Formula One certainly experienced its share of luck during its four-day stint in Las Vegas but managed to defy the city’s longstanding challenges and emerge successfully.
Converting the entertainment hub of America into a 3.8-mile racetrack proved to be a complex task, and initially, F1’s ambitious $500 million venture to return to Las Vegas seemed to face significant hurdles.
In the days leading up to the main event, attention was drawn to exorbitant ticket prices, discontent among locals, and frustrated fans. However, with a 50-lap grand prix set against the backdrop of one of racing’s most spectacular scenes, F1 took a final gamble.
If the race lived up to the immense hype, it could somehow rationalize the disruptions to the city and the challenges faced along the way. A disappointing outcome, on the other hand, would raise serious questions.
World champion Max Verstappen had earlier characterized the grand prix as “99 percent show and one percent sport,” delivering a cutting remark that seemed directed at the essence of the event. While there was an element of truth in Verstappen’s statement, it was the sporting aspect of F1 racing—whether one percent or more—that allowed its organizers to recoup the substantial investment in the event and end up with significant success.
A gamble with significant consequences.
In the months leading up to the race, the stakes had risen to dizzying heights. For the first time in its history, Formula One took on the role of a race promoter, actively promoting and hyping the event at every available opportunity.
The average ticket prices soared to a record of $1,667, with exclusive packages reaching an astounding $50,000 per person for access to a VIP suite above Turn 1. Sky boxes offering views of the team garages were priced more modestly at $8,000 to $13,000 per person. However, the VIP experience fell short of expectations, with guests greeted by static-inducing red polyester carpets and less-than-impressive furnishings that aimed for an “old Vegas” vibe but didn’t quite deliver.
In addition to the anticipation of three days of on-track action, the VIP suites provided a prime view of an extravagant opening ceremony. Artists like Kylie Minogue and John Legend performed on the pit straight amid a drone show, while F1’s 20 drivers were introduced to a partially filled grandstand via trapdoors on one of five raised stages around the circuit.
Shortly after the opening ceremony, Verstappen, a long-standing skeptic of F1’s plans for racing in Las Vegas, made his “99 percent show” comment. He expressed feeling like a “clown” as he stood alongside Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez on a neon-lit stage.
Trepidation and Disdain in Las Vegas
Outside the themed boundaries of the racetrack, Formula One encountered another challenge to its image. In the months leading up to the grand prix, the event generated a mix of apprehension and disapproval among Las Vegas residents, who witnessed their city being disrupted and awkwardly rearranged to accommodate the temporary circuit.
Metal scaffolding for track lighting and temporary grandstands obstructed several iconic views along The Strip, and the concrete walls lining the race track created traffic management issues, affecting taxi and rideshare drivers the most. In a survey of five Uber drivers used by ESPN to explore different parts of the city before the race weekend, not a single driver had positive feedback about the race. Many questioned 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 strategically selected its mid-November race date, the weekend before Thanksgiving, as historically, it experiences the lowest numbers of hotel bookings and out-of-state visitors. Initially, the decision appeared successful, with standard room prices in major hotels exceeding $1,000 per night. However, in the week leading up to the race, prices were drastically reduced, sometimes reaching double digits for the nights preceding the main event. Coupled with declining ticket prices on the resale market, there was a concern that the event might be a complete failure, despite F1 claiming a healthy attendance of 315,000 fans over four days.
Acknowledging the negative perception the race was creating in its new location, Greg Maffei, the CEO of F1’s parent company Liberty Media, issued an apology for any inconvenience to locals while emphasizing the anticipated financial benefits for the city.
“I want to apologize to all the Las Vegas residents, and we appreciate their forbearance and willingness to tolerate us,” said Maffei. “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 underscored its commitment to paying a Live Entertainment Tax charged by the city, expecting it to amount to hundreds of millions and be reinvested in public services.
A rocky beginning
The amalgamation of local dissatisfaction, Formula One’s excessive and nauseating promotion, and a street circuit in one of the world’s most recognizable cities led to an unprecedented level of interest in the opening practice session on Thursday evening. However, just nine minutes after the session commenced, an iron water valve cover, measuring eight inches in diameter and nearly an inch thick, was dislodged from its housing in the track surface by the sheer force of Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari driving over it.
The aerodynamic design of a Formula One car, crafted to generate low pressure, caused the metal disc to be lifted from its mounting and propelled into the underside of Sainz’s Ferrari. This impact immediately disabled the car’s power unit and inflicted extensive damage to the underside, necessitating a chassis change for the remainder of the weekend. Esteban Ocon’s Alpine also suffered from the same incident, leading to a chassis replacement for his team as well.
While similar incidents have occurred at other street circuits like Monaco and Baku in the past, the conventional solution of welding the covers shut was impractical on The Strip due to the failure of the surrounding structure. To address the issue, all water valve covers around the circuit were removed over the next five-and-a-half hours, and the holes were filled with sand and asphalt. Although the solution was somewhat messy, it was deemed safe.
By the time the modifications were completed, it was nearly 2 a.m. on Friday morning, delaying the F1 teams’ debriefs. For the drivers and team personnel, it was an inconvenience, but not a catastrophe. However, for the fan experience, it was a significant setback.
During the track modification hiatus, the working hours of security staff and shuttle bus drivers had lapsed, rendering the fan zones around the circuit inoperable, and ticket holders were asked to leave. This resulted in the peculiar scenario of 20 F1 cars navigating the city circuit between 2:30 a.m. and 4:00 a.m. without spectators in the grandstands.
In an unapologetic statement the next day, F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali and Las Vegas Grand Prix CEO Renee Wilm downplayed the impact on the fan experience, likening it to a casual bet on a roulette table. Another statement offered a $200 Las Vegas Grand Prix merchandise voucher to single-day ticket holders for Thursday evening, while three-day ticket holders were encouraged to return for the next evening’s event.
Verstappen expressed his disdain for the compensation offer, stating that if he were a fan, he would “tear the whole place down.” On Saturday morning, a class action lawsuit was filed against F1 and the Las Vegas Grand Prix on behalf of the 35,000 people holding tickets for Thursday’s practice sessions.
The circuit provides as expected
After grappling with challenges for two days, Formula One managed to present a competitive midnight qualifying session on Friday night, redirecting attention to on-track action. The circuit showcased its splendor as cars navigated at high speeds, raising hopes that Charles Leclerc’s pole position for Ferrari could inject the excitement needed for Saturday night’s race to salvage the event.
Even after qualifying, Verstappen remained skeptical about racing in Las Vegas, criticizing the experience for lacking “emotion” and “passion” and unfavorably comparing the track layout to F1’s renowned street circuit in Monaco, stating that Monaco is like the Champions League while Las Vegas is like the National League.
However, a day later, even Verstappen, arguably one of the race’s most prominent critics, seemed to change his perspective. The spectacular night race witnessed 82 overtakes over 50 laps, marking the highest number for a dry-weather race all year and second only to the wet Dutch Grand Prix overall.
The circuit provided multiple opportunities for overtaking, with one of the best coming at the end of the 1.2-mile stretch down The Strip. Sparking under the neon lights of the casinos, drivers engaged in intense battles, risking it all for the chance to take the inside line into the tight Turn 14.
Among the 82 overtakes was a thrilling battle for victory involving Verstappen, Leclerc, and Perez. The lead changed seven times among the three drivers, with Verstappen securing the win with a brilliant pass at Turn 14 on Leclerc during lap 37. The battle for second place extended to the final lap, ultimately favoring Leclerc at the same corner with a daring maneuver under the balconies of the Cosmopolitan Casino.
As the checkered flag waved and the excitement settled, Verstappen, clad in a one-off Elvis-style racesuit, provided the perfect encore by singing “Viva Las Vegas” over the team radio on his way back to the pits.
Reflecting on the race in the early hours of Sunday morning, Verstappen commented, “Well, I always expected it to be a good race today. 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. 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!”
There is still potential for enhancement
Had the race not been as exhilarating as it turned out to be, the numerous shortcomings of the Las Vegas Grand Prix would have carried much more significance in the aftermath. Even those within the sport, many of whom stand to gain from the event’s long-term success, were growing weary by race day, thoroughly exhausted by the entire experience.
Following a triple-header of races in Austin, Mexico, and Brazil spanning late October and early November, F1 teams retraced their steps across the Atlantic at the beginning of the week, eager to conclude the final two races of the season. However, the challenges extended beyond the standard eight-hour time shift from their European bases to Pacific Time in Las Vegas. The late-night sessions effectively meant the race weekend operated on a clock set to Japan’s timezone.
Extended nights of work resulted in team members routinely going to bed after sunrise, and with their body clocks still synchronized to a European rhythm, getting more than five hours of sleep was considered a minor miracle. Christian Horner, the team principal of Red Bull, who struggled to find time to celebrate his 50th birthday over the weekend, aptly summed up the sentiment.
“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 eight o’clock in the evening, or something like that, it would just be a bit more comfortable for all.”
Within the next five days, the entire F1 paddock will find itself 12 time zones to the east as the sport heads to Abu Dhabi for the final race of the season. The challenges of intercontinental back-to-back races are keenly felt by everyone 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 timezone you are in and where the toilet is in your hotel room. Let’s just get it done.”
When asked if F1 could improve the situation with earlier session timings in Las Vegas next year, Wolff added: “I think 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 can be 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. Whether its promise of $1.7 billion in revenues for the city materializes or if the heavily inflated ticket prices can be sustained for a second year remains to be seen. Still, in its inaugural attempt at promoting its own race, it was the sport’s core product—the racing—that ultimately salvaged the situation.
Surely, even Max Verstappen can find satisfaction in that.