Opinion: the Las Vegas GP was F1's best race of the season
Despite a poor start, the Vegas race was a major triumph against some major odds
The pit lane of any Grand Prix in the countdown to the race start is a hell of a place to find yourself. But the one in Vegas beggars belief. With 15 minutes to go, I’ve stationed myself opposite the grid entry section. A useful vantage point, it turns out.
Look, here’s Usain Bolt, himself reduced to wide-eyed fanboy when he spots American basketball megastar Shaquille O’Neal. When they give each other a hug, it’s an unexpectedly tender moment. Axl Rose has just drifted by, with Paris Hilton not far behind. David Beckham’s here. Rihanna will be watching from the Ferrari garage. Jerry Bruckheimer, Tommy Hilfiger, Gordon Ramsay, Brad Pitt, Patrick Dempsey… the list goes on. And on. All grist to the mill for the naysayers and racing purists, of course, who have had the knives out for Vegas from day one. At least the last three are genuine and genuinely knowledgeable motor racing fans.
But forget all that lot. TopGear.com spots Jos Verstappen standing alone minding his own business, and wanders over for a little catch-up. We’ve met a few times previously but it’s unlikely he remembers, or cares. Max has been making waves all week with some strongly voiced observations that Vegas is “99 per cent show and one per cent sporting event”, and that he and his fellow drivers have been made to look like “clowns” during the opening ceremony hoopla. Say what you like about Verstappen, but his refusal to toe the party line is refreshing.
His dad, never a man to be trifled with, fixes me with a steely blue stare when I mention this. “Yes, he’s always said what he thinks. But on this occasion perhaps he might not have been quite so… vocal.” Er, yes, perhaps, I mumble, though it makes for good copy. Cue another blast of the Verstappen Senior death-stare. We both agree that there’s a strong chance that his boy might make it through the first corner ahead of Leclerc’s Ferrari, even if he is starting on the dirty side of the grid. “He knows how to do it,” says Jos. Doesn’t he just.
A nano-second later, I buttonhole F1 boss Stefano Domenicali as he walks by – you have to move fast with him, for this is a man with his own personal DRS – and he looks much calmer than he did 48 hours previously. Imagine the pressure he’s been under. “You did it, it’s actually happening,” I say. “We did,” he replies. “Now all we need to do is have a great race.”
Did Vegas deliver? You bet it did (sorry). But for a moment there it looked like F1’s owner Liberty – doubling up as the promoter of this event, and bankrolling it to the tune of a reported $500m – might have over-reached itself. Just eight minutes into the first practice session on Thursday night, a drain cover almost pulverised Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari, with the Alpine of Esteban Ocon also effectively a write-off. After all the build-up, was a relatively straightforward track inspection beyond the sport’s means? The naysayers were cock-a-hoop.
It took almost three hours to sort the mess out, but at least it was sorted. Plenty of us in the paddock feared the worst, at least until FP2 started at 2.30am local time. That was a surreal moment.
Surreal and annoying for those who had paid to see it. Spectators with one-day tickets costing $200 for Thursday were chucked out of the grandstands. Why? Because the security guards and paddock club staff had reached the end of their shifts, and in the US there’s no wriggle room on the heavily unionised staff. The optics went from bad to worse. F1’s statement the next day and offer of a $200 voucher for the merch store was light on remorse, but was cautiously worded in this most litigious of countries. The optics plummeted further south. Now we learn that 35,000 F1 fans have filed a class-action lawsuit against the race organisers, seeking compensation.
Interestingly, following the FP1 debacle, one of the major hotel casinos reportedly had its biggest night ever. All those high-rolling punters had to go somewhere. One way or another, it always boils down to money – especially in Las Vegas, a city whose apparent glamour is a wafer-thin facsimile of the cool it was lent back in the days of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. Unless your idea of fun is being force-fed oxygen in a thunderingly huge hotel whose malls and gaming complexes are devoid of daylight by design. (For a tee-totaller who has never gambled in his life, I accept that this isn’t my idea of a good time.) “I look around here,” Martin Brundle tells me, “and remember that when I was a young driver in F1 we’d be lucky if we stopped off in the Little Chef near Daventry.” Point taken.
F1’s presence in the city is part of an ongoing rebranding campaign that repositions Vegas as the world’s premier home of sporting spectacle. Once best known for hosting massively hyped boxing events, Vegas now has an NFL and NHL team. It will also host the Superbowl in February. The city is upfront about its relationship with Mammon and has a long-established ability to look the other way. Its great rival Saudi Arabia, home to the thrilling F1 circuit in Jeddah, is also hoovering up top talent in its bid to sportswash its way past its grevious human rights record to acceptability. Money, again.
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Like Jeddah, Vegas is an ingeniously improvised street circuit, only this one has a more familiar back-drop. Much of that was only visible on television from the heli cameras but no matter, even Max Verstappen had to concede in the end that it was a thriller. The best F1 race of the season, in fact, not least because Verstappen actually had to race and beat someone to win it. He was also penalised five seconds for getting too aggressive when he forced Leclerc off the track, and later had a collision with George Russell’s Mercedes, forcing him to make an additional pit stop. Verstappen eventually hauled his way back to the front, but Leclerc finished second after a terrific battle with the other Red Bull of Sergio Perez, right up to the end of the race. “I didn’t mean to push Charles off the track but I couldn’t slow down… the penalty was probably the right call.”
Alpine’s Esteban Ocon drove a great race to finish fourth, with impressive performances also from Lance Stroll in the Aston Martin, and Lewis Hamilton in the Mercedes. Between them both was Carlos Sainz, whose drive to sixth had a righteous quality to it. He had to take a 10-place grid drop following his impact with the drain in FP1, Ferrari’s appeal being rejected by the stewards. Pretty much everyone agreed this was overly harsh, especially as the repair bill ran to a reported £2m-plus. The word was that Mercedes vetoed an agreement amongst the teams to waive the penalty in this case, something Mercedes denies, despite its battle with Ferrari in the constructor’s championship…
They say that in gambling the house always wins. Well, the Vegas GP was a triumph against some major odds. The infrastructure held up, the logistical challenges were overcome. The locals, who had tolerated six months of road-works and delays, seemed impressed. The night-time schedule was selected to accommodate Vegas’s famously nocturnal time-table, which was a real challenge for the hard-working mechanics and supporting staff in all the F1 teams. Everyone looked shattered by the end of the race.
But what a race it was.