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Las Vegas GP: A fan’s-eye view

Has a new Formula 1 race ever been more hyped and more derided than the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix?

During the event and in the days since, I have seen countless pundits declare the event a “failure” or “disaster.” Meanwhile, several journalists have described it as a resounding success. Why the dichotomy? Well, many of the derisive articles or social media diatribes were scribed by people who were nowhere near the event. I was there. What’s more, while I’ve spent the last 30 years at racing events involved in the motorsports events I’ve attended or reporting on them, for the first time in three decades I spent my own money to attend a racing event purely as a spectator.

First, why did I feel this was one I must attend? Well, a Formula 1 race that I can get to with a one-hour flight, don’t have to rent a car and can stay at a hotel within walking distance of the circuit? Sign me up. And you only get one chance to witness the first of something.

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My RACER colleague Chris Medland has already offered his assessment of the event. Medland’s perspective came from the media side, as mine usually does. Allow me to offer a slightly different take on the race than you might typically see at RACER, and a counterpoint to the vitriol spewed on social media by people who watched from afar.

Let us first deal with the elephant in the room: Thursday night’s FP1 and FP2 fiasco. The first edition of any street race has issues. Baku, for example, had a very similar issue to Las Vegas, and it’s one that has cropped up at many street races, almost all of which have problems of some kind in their first year. I flagged the inaugural Grand Prix du Mardi Gras IMSA race in New Orleans in 1991 — cars didn’t even get on track until after noon on Friday because they hadn’t finished constructing the circuit. An organizer can take all the precautions they can think of, but there’s no way to test that preparation until there are high-downforce Formula 1 cars running over the drains and other accoutrements that the rest of us don’t have to think about driving down the same street.

So, a failed drain on a first-time street circuit was no surprise. And F1 and the FIA took care of it, inspecting and putting in additional precautions on all the drains on the circuit. This took some time, and thus delayed FP2.

This is where the organizers failed — not in the fact that second practice was delayed, but the fact that paying spectators had been kept in the dark (pun only slightly intended). Neither through the official app that had the ability to push notifications, nor through the trackside PA system, nor through the radio was there any communication whatsoever that FP2 had been delayed from its 12am scheduled start time, nor why.

Then, an hour before the practice was to actually begin, the first communication was that fans would have to leave. Exactly why this had to happen will come out in the many lawsuits that either have or will be filed against the organizers. But keep in mind that the workers on site — who were generally knowledgable and helpful — had been there, on their feet, for at least seven-and-a-half hours since the gates had opened at 6pm. Asking them to stay, overtime pay or not, until after FP2 ended at 4am would have meant more than a 10-hour day.

Police deliver the bad news to some of the hardy fans still in the grandstands awaiting the initial practice sessions. Simon Galloway/Motorsport Images

Should Liberty Media, the owner of the commercial rights to F1 and promoter of the event — a role it was performing for the first time — have had a contingency plan for this, especially knowing the things that can go wrong with a temporary street circuit? Probably. But let’s also be realistic — the number of fans who showed up for FP2 was small. If you were one of them, it was annoying and frustrating. But many more of those who might collect from the results of any class-action lawsuit were parked at Blackjack tables or in bed. Frankly, I’ve seen more online outrage from people who were nowhere near the event than I did from the fans told to leave their seats at 1:30am.

After that, from all appearances, the event ran without a hitch. Ingress and egress to the venue were easy. If you had a question of where the restrooms were, where to find food, how to get to your seat, there were lots of people with LED signs that read “Ask Me.”

Other than Thursday night’s mishap and the errors in dealing with same, complaints about the race centered on costs. Hotels were initially offering absurd rates, despite the fact that the total race weekend attendance would be a small percentage of the rooms available; the hotels learned their lesson and adjusted, albeit slowly. The tickets were perhaps the most expensive of any F1 race, but how many seats at F1 races include all-you-can-eat food, water and soft drinks in the price of a ticket? Las Vegas did.

Once it got going, the go matched the show after all. Mark Sutton/Motorsport Images

There was also plenty of semi-big-name entertainment for spectators when cars weren’t on track, as if Las Vegas itself didn’t already offer enough to do. By the way, looking for last-minute tickets, the expensive ones were gone. Paddock Club was sold out, as was the Skybox on the front straight. The only tickets on the front-straight grandstand were resale. From what I’ve seen, only the cheaper grandstand seats remained empty.

There were also complaints about the times, especially from those who wanted to watch from the East Coast. Well, welcome to inhospitable hours to watch F1 from those of us on the West Coast, for whom European races usually start at 6am. And if you think the city of Las Vegas is going to close Las Vegas Blvd. at noon, or keep it closed for three days, you’re nuts. Could the sessions and race have started a bit earlier? Perhaps, and I’m sure that’s being considered.

That said, I feel for the drivers who finished a race near midnight Saturday night, and have to immediately adjust to a time zone 12 hours away; and that goes for the crews, officials and media as well. If the time for the race has to be the same, Las Vegas needs to be on its own on the season schedule, two weeks apart from another race on both ends.

All that said, the race I saw Saturday night was a success. The competition was good. The front-straight grandstands were packed. Seats had good views of big screens to catch the action on other parts of the track. And the spectacle was, well, a spectacle. Some thought it over the top, but that’s Vegas. Why shouldn’t a race take on the flavor of its host?

The city and local businesses seemed all-in on the race. Certainly some of the locals were sour on it but most seemed to embrace it with some level of enthusiasm. There were many additional activities surrounding the race — a Sotheby’s auction where Lewis Hamilton’s first winning F1 Mercedes sold for more than $18 million; pop-ups from teams and manufacturers galore, such as McLaren’s exhibit inside the Wynn; countless sponsorship activations and lots of fantastic places to hold them; F1 cars on display in all the hotels.

Speaking of hotels, how many F1 circuits can count hotel rooms far in excess of the venue’s capacity within a half-mile of the circuit? If every individual that attended a day of the event stayed in their own room, there would still be thousands more rooms available. There are individual hotels on Las Vegas Blvd. that have more rooms than all of Monte Carlo. So the hotels will have revised expectations next year and price accordingly. And, booking a month out from the event, I paid less than it would have cost to stay in the same hotel during SEMA week.

My friends and others I spoke to in attendance plan on returning next year. My media colleagues have relayed the praise directed at the race, and one photographer friend described it as a great event. And speaking of photographers, have you seen some of the spectacular images they produced with the city of Las Vegas as a backdrop?

Beat this for a race backdrop. Andy Hone/Motorsport Images

Several drivers have voiced their approval of the event, and even its biggest critic, Max Verstappen, was literally singing a different tune at the end. What, in any of that, sounds like a failure?

It wasn’t. It wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t a disaster, either. And it’s almost guaranteed to be be better next year.

Story originally appeared on Racer