Why the Las Vegas GP is a game-changer for F1

13th November 2023
Damien Smith

Formula 1 returns to Sin City this week for the first time since 1982. Barely any of the high rollers in the famous Las Vegas casinos batted an eye when the grand prix cars roared into town for the end-of-season races back in 1981 and ’82 – even with world championships at stake on both occasions. But this time F1’s presence will be impossible to miss.


The grand prix of bling

Forty-plus years ago, F1 found itself relegated to the car park of the famous Caesars Palace casino, scrabbling around a short and slow circuit marked out by concrete blocks. No wonder it didn’t last. This time, inevitably, it’s a little different. Max Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton and co. will be racing around a shiny new 17-turn 3.853-mile street track that includes a blast down the famous Strip itself, right beside Vegas’s famous casinos and hotels: the Bellagio, Venetian, Flamingo and, in a nod to its long-forgotten past, Caesars Palace. Miami and its fake marina? You ain’t seen nothing yet. In terms of bling, glitz and celebrity glamour, Vegas promises to raise the bar – or lower it, depending on your perspective.

Vegas comes alive at night, so it makes sense to run the grand prix under the cover of darkness – especially as it will accentuate the impact of all that neon. Night races in F1 are nothing new, of course. In the wake of the well-established Singapore GP, we’ve seen the shift from daytime running in Bahrain, plus the addition of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to the calendar in recent years. But the Vegas GP represents a major departure, in a number of ways. Primarily, it will be the first grand prix run on a Saturday since the South African GP at Kyalami in 1985. Older readers might recall the British GP running on a Saturday in the days when Sundays in the UK were considered sacrosanct, so you could say it’s something of a throwback. But a 10pm start (6am UK time)? That’s novel, and offers a serious twist for the teams and drivers too. Nevada nights can be cold this time of year, so low temperatures will offer a challenge that is the polar opposite (pun intended!) of what drivers faced recently in Qatar.


F1’s high-stakes gamble

New races and venues always trigger a fresh wave of intrigue and, hopefully, excitement. Miami was a huge deal when the city took its F1 bow last year – but Vegas is another step again. And not simply for the obvious gawdy reasons.

What really underlines the importance of this latest addition is the business approach behind it. The Vegas GP marks a major departure from the traditional model of F1 race promotion as the sport itself gambles its own millions on hitting the jackpot in Sin City.

Image courtesy of Motorsport Images.

Image courtesy of Motorsport Images.

Usually, F1 finds someone else to take the financial risk to build a race track and launch a grand prix in a new market, often a government or national sovereignty, as seen in Saudi Arabia and the other middle eastern races. But this time, F1 itself is the promoter. It has invested something in the region of an eye-watering half-a-billion dollars to bring its show to the Vegas Strip, including the build of a permanent pit and paddock complex on prime real estate now owned by F1 itself. That means, unlike the two Caesars Palace GPs of long ago, this will be no flash in the pan. Because it just can’t be. F1 is taking its own residency in Vegas – just as Elvis Presley did – in a manner that it has never attempted anywhere else.

So, a high-stakes roll of the dice in a city that thrives on its visitors leaving poorer than when they arrived? You could see it that way. Except everyone involved in the F1 game seems to be believe Vegas is a safe bet – if there is such a thing. Both sport and venue share an obsession with making money. In theory it should be the perfect marriage.

F1 won’t make an immediate return because the investment sums are too hefty, and such a model can only be adopted for certain key markets around the world. But long-term, if this race pays back as the optimists claim it will, Vegas might well change the F1 game for ever. But for better or worse? That’s what we’ll find out over the rest of this decade.


More millions at stake

Max Verstappen is among those to have stated that the event seems to have greater priority than the actual race in Vegas this coming weekend. That’s probably true, in an amplified echo of the Miami experience. But the reality for the teams is the Vegas GP represents business as usual – at the business end of the season. Millions are at stake not just for US-based F1 rights holder Liberty Media. What happens this Saturday night will also count massively for most of the teams on the grid in terms of dollars gained or lost for constructors’ championship positions.

There are a number of teams’ battles coming to the boil as this long F1 season heads for its climax. Vegas is the penultimate round with only Abu Dhabi a week later to come, and while Verstappen and Red Bull’s latest double title achievement was secured weeks ago, there is still plenty to play out in the next two weeks.

Image courtesy of Motorsport Images.

Image courtesy of Motorsport Images.

For starters, just 20 points separate Mercedes and Ferrari in their battle to be best-of-the-rest behind Red Bull. While much has been predictable up front in F1 this year, the opposite has been true behind the champions – so there’s still scope for a twist in this one. In Austin and Mexico City, Lewis Hamilton proved to be Verstappen’s closest challenger – but then in Brazil Mercedes suffered a devastating and unexpected slump. More of the same in Vegas and then in Abu Dhabi could open the door for Ferrari duo Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr. to make late gains. Although the red cars, while quick over one lap, will realistically need to find a boost in race pace to overturn their deficit.

There’s an even tastier duel playing out for fourth place, with McLaren leading Aston Martin by 19 points. Before Brazil, you might have thought this one was done and dusted given the Lazarus-like revival McLaren has enjoyed since the Austrian GP back in the summer, in contrast to Aston’s dwindling form this autumn. But again, Interlagos threw up the unexpected, with Fernando Alonso and Lance Stroll finding the speed to lock out the second row, and an inspired Alonso grabbing that podium finish on the last lap from Sergio Pérez. Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri should have enough to see off the revived Aston Martin threat – but there are plenty of miles to complete in Vegas and Yas Marina for calamity to intervene. We should also mention McLaren is only 20 points down on Ferrari too – so if Leclerc and Sainz hit trouble, could third place even be on for the orange cars?


Battle at the bottom

Beyond Alpine in its sixth-place oasis, there’s much to be resolved in the bottom half of the table, too. Williams is seventh, but just seven points behind AlphaTauri which has found its own fresh run of form when it counts the most. Alfa Romeo suffered a disastrous double retirement in Brazil, but the Sauber-run team is only five points off AlphaTauri’s tally, while the American Haas squad would love nothing more than to come up trumps in Vegas. The team props up the table, but again only four points in arrears of Alfa.

So place your bets, stand back and get ready for what’s expected to be the most spectacular show of the season. It promises to be an occasion we’ll never forget.

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