LAS VEGAS (AP) — Ferrari rebounded from a disastrous first day of the Las Vegas Grand Prix with a Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr. sweep of Friday night qualifying.
Only it does not translate into a 1-2 start in Saturday night’s race for the two Ferrari drivers. Sainz is in a backup car because his Ferrari was badly damaged when he ran over a drainage valve cover in Thursday night’s opening practice.
Because he needed to move to a backup car for the rest of the weekend, Sainz was penalized 10 spots on the starting grid and will instead start 12th on Saturday night. Ferrari tried to argue against the penalty because the damage to the car was caused by the track surface, but the FIA had no provision in its rules to grant an exception.
After the qualifying run, Sainz was struggling to balance the showmanship of F1’s first visit to Las Vegas in 41 years and the damage to the sporting element of the biggest spectacle on the series’ 22-race calendar.
F1 and owner Liberty Media have spent $500 million on the race that uses the Strip and incorporates several Las Vegas landmarks. It’s the most expensive race to attend on the season and the third stop this year in the United States, more than any other country.
“I think we need to learn to separate things and there’s the sport and there’s the show, and you can have both in a good combination,” said Sainz, who noted that Wednesday night’s opening ceremony and the many celebrity-packed events at casinos and restaurants has been an important part of the week.
“But I see the race as a very good opportunity for F1 and I think F1, it’s a good thing that’s in Las Vegas and I am enjoying coming to Las Vegas. I feel like we started on a really bad foot … and I think it was a very good opportunity to make a statement as a sport and to open Vegas with a very good image and attraction to everyone. But I have people who have never come to a race asking me why I was given a penalty for what happened.”
Leclerc said criticism over the disastrous opening day saddened him. Practice was stopped nine minutes into the first session for track officials to fix all the valve covers that needed attention, the second practice started 2 1/2-hours late at 2:30 a.m. and ran until 4 a.m., and fans were ordered to leave before the second practice.
He felt the qualifying session that denied Max Verstappen a 12th pole of the season would help improve attitudes about the event.
“I was sad yesterday to see how much criticism there was around the track. Of course, it wasn’t good enough, but we must not forget how much work there has been for many, many people to make this work and I think it looks amazing,” Leclerc said. “I really hope we have an exciting race in order to really show what Formula One is. Yesterday was obviously a pretty bad start, but I think it’s an amazing venue.”
After winning the pole, Leclerc’s image was broadcast on The Sphere that overlooks the 3.85-mile (6.2 kilometer) street circuit that utilizes a large portion of the Strip.
Max Verstappen, who is seeking an 18th win of the season on Saturday night, qualified third for Red Bull. He’s been critical of the event since before he even arrived because he believes F1 has put too much emphasis on the entertainment value of the Las Vegas race.
He also called for an FIA rule change to ensure drivers are not penalized for incidents like Thursday’s mishap.
“The rules have to change, it’s the same if you get taken out or have a big accident,” Verstappen said. “These things should be taken into consideration. I think it is very harsh on Carlos.”
Verstappen also remained critical of the 17-turn track circuit with a soccer analogy: “Monaco I think is Champions League (level). This is National League.”
George Russell was fourth for Mercedes and followed by Pierre Gasly of Alpine. Williams teammates Alex Albon and Logan Sargeant were sixth and seventh and it was the best qualifying effort of the season for American rookie Sargeant.
Sargeant, following the highest qualifying run of his career, said F1 had rebounded from the botched first practice and was delivering a good show.
“I think today’s been a huge success in terms of the grand prix,” the Florida native said. “I think those things happen. Obviously, it’s not ideal, but clearly there’s been a good reaction. We’ve had three very good sessions now, and I personally think there’s going to be great racing on this track.”
Lewis Hamilton, Sergio Perez and McLaren drivers Lando Norris and rookie Oscar Piastri were eliminated in the first round.
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