June 15, 2024

Formula One undoubtedly rode its luck during its four-day residency in Las Vegas yet somehow broke with the city’s oldest tradition and came out on top.

Transforming the entertainment capital of America into a 3.8-mile racetrack was never going to be straightforward, and after a stuttering start, it felt like F1’s $500 million gamble to return to Las Vegas might be a busted flush.

In the days leading up to main event, the focus had been on overinflated ticket prices, disgruntled locals and angry fans, but in the form of a 50-lap grand prix against one of racing’s most spectacular backdrops, F1 had one last roll of the dice.

Deliver a thriller to match the hype and all the disruption to the city and issues along the way could be somehow justified. Deliver a dud and serious questions would be asked.

Earlier in the weekend, world champion Max Verstappen had labelled the grand prix “99 percent show and 1 percent sport” in one of a series killer lines, seemingly aimed at the jugular of the event.

And while there was an awful lot of truth in Verstappen’s statement, it was the sport of F1 racing — 1 percent or otherwise — that meant its owners finished up on the huge fortune it had sank into the event.

A high-stakes bet

The stakes had become dizzyingly high in the months preceding the race. Formula One, acting as a race promoter for the first time in its history, did the vast majority of cheerleading, hyping the race at every opportunity to anyone who would listen.

Average ticket prices hit a record asking price of $1,667, including one package that sold for $50,000 per head to access a VIP suite above Turn 1. Sky boxes with views over the team garages came at the slightly more modest $8,000 to $13,000 per head, but the VIP experience was questionable when guests were greeted by static-inducing red polyester carpets and tacky furnishings that promised, but didn’t quite deliver on, an “old Vegas” vibe.

Along with the expectation of three days of track action (more on that later), the VIP suites offered the best view of a lavish opening ceremony. Kylie Minogue and John Legend performed on the pit straight under a drone show, while F1’s 20 drivers were presented to a half-empty grandstand via trapdoors in one of five raised stages on the circuit.

It was shortly after the opening ceremony that Verstappen — a longtime cynic of F1’s plans to race in Las Vegas — made his “99 percent show” comment, adding that he was made to feel “like a clown” as he stood and waved from a neon-lit stage alongside Red Bull teammate Sergio Pérez.

Fear and loathing in Las Vegas

Beyond the kitsch confines of the circuit, F1 was facing another image problem. For months, the prospect of the grand prix had been generating sentiments of both fear and loathing among Las Vegas’ residents, who had seen their town torn up and clumsily reorganised around the temporary circuit.

Metal scaffolding to house track lighting and temporary grandstands blocked several iconic views on the Strip, while the concrete walls lining the racetrack caused havoc with traffic management — impacting taxi and rideshare drivers the most. Across a poll of five Uber drivers used by ESPN to visit various parts of the town ahead of the race weekend, not one had a positive word to say for the race, with the majority questioning whether Las Vegas, which attracted 38.3 million tourists last year without a grand prix, stood to gain anything from the sport’s presence.

The city chose its mid-November race date — the weekend before Thanksgiving — because it historically sees the lowest numbers of hotel bookings and out-of-state visitors. Initially the decision seemed to be working, with standard room prices in the biggest hotels being pitched at over $1,000 per night, but in the week leading up to the race, the façade finally dropped and prices were slashed — in some cases falling to double digits for the nights prior to the main event. Along with tumbling ticket prices on the resale market, there was a belief that the event could be a total flop, although F1 claims a healthy 315,000 fans attended the grand prix over four days.

Aware of the image problem the race was creating in its new home, Greg Maffei, the CEO of F1’s parent company Liberty Media, apologised for any inconvenience to locals, while trying to assure them the financial returns for the city would be worthwhile.

“I want to apologise to all the Las Vegas residents, and we appreciate that they have their forbearance and their willingness to tolerate us,” Maffei said. “We’re going to bring something like $1.7 billion of revenue to the area.

“So it’s not just for the benefit of fans who want to view. We hope this is a great economic benefit in Las Vegas. We hope this is the most difficult year with all the construction that went on and things will be easier in the future.”

F1 also stressed that it is due to pay a Live Entertainment Tax, charged by the city, that it expects will run to hundreds of millions and can be reinvested in public services.

A bumpy start

The combination of anger among locals, F1’s endless and sickening hype, and a street circuit in one of the world’s most recognisable cities meant there was an unprecedented level of interest in the opening practice session on Thursday evening. Yet within nine minutes of the green light, an iron water valve cover — eight inches in diameter and nearly an inch thick — was lifted from its housing in the track surface by the sheer force of Carlos Sainz‘s Ferrari driving over it.

The underside of a Formula One car is sculpted to generate low pressure, which increases exponentially as the car goes faster and sucks the car to the ground through high-speed corners. As Sainz’s Ferrari passed over the water valve cover, the pressure difference between the air rushing under the car and the air in the drainage pipe below lifted the metal disc from its mounting and fired it into the bottom of the Ferrari.

The impact immediately cut the Ferrari’s power unit and caused extensive damage to the underside of the car, which resulted in a chassis change for the rest of the weekend. The water valve cover also hit Esteban Ocon‘s Alpine, forcing his team to replace his chassis for the rest of the weekend too.

Similar incidents have happened at other street circuits, including Monaco and Baku in past years, but the previous solution of welding the covers shut wasn’t possible on the Strip as the surrounding structure of the water valve cover had also failed. Until a different solution could be found and applied to all of the water valve covers around the circuit, no track action would be going ahead in Las Vegas.

Over the next five-and-a-half hours all the water valve covers around the circuit were removed and the holes were filled with sand and asphalt. The asphalt was then hammered down and levelled off to create a slightly messy but perfectly safe solution to the problem.

However, by the time the work was finished it was nearing 2 a.m. on Friday. F1 teams had expected to be long into their debriefs by that hour, but instead had to wait another 30 minutes to get on track. For the drivers and those working on the cars it was an annoyance, but in the grand scheme of things not a disaster. For the fan experience, however, it couldn’t have been much worse.

During the hiatus to modify the track, the working hours of security staff and those driving shuttle buses back to hotels had lapsed, meaning the fan zones around the circuit could no longer operate and ticket holders had to be asked to leave. It led to the bizarre spectacle of 20 F1 cars tearing around the city circuit between 2.30 a.m. and 4.00 a.m. but with no one in the huge grandstands to watch them.

In an unapologetic statement the next day, F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali and Las Vegas Grand Prix CEO Renee Wilm, shrugged off the fan experience like a throwaway bet on a roulette table.

“We have all been to events, like concerts, games and even other Formula One races, that have been cancelled because of factors like weather or technical issues. It happens, and we hope people will understand.”

A second statement was issued an hour later, but again the paying fans emerged as the losers as F1 offered a $200 Las Vegas Grand Prix merchandise voucher to anyone who had a single-day ticket for Thursday evening. Those with a three-day ticket were simply encouraged to return to the circuit the next evening for what F1 said was “going to be a great event”.

A quick search of an F1 store in the Venetian on Saturday morning revealed that a $200 voucher would cover two gaudy F1-logoed vests or, at the higher end of the merchandise spectrum, a single Malbon-branded sweatshirt (as long as voucher holders were willing to cover the taxes themselves).

Verstappen’s disdain for the event surfaced again when he told Dutch media his thoughts on the compensation offer.

“If I were a fan, I’d tear the whole place down,” he said. “That can’t be right.”

On Saturday morning, a class action lawsuit was filed against F1 and the Las Vegas Grand Prix on behalf of the 35,000 people who had tickets for Thursday’s practice sessions.

The track delivers

After two days of fighting fires, Formula One delivered a competitive midnight qualifying session on Friday night that helped shift the focus back to the track action. The circuit looked spectacular when the cars were circulating at high speed, and there was a hope that the presence of Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc on pole position could provide the spectacle F1 needed from Saturday night’s race to save the event.

Verstappen still wasn’t convinced by the idea of racing in Las Vegas after qualifying, saying the experience lacked “emotion” and “passion” while also giving the track layout an unfavourable comparison with F1’s most famous street circuit.

“I think Monaco is like Champions League and this is like National League,” he said.

Yet 24 hours later, even Verstappen, arguably the race’s most high-profile detractor, appeared to change his tune. The spectacular night race featured 82 overtakes over 50 laps, which is the highest amount for a dry-weather race all year and only second to the wet Dutch Grand Prix overall.

The circuit offered multiple opportunities to pass, with the best of all coming at the end of the 1.2-mile drag down the Strip. Sparks flew under the casinos’ neon lights as drivers vied for position with one another, risking it all for a chance to take the inside line into the tight Turn 14.

Included in the total of 82 overtakes was a thrilling battle for victory between Verstappen, Leclerc and Perez. The lead changed seven times between the three drivers, with Verstappen ultimately coming out on top with a brilliant pass at Turn 14 on Leclerc on Lap 37. The battle for second place went down to the final lap and was decided in favour of Leclerc at the same corner thanks to a dive-bomb move under the balconies of the Cosmopolitan Casino.

When the chequered flag flew and the dust settled, Verstappen, wearing a one-off Elvis-style racesuit inside his Red Bull, delivered the evening’s perfect encore as he sang “Viva Las Vegas” over team radio on his return to the pits.

“Well, I always expected it to be a good race today,” Verstappen said in the early hours of Sunday morning. “It was just four long straights, low speed corners, you don’t lose a lot of downforce — so that has never been my issue.

“But yeah, today was fun. That’s the only thing I want to say about it; I think today was fun. I hope everyone enjoyed it.”

“I mean it made for fun racing out there,” he continued. “Christian put me on the spot [by playing “Viva Las Vegas” over team radio] so I cannot leave them hanging, I had to sing. But I definitely need some lessons!”

Still room for improvement

Had the race not been as thrilling as it was, the multiple failings of the Las Vegas Grand Prix would have carried far more weight in the aftermath. Even those working in the sport, many of whom stand to benefit from the event’s long-term success, were losing patience by race day as they had been left utterly exhausted by the experience.

After a triple-header of races in Austin, Mexico and Brazil spanning late October and early November, F1 teams doubled back across the Atlantic at the start of this week keen to get the final two races of the season over and done with. But not only were there the standard eight hours of time shift from their bases in Europe to Pacific Time in Las Vegas, the late-night sessions meant the race weekend was effectively running to a clock set in a Japan’s time zone.

Long nights of work meant heads were routinely hitting pillows after the sun had come up and, with internal clocks still set to a European beat, more than five hours of sleep was praised as a minor miracle. Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, who struggled to find the time to celebrate his 50th birthday over the weekend, summed it up best.

“I think one of the things we need to look at is the running schedule because it’s been brutal for the team, and all the men and women behind the scenes,” he said. “I think everybody’s leaving Vegas slightly f—–.

“We need to look at how we can improve that for the future. We’re running so late at night, so maybe we run it a little earlier in the evening.

“You’re never going to keep every television audience totally happy. This is an American race, so if you run at 8 o’clock in the evening, or something like that, it would just be a bit more comfortable for all.”

Within the space of the next five days, the entire F1 paddock will find itself 12 time zones to the east as the sport descends on Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, for the final race of the season. The strain of intercontinental back-to-back races is not lost on anyone in the sport, from rank-and-file team members to those at the very top.

“We are in complete autopilot,” Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said in the early hours of Sunday morning. “You don’t know where you’re waking up, what time zone you are in and where the toilet is on your hotel room. Let’s just get it done.”

Asked if F1 could help itself with earlier session timings in Las Vegas next year, Wolff added: “I think that it’s logistics. How do you manage the traffic situation in Las Vegas [by closing the roads earlier in the day]?

“I don’t want to find a hair in the soup because it was so great, if we can look at the detail of the timing… maybe qualifying have a bit earlier.

“But that’s a detail. The whole thing was great.”

Against the odds, Formula One somehow left Las Vegas on a high.

It remains to be seen if its promise of $1.7 billion in revenues for the city is actually realised or whether the heavily inflated ticket prices can be sustained for a second year. But on its first attempt at promoting its own race, it was the sport’s core product — the racing — that ultimately got it out of a hole.

Surely even Max Verstappen can be happy about that.

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