Las Vegas

Smash-hit or screw-up in Sin City: The Las Vegas Grand Prix

Where to begin with the Las Vegas GP? From the excessive build up, to driver criticism and an eventually thrilling race, this weekend had it all. Since Liberty Media bought Formula One in 2016, they have transformed the franchise into an increasingly global phenomenon and Las Vegas may be the jewel in the crown. Does Vegas signal the future of the series or is it a comically exaggerated gimmick?

The start of the race week did not look promising. The wacky F1-golf crossover, called the Netflix Cup, was a disappointment – even with suitably low expectations for such an event. Professional golfers and Formula One drivers are not a natural crossover, and this event showed why. It featured golf with surprise challenges along the way, and the most notable moment was when Carlos Sainz dropped the trophy, which shattered into pieces on the floor. 

It was an appropriate ending to a truly confusing event. 

Things did not improve for Vegas as the race approached, with concerns around the circuit dominating the buildup. Fans online spotted the first potential issue, with the exit to the pitlane coming out on the apex of the first corner. Combined with cold tyres after a pit stop, this presented serious concerns. Free practice one did not get off to a good start either, with the session cancelled within 10 minutes after an exposed manhole cover ripped through the underside of Sainz’s car. This caused the second session to be delayed by two and a half hours;  it was consequently completed in front of empty grandstands. Disapproval became ridicule when Sainz was given a 10-place grid penalty for the repairs required after this incident, meaning he started in 12th for the race, despite being pipped by Leclerc for pole during qualifying. Given that Formula One spent an estimated $500 million on the event, including $241 million on land next to the Strip to build the paddock, it looked to be an expensive flop. This was added to by the criticism that came from the drivers, with Verstappen referring to the event as ‘99% show, 1% sporting event’. The Entertainment Capital of the World was hardly living up to its name.

Vegas was, however, vindicated by what can only be described as a thrilling race – one of the best of a largely uncompetitive season. Verstappen fought back from a five second penalty incurred when he ran Charles Leclerc off the road at turn one. A collision with George Russell caused front wing damage and he stopped for another pit stop midway through the race. While the pace of Verstappen was overwhelming, the racing was constant, culminating with a last lap overtake by Leclerc on Perez to clinch second place. Even Verstappen, the circuit’s most overt critic, had to admit it was ‘a lot of fun’, and Hamilton was correct to claim ‘Vegas proved them wrong’. While Vegas this year was saved by a standout race to balance out the abysmal build up, it is also an interesting snapshot into the future of F1.

There is history to the relationship between F1 and Las Vegas, a sport defined by its glamour has perhaps a natural connection with Sin City. 2023 is not the first time that F1 has been to Vegas, with races hosted in Vegas in 1981 and 1982. Although this short-lived endeavour ended in failure – it is an interesting comparison to modern F1. This was admittedly a bizarre episode in Formula One history, with the races hosted in the car park of Caesars Palace. The small space meant the circuit was boring and repetitive, not to mention the sweltering 37 degree heat on race day in 1982. While this was an event never destined to last, signs suggest the current version could have a longer shelf life.   

Vegas is the closest F1 has to another Monaco. 

Simply put, Monaco has the sheer sex appeal that other races lack. There are several historic races, Spa, Monza and Silverstone come to mind, but Monaco has always been in a league of its own – until now. I’ll admit for the F1 purists out there, Monaco still is the greatest race to win, but I think Vegas can present a serious challenge. While Sin City doesn’t have the class of Monaco it is much more glamorous than any other F1 race. F1 tried something similar in Abu Dhabi, but the cultural power of Vegas means it immediately has more star power than other races. Combined with the issues that Monaco faces as a race venue, the principality faces a threat from Las Vegas as the spiritual home of F1. Monaco is not only the slowest race of the calendar, but also often the most boring too. There was only 1 overtake in the 2022 Monaco Grand Prix. F1 cars, always a tight fit on the narrowest street circuit, are now simply too big for the track to handle. In 1992, Nigel Mansell tried to squeeze past Ayrton Senna in the final laps of the race, but back then the chance of an overtake was at least plausible. The Monaco GP is most often won on Saturday in qualifying, or due to some pit lane malfunction (who can forget Riccardo in 2016). If Vegas can sustain genuinely entertaining races in a world class setting, maybe Formula One’s investment will prove a wise one.I have to say I will always love Monaco; the history is unmatched as well as the fact that almost all great drivers have won there. But new generations of F1 fans who have come to the series through Drive to Survive may not have the same attachment to a track that is undeniably anachronistic. If F1 learns to remove the aspects of the weekend that were cringe-inducing, while preserving the celebrity appeal and exciting racing, I can see the Las Vegas Grand Prix becoming a staple of the calendar. More importantly it will begin to win a place in fans’ hearts too. 

Image Description: An aerial view of the Las Vegas strip at night.

Image Credit: Tydence Davis via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)