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Opinion: why the Las Vegas GP is critical for Formula One

There's a lot riding on this race, because what happens in Vegas certainly won't stay in Vegas...

Published: 13 Nov 2023

U2 spent much of the past month wholly recalibrating the concept of the live music experience at Las Vegas’s newly opened $2.3bn Sphere. Those of us who figured they’d never consider a residency in Sin City figured wrong: U2 can do showbiz with the best of ’em, and they’ve always enjoyed pushing the tech boundaries. They’ll be back from 1 December, but signed off on social media with a pointed “over to you #F1!”

And there we have it, Formula One’s anointing as entertainment spectacle, beyond all doubt, from one glittering global behemoth to another. The, erm, sport’s arrival in Las Vegas is either the end of days for motor racing purists, or the new highlight in a calendar that cements owner Liberty Media’s desire to deliver the equivalent of a Superbowl at every race (24 of them in 2024, but that’s another story and another controversy). Lately, the build-up has felt more exciting than the thing we’re building up to – no slight on Max Verstappen and Red Bull’s extraordinary domination – and the race in Vegas is a high stakes occasion, the zenith of F1’s bombastic showbizification. This is arguably all build-up.

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Given the venue, perhaps the racing itself really is secondary, and the context is more important than what actually occurs within it. This is something the drivers have been pondering, with contrasting conclusions. “It’s going to be very fruitful for the business,” says Lewis Hamilton. “Having more races in the States was always [positive] because it’s a huge market. There’s a massive sports fanbase there and to really crack that takes more than one race in the US. And Vegas is an iconic place. The dream of driving down [the Strip] with all those casino lights… I’m really excited about getting to experience it. I don’t know if it’s going to be a great racing circuit… but I’m always down to add great races and great venues.”

Triple world champion and sometime curmudgeon Verstappen is more circumspect. If that’s the word.

“First of all, I think we are there more for the show than the racing itself if you look at the layout of the track,” he noted during the Brazilian GP weekend (scene of his 17th win of the season). “But you know, I’m actually not that into it. I’m more like, I’ll go there and do my thing and be gone again. I still need to go on the simulator. I still don’t even know the track, to be honest.”

Of course, doing his thing in Vegas will require him to do more than disappear into the distance up Vegas Boulevard. Don’t expect any of the drivers to ruin their optics by being pictured rolling the dice on the roulette wheel or propping up a one-armed bandit, but they’ll be working very hard for their money next weekend on behalf of their team’s corporate sponsors. Let’s hope they’re not required to wear Elvis ’68 comeback special jumpsuits. The stetsons and faux cowboy apparel at Austin are bad enough.

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Working harder than anyone is F1’s primary stake-holder, Liberty Media. This race is a potential game-changer because rather than cutting a deal with an individual promoter, as it does with the other venues, F1 is promoting itself in Vegas (in tandem with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority). In other words, it’s shouldering the cost of the infrastructure, set at $316m but according to some sources rapidly heading towards the half-billion mark, and running the whole show. F1 claims a ‘total economic impact’ of $1.28bn, and it should be a bonanza for all concerned. More significantly, if it works it’ll validate a new business model and approach. Maybe that long dreamt of London GP will be back on the cards, but they’ll need an exemption from the ULEZ.

It’s certainly a money-spinner. A three-day grandstand ticket costs up to $2,500, and general admission tickets are now sold out. If that sounds a bit spicy, there are some tempting deals. Consider the Nobu Sky Villa Emperor Package being offered by Caesars Entertainment. This includes five nights in a 10,300-square foot, three-bedroom space with a massive terrace overlooking the Strip, dinner for 12 specially prepared by chef Nobu Matsuhisa, and access for the same number to F1’s Paddock Club. Yours for £5m.

Inevitably, there are people out there who wouldn’t blink at that. That said, some of the middle-ranking Vegas hotels have cut their room rates (I checked), and the word is that the teams haven’t shifted all their pricey Paddock Club packages. Maybe F1 has over-played its hand this time. A threatened strike by the Culinary Workers Union – whose members are the hospitality workers who keep the city ticking over 24/7 – has just been averted but is a serious reality check nonetheless.

But look, this is meant to be fun and F1 in Vegas is a more escapist distraction than ever. It will look astonishing on the television. Remember also that F1’s former ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone was obsessed with cracking the US, so this is nothing new. Verstappen may be non-committal but the Carsten Tilke-designed circuit – 3.8 miles, 17 turns including round the U2-free Sphere, and a 212mph blast down the Strip – is an order of magnitude better than the car park that hosted the Caesars Palace GP in 1981 and ’82. It’s a night race, too, due to start at 10pm on Saturday to maximise the city’s neon star-power. It also means that the low desert temperatures will add another element of jeopardy. Things could get properly mixed up.

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There’s a lot riding on this race, and plenty that can go wrong. It’s a logistical nightmare, and though the city’s grandees have worked hard to burnish its trashy aesthetic in recent years, Vegas is arguably more Hangover than Rat Pack. But what happens in Vegas next weekend certainly won’t be staying in Vegas. F1 is banking on a billion people loving what they see.

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