In 1981 and 1982, the Formula 1 Caesars Palace Grand Prix was contested over a 2.2-mile course marked by concrete barriers.
It basically was a series of parallel straights connected by tight curves, and it sent drivers in a counter-clockwise direction, generally an outlier in F1 circles.
Mario Andretti, the 1978 F1 champion, competed in both Vegas races.
The Nov. 16-18 Las Vegas Grand Prix won’t mark the first time Formula 1 cars have raced under the neon glow of Sin City.
This time it’s the Las Vegas Strip, one of the most famous streets in the country.
Then it was the Caesars Palace parking lot, one of the least exotic locations to ever host the world’s most famous race cars.
In 1981 and 1982, the Caesars Palace Grand Prix was contested over a 2.2-mile course marked by concrete barriers. It basically was a series of parallel straights connected by tight curves, and it sent drivers in a counter-clockwise direction, generally an outlier in F1 circles.
If next month’s race along the Vegas Strip is expected to be a spectacle, the 1981 and ’82 races were something far less.
Mario Andretti, the 1978 F1 champion, competed in both Vegas races. He called the layout “a wonderful, wonderful go-kart course. Both years there was a lot of first-gear stuff, which is crazy. I got so much tire vibration on acceleration that the rear wishbone broke and took me out of the race.”
In effect, the races on an extremely artificial course put fast, powerful race cars in an environment more suitable for…well…go-karts.
“There was just no flow,” Andretti said. “It was too tight for the capability of those cars. Caesars Palace was right in town. There wasn’t much room. You can imagine that it was kind of Mickey Mouse. Like I said – perfect for a go-kart event.
“The cars had so much power. And we were just not putting it down. We were spinning rear tires coming off the corners.”
One driver called the course “probably the least appealing Grand Prix circuit I think I’ve raced on.”
Why Las Vegas? The city had gained fame for promoting big sports events, particularly world championship boxing matches, and the races drew new faces to the Vegas casinos. Drivers and fans partied deep into the Vegas night and into the morning, and the gambling tables drew brisk business. Caesars Palace was more than happy to play the host role.
“For us just to have a race in the United States was a positive,” Andretti said. “F1 was like a gypsy in that period in the U.S. There was Watkins Glen and Long Beach and then Dallas and Phoenix. Things were like a one-off. At least in Las Vegas with Caesars we had two events.”
In a scheduling quirk, the 1981 and ’82 Vegas races were the final events of each season, and each race, despite the odd location, decided the world champion.
Nelson Piquet finished fifth in the ’81 race, good enough to win the championship by one point. It wasn’t a particularly spectacular run to the title. Piquet, disoriented by the design of the track and by the desert heat, vomited in his helmet during the race. Alan Jones was the race winner.
In 1982, Keke Rosberg won the F1 championship, and Michele Alboreto won the race.
Beyond the other results, the ’82 race is noteworthy as Andretti’s final event in F1. He was called on by Ferrari as a substitute driver for the injured Didier Pironi.
“It was wonderful that Mr. Ferrari thought of me to substitute,” Andretti said. “I welcomed that opportunity in every possible way. To end my F1 career with Ferrari meant so much. The memories are positive.”