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What the sprint race and qualifying tell us about the 2024 F1 Miami Grand Prix

Max Verstappen’s dominant display so far at the Formula 1 Miami Grand Prix gives little indication of a serious challenge against him in Sunday’s main event. But Ferrari has a few factors to remain optimistic even if the favourite tag is firmly placed on the world champion

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20, leads Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-24, Daniel Ricciardo, VCARB 01, Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB20, Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-24, and the rest of the field at the start of the Sprint race

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Thanks to Formula 1 scheduling two successive sprint events early in the 2024 campaign, there’s now enough evidence to say the latest sprint tweaks have made things worse. No matter how hard TV commentators may screech otherwise…

It’s a very long time since the initial sprint format meant F1 got that Copse clash between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton at the 2021 British Grand Prix, or that Daniel Ricciardo victory for McLaren at Monza later that same year.

Now, the latest changes mean any jeopardy facing Verstappen and his Red Bull squad – which was really there earlier in Miami on Saturday – over race stints around the Hard Rock Stadium is depressingly reduced.

F1 points to its elevated overall weekend TV viewing figures to justify the business case for sprint weekends. And this isn’t an argument for abandoning them altogether. It’s just now the ability for teams to alter car set-ups post-sprint race means if a dominant squad does find rare unhappy ground, as Red Bull did on Friday evening and early Saturday afternoon here, now it can recover.

And it can do so with Verstappen starting Sunday’s main race from pole. There’s plenty of data and intrigue to cover when it comes to forecasting today’s event, but judging by everything that went down in Miami yesterday there’s just no sugar coating what can be said about who is favourite…

Verstappen should have it even easier in the race (again)

On lap 10 of the 19-tour sprint contest, Verstappen told his engineer Gianpiero Lambiase that his balance and tyre degradation aboard his RB20 was “terrible” with “zero rear grip”. He then said afterwards his car had “a bit too much oversteer”.

But Verstappen was left feeling “very happy with this new format – that at least you can make a few changes” thanks to those relaxed parc ferme rules. “Otherwise, you are stuck with it and basically it can ruin your weekend,” he added.

Despite winning the Miami sprint, it was far from smooth running for Verstappen

Despite winning the Miami sprint, it was far from smooth running for Verstappen

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Behind in second in the sprint, Charles Leclerc reckoned Ferrari had “similar degradation” in the race pace stakes compared to Red Bull, which he upgraded to “a bit of a tyre advantage” in the post-sprint race press conference.

Tyre degradation is of course the major factor in this hot, sweaty event – although compared to some places it's relatively low and a one-stop GP is expected. The soft is even a serious race stint contender given the struggles the drivers have on it here only concern finding the grip peak in qualifying.

It’s interesting that Ferrari’s main advantage this weekend – per the GPS traces logged so far – show it gaining compared to Red Bull in the flowing, faster corners. That means the red and (slightly) blue cars are sliding less in these critical points, with an obvious tyre life benefit.

Red Bull’s ongoing aerodynamic efficiency prowess makes the difference over one lap, plus on Saturday Leclerc losing time at the chicane on his best Q3 lap compared to Verstappen’s.

"Whenever I was getting within 1.8s, 1.7s, I would drop to 2.2s, 2.3s, and then I would come back a little bit. I think if I had the DRS on that first lap, we probably could have put him under a bit more pressure" Charles Leclerc

Rather painfully, Leclerc reckoned Ferrari was actually “stronger” in the lower-speed stuff compared to last time out in China. This, he said, suggested the Scuderia has “a little bit not understood yet” certain elements of the SF-24.

But Leclerc’s biggest sprint race problem was, having failed to stay in DRS range after the safety car restart, he was left sliding around in Verstappen’s wake. This meant when it came to putting his slight race pace advantage to bear, he found it “very difficult to come back to Max”.

“I was just struggling a little bit with the dirty air,” he added. “Whenever I was getting within 1.8s, 1.7s, I would drop to 2.2s, 2.3s, and then I would come back a little bit. I think if I had the DRS on that first lap, we probably could have put him under a bit more pressure, but we didn't.”

Leclerc suffered in the dirty air trying to catch Verstappen in the sprint

Leclerc suffered in the dirty air trying to catch Verstappen in the sprint

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Post-GP qualifying, Verstappen said the set-up adjustments Red Bull had made meant his RB20 “definitely felt a bit more connected, a bit more predictable”. This, he concluded ominously, “hopefully will help me tomorrow in the race”.

Ferrari must pin its hopes on more Turn 1 chaos

The most interesting elements of Saturday’s sprint – Kevin Magnussen’s sustained, over-the-top defence against Hamilton – only occurred because of what had happened at the shorter race’s first corner. There, Hamilton was a big fact in the intra-Aston Martin clash that ultimately eliminated Lance Stroll and Lando Norris.

And it’s the first turn that really offers Ferrari its main, slim hope of defeating Verstappen today in the GP. After all, Leclerc was left feeling “I think if I had the DRS on that first lap [in the sprint], we probably could have put him under a bit more pressure, but we didn't”. So, we need to look into that tomorrow to try and make sure that we keep the DRS if we are behind and we pull away if we are in front.”

As much as Carlos Sainz might rue how “there's no more the differences that you could see in the past [at race starts]” and that “everyone more or less gets off the line at the same pace”, his team-mate did make a better getaway from the front row against Verstappen on Saturday. Factors here are of course that the Ferrari was on new mediums compared to Verstappen’s used yellow-walled rubber and the Dutchman felt his clutch “engagement” wasn’t brilliant. Again, this is something the new sprint rules mean Red Bull can adjust around…

But at Turn 1 ahead of drivers that did make big gambles, Leclerc “didn't want to take too many risks” with qualifying still to come on Saturday and “if you have a crash in the sprint then you probably don't participate later on”.

So, with no repairs to really worry about following Sunday, a more forceful attempt from Leclerc – or indeed from Sainz should he launch well enough on the second row – just might be enough to knock Verstappen off his latest Miami march. However, so often in recent years has the fate of a decent GP been left to drivers being willing to compromise their tyres in close racing against Verstappen’s overall better package, only for them to decide it’s not really worth it, again, let’s not raise too many hopes.

Perez’s latest qualifying underperformance opens another crack of Red Bull weakness

“When Max starts in front, it's always difficult to find ways to beat him,” Sainz told the post-sprint press conference. “Having two cars is our best possible bet in trying to do that. And we will give it our best shot.”

Perez qualified fourth and has two Ferraris between him and Verstappen

Perez qualified fourth and has two Ferraris between him and Verstappen

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Indeed, Ferrari will have to consider splitting its starting tyre strategy to try and use its two-car advantage behind Verstappen on the grid to any effect. Logically, this would mean Carlos Sainz starting on a harder compound to give Leclerc soft-rubber grip with which to launch the Turn 1 Verstappen attack we’re hoping for but barely expecting.

The undercut is going to be important here, given the drivers will be circulating at set tyre management pace. So, if Leclerc can stay close in the first stint and Ferrari is confident in its tyre warm-up procedures, as appears to be the case given the SF-24s are so strong in the first sector, that might be handy tactical weapon.

Plus, starting one car on a more durable tyre means Ferrari would be a major gainer if there was a safety car deeper in proceedings. Although an early one would ruin the race for the driver on that strategy. This demonstrates the tricky choice facing Red Bull’s rival.

Ferrari’s set-up “fine-tuning” must pay off, conditions could yet spring a surprise

Asked about his GP chances post-sprint race and his thoughts on Ferrari’s potential today, Leclerc replied that he felt reasonably confident because in the sprint race “we were a little bit closer to what we normally see”.

Looking for another faint hope for Ferrari, there’s a chance the conditions are changing here today, which is forecast to be slightly cooler and that can have an effect in the tyre dark arts

He added: “However, I also said that Max wasn't really happy with his car this morning in the sprint race. So, we need to see how much of a step forward he does tomorrow, being happier with the car. But we did some fine-tuning on our side. We're also confident we did a step forward. So, we'll see. But if we have a similar pace like we've seen this morning then I think with strategy you can always put a bit more a bit more pressure. I hope that is the case. We've got the two cars in the front, so it's a good opportunity…”

Posed against this is Ferrari team boss Fred Vasseur claiming in the team’s Saturday press release that “it looks like our race pace is a bit slower than Max’s so the most important thing will be to get a good first lap and make use of the DRS that is very strong at this track”.

Is a Ferrari vs Red Bull battle really on for the Miami GP?

Is a Ferrari vs Red Bull battle really on for the Miami GP?

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

There’s one final factor worth considering when it comes to looking ahead to Sunday’s main event in Miami. This is how “every lap is a bit of an adventure with the wind” – per Sainz. Leclerc also theorised in the post-qualifying press conference that a wind change might’ve been the reason none of the leading trio improved on their final Q3 runs.

Here we should think back to the Bahrain season opener and how wind direction and intensity changing ahead of that race left Verstappen much happier with his car balance and handling on a tricky tyre management drive.

So, looking for another faint hope for Ferrari, there’s a chance the conditions are changing here today, which is forecast to be slightly cooler and that can have an effect in the tyre dark arts, which might just knock the world champion out of the tricky tyre operating window they’ve all been chasing with tyres that overheat very quickly.

Verstappen remains strong favourite for Miami GP victory, but Ferrari has a good opportunity to halt his charge

Verstappen remains strong favourite for Miami GP victory, but Ferrari has a good opportunity to halt his charge

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

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