Occasions when Red Bull have faced a rival with the pace to challenge them over a grand prix distance have been vanishingly rare this year.
It happened on the streets of Singapore, where Ferrari won, and the same situation almost unfolded in Las Vegas. Charles Leclerc was quick enough to push the Red Bulls hard.
But just when it was starting to look like Max Verstappen had a real fight on his hands came the development which put him back on course to win: He collided with George Russell.
Verstappen had taken the lead at the start somewhat controversially, running wide at turn one and taking Leclerc with him. The stewards handed him a five-second time penalty to serve at his first pit stop, but surprisingly Leclerc reeled him in and passed the Red Bull before then.
“On the medium tyre we were not as competitive as the Ferrari,” said Red Bull team principal Christian Horner. “We were a bit harder on the tyre. But on the hard tyre the cars came alive a lot more.”
Verstappen was more competitive on the hard tyre. But his penalty dropped him further back into the pack than he might normally have been, so Ferrari had the luxury of being able to leave Leclerc out longer than usual before bringing him in.
By the time he changed tyres Leclerc had gone further on his original set of mediums than anyone and was able to leave the pits on hard rubber that was five laps fresher than Verstappen’s. On the lap before half distance Leclerc was three seconds up the road from his key rival.
But when Verstappen lunged down the inside of Russell at turn 12 the next time around the Mercedes driver turned in and made contact. This looked like another blow to Verstappen’s victory chances, as he now had a damaged front wing. But race control deployed the Safety Car in order to clear the debris, which was good news for those like Red Bull who had pitted on the early side.
They brought both their drivers in for another set of hard tyres. Ferrari could have done the same with Leclerc, who had another set available, but chose not to. As a result he restarted the race with older rubber than the Red Bull drivers, which tipped the balance against him.
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Red Bull may have been better on the hard rubber than they were on medium, but Ferrari team principal Frederic Vasseur believes their tyre life advantage also flattered them in the second half of the race.
“I think Vertappen had more…