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Verstappen wins as new Las Vegas GP hosts thrilling debut

Max Verstappen hated everything regarding the Las Vegas Grand Prix from the moment he arrived in Sin City. Formula One’s three-time reigning world champion found the excess and opulence over the top and prioritized over the actual racing.

He changed his tune — literally — following his 18th victory of the season.

“Viva Las Vegas! Viva Las Vegas!” sang Verstappen as he crossed under the checkered flag waved by Justin Bieber. Verstappen had slammed Saturday night’s spectacle at every chance yet raced in an Elvis-inspired firesuit and took the victory on the famed Las Vegas Strip.

“I hope everyone enjoyed it. We definitely did. Excited to come back here next year and try to do something similar,” said Verstappen, who had markedly reversed his weeklong position on the Las Vegas spectacle.

“It was a fun race. I enjoyed it,” he conceded.

Verstappen passed Charles Leclerc at the start and overcame a penalty to pass Leclerc once more with 13 laps left to continue his season-long dominance. Verstappen, Leclerc and Sergio Pérez were driven in a limousine to a stage located near the Bellagio — “we go straight to the nightclub,” Verstappen told his fellow podium finishers — but they were instead treated to the casino’s famed fountain show.

The Bellagio fountains had been turned off all week and restarted as part of the victory celebration.

None of the participants seemed remotely interested as they stood chatting. After receiving their trophies, they were treated to a New Year’s Eve-style fireworks show over the Strip.

Martin Garrix then launched into a throbbing DJ set to entertain those who opened their wallets for the most expensive spectator race of the season. Celebrities danced along on the grid, and everyone seemed thrilled with the show. The stars in attendance included Brad Pitt, Rihanna, Usain Bolt and Shaquille O’Neal as F1 said it drew more than 315,000 spectators over the weekend and estimated an economic impact of $1.2 billion to Las Vegas.

“I really enjoyed it, and I am especially happy that we finished the weekend on a high note because it was hurting me to see the sport that I love so much starting so wrong on Thursday,” Leclerc said. “The fact that we had an amazing race makes it all better.”

The race was the third stop this season in the United States, more than any other country, and was promoted by F1 and owner Liberty Media. But the event had been lambasted, especially by Verstappen, for its emphasis on becoming a neon extravaganza.

Tickets were expensive, hotels along the famed Strip hiked their prices, and the sporting element of the 21st race of the season was overshadowed by the celebrities, musical acts and myriad Elvis impersonators roaming a paddock that included a wedding chapel where former F1 champion Jacques Villeneuve was married earlier in the week.

Perez had worked his way past Leclerc for second, but Leclerc grabbed it back at the finish to deny Red Bull its seventh 1-2 finish of the season.

“I wanted that win so bad,” Leclerc said. “I enjoyed it so much. Second place with a lot of fights. There is no better race for the first race in Vegas.”

With Hamilton concluding seventh, Perez locked up second to Verstappen in the season driver standings.

The Leclerc finish helped Ferrari cut its deficit to Mercedes to four points for second in the constructor championship heading into next week’s finale at Abu Dhabi.

Lando Norris of McLaren was involved in an early crash and was taken to a hospital for precautionary reasons. He was released shortly after the fireworks show.

Steve Carr

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