It seemed like everyone and their dog was lining up to bash the Las Vegas Grand Prix. Part of a revitalised push by Formula 1 to establish a firm foothold in the United States, the Entertainment Capital of the World(™) hosted the country’s third race of the year. And even by American standards, it was gearing up to be bigger and brasher than anything we’d seen.
Organised not by a local promoter but by F1’s owners themselves, Liberty Media, the Las Vegas Grand Prix event was on a whole new scale. More than 40 years after the last race in the city (held in a casino car park) this new race took over the iconic Strip, starting and finishing from a brand new, purpose-built pit complex that cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
The Build-Up From Hell
The hype was huge. If F1 was to be believed, this was to be one of the greatest experiences of our hitherto meagre lives, and the pre-event messaging wasn’t exactly subtle. Many long-established fans, already on edge from the influx of new F1 enthusiasts captured by Netflix’s Drive to Survive series, took against it; while the F1 race in Texas has matured over a decade into a great weekend, the second American grand prix in Miami (also in a car park) has been less spectacular, with turgid racing overshadowed by fake marinas and a plague of disinterested celebrities. The unveiling of the uninspiring Las Vegas track layout prompted little more than sighs, and a weary expectation of theatrical bombast that would attempt to sprinkle glitter over a big, smelly motorsport poo.
In the build-up to the weekend, organisers essentially shut off large chunks of the iconic Strip to the public by covering bridges so that those without tickets couldn’t catch a glimpse of the action. Locals complained that they’d been steamrollered by the F1 circus taking over their town and ticket sales were sluggish, thanks to sky-high prices and an overestimation of demand. As the event itself approached, admission costs were slashed in an attempt to fill the grandstands.
Finally, the event arrived with a lavish opening ceremony (a first for F1) featuring the likes of 30 Seconds To Mars, Kylie Minogue and Journey, as well as drivers showcased on rising podiums like they were in The Hunger Games. Reigning World Champion Max Verstappen was scathing in his criticism, complaining that he felt like a clown and saying the event was “99% show and 1% sport”. Twitter/X/Whatever largely agreed.
Late into the evening local time, the first free practice session got underway. It lasted for eight minutes. Thanks to some frankly inexcusable track preparation, a water valve cover that should have been secured came violently loose as Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari drove over it. Fired into the underside of the car, it caused extensive damage that required a substantial rebuild. To rub salt into the wound, Sainz was later given a 10-place grid penalty for using extra components, despite the fact that it was not his or Ferrari’s fault.
The incident caused the cancellation of the first practice session and an extensive delay to the second as the race organisers checked and double-checked the safety of the track. By the time the cars came back out on track, it was 2:30am local time. Because things had been delayed so long, the event security shifts had finished, which meant the fans – many of whom had paid hundreds of dollars or more for their seats – had to be kicked out. A class-action lawsuit has since been filed against the organisers on behalf of 35,000 angry ticket holders.
As the numerous doubters, the world’s press and much of social media scoffed and ridiculed, Formula 1 regrouped. Free Practice 3 took place without incident, and an engaging qualifying session produced some unexpected results, not least a non-Red Bull pole position.
Late on Saturday night, the lights finally went out for the inaugural F1 Las Vegas Grand Prix. And what followed was one of, if not the best race of the season. Despite all the fears, mocking and derision, fans were treated to on-track overtakes, crashes, daring moves, differing strategies and a last-gasp overtake for the podium. Even the fact that, yes, Max Verstappen won yet again, couldn’t overshadow the fact that the Grand Prix itself had delivered.
With a 10-year contract, the Las Vegas Grand Prix is here to stay. Despite the overall success of the event, organisers will have learned many lessons and still have much to do ahead of next year’s event. Spectacular as the overhead shots of cars racing down the Strip were, most of the camera angles could have been from anywhere thanks to the high catch fencing and lack of visible landmarks. Much of the action on track was caused by the new, slippery surface and the fact that teams had no experience racing there. The treatment of the fans at the venue was deplorable, and there’s no excuse for the incident that destroyed Sainz’s car. Many of the teams and drivers also complained that the event schedules, which often required duties well into the early hours of the morning, were too fatiguing.
But all that said, if Las Vegas can continue to provide exciting racing, perhaps the fans will be able to put up with the star-spangled bombast that comes with it. And maybe, just maybe, it could become one of the most anticipated races of the year.