, but maybe they've found something.
Don't let the board fool you, Williams are in contention for some serious points this weekend. At one point, Alex Albon put in a laptime within two tenths of the leading Ferrari. Logan Sargeant was a ways back on his teammate, and yet again his own words described his session perfectly. After locking up in turn five, he radioed "Sorry, it's been a it messy." Valterri Bottas and Nico Hulkenberg both put in a very competitive lap times to get them P5 and P7 respectively. Alfa Romeo have had random flashes of speed throughout the season. With the Ferrari power unit that gives good traction out of the slow corners and decent power down the straights, it's wouldn't be out of the question to see them compete for a point or two come Saturday. Haas have split their car design for this weekend with Hulkenberg running the pre-Austin spec car and Magnussen running the recently upgraded version. Hulkenberg cited driver preference as the reason, but it'll surely give the team plenty of useful data to look at as well.
The struggle bus so far include the likes of Alpine and Alpha Tauri. The latter comes as a slight surprise when considering their recent form, but the long straights just don't suit the Italian outfit. Alpine's lack of pace comes as no surprise. The Renault power unit has been poor this season, and it's simply getting exposed on the long back straight. Alpine have a tendency to pick the pace once competitive sessions come around, so keep an eye on them.