Nelson Piquet felt like hell. The flu or something. Worse, his neck was out of whack from running counterclockwise laps in a high-downforce car around a freshly minted Formula 1 circuit in the desert. The guy from Caesars Palace offered some relief in the form of world-champion boxer Sugar Ray Leonard’s masseur. That’s one good thing about holding Las Vegas’s inaugural grand prix in the parking lot of a casino: You can’t beat the amenities.
Preparations for the 1981 Caesars Palace Grand Prix had come down to the wire, with a 2.26-mile circuit built in a blinding 45 days, placed on a 75-acre plot of car park and scrubland between the Las Vegas Strip and Interstate 15.
“It was just bare concrete around a dust bowl,” says F1 historian Nick Garton. “It looked like Bahrain did when they were still building it.”
Still, with 54 feet of track-surface width, 14 turns, and a 45,000-seat stadium alongside, the circuit was FISA approved and ready to go. It’s what you’d expect an Eighties casino boss and $7 million ($23 million today) could pull off in under two months. Back then, Caesars Palace reigned over the Strip. Splashy events like the Ali-versus-Holmes bout a year earlier brought high rollers, and high rollers brought dough.
The race was important for F1 too. It marked the final challenge of the 1981 season, deciding the drivers’ championship in a points battle that was hairsplittingly close and is still perplexing to consider more than four decades later.
Back to Piquet. In a 90-minute session, the masseur, accustomed to a boxer’s steely physique, bruised the slight driver’s back. Now he feels worse than hell. Heading into the race, the 29-year-old Brazilian driver for the Brabham team trailed Williams driver Carlos Reutemann by a single point. Even before Piquet’s injuries, the smart money had been on the Argentine to edge out Piquet for the championship.
Reutemann “was the most consistent performer through the year,” Garton says. “The car was well proven and well developed. Everything was in
There’s another wrinkle, a French one, named Jacques Laffite. A few weeks earlier, Laffite, driving for Ligier, had come from qualifying in 10th position to win the Canadian Grand Prix, collecting nine points for first—totaling 43 entering the season finale—and putting him in contention for the championship with Reutemann (49) and Piquet (48). (At the time, championship points were allocated to first through sixth places as nine, six, four, three, two, one.)
Before the Vegas race, Laffite had irritated organizers by telling Milan’s La Gazzetta dello Sport that the Vegas circuit was a “ridiculous go-kart track” and the grand prix “a joke.” Caesars Palace responded to the paper with a multimillion-dollar lawsuit for “derogatory and irresponsible remarks,” according to the Los Angeles Times. That seemed to put the issue to bed.
Others were more sanguine, including Ferrari driver Gilles Villeneuve, who, according to the Times, said the track surface was “particularly good.” Williams boss Frank Williams, not known as a mincer of words, praised the “absolutely superb circuit” that was “extremely demanding on both car and driver.” The ground truth would be told on race day: Saturday, October 17, 1981.
On Friday, amid unseasonably cool weather, Reutemann put his Williams on pole, with teammate Alan Jones just 0.174 second behind. Piquet, still smarting from the boxing-grade massage, qualified fourth, and Laffite was down in 12th.
“Of the three of them,” Garton says, “Reutemann just looked completely in control.”
Race day brought warmer temperatures—and a turnabout. At the start, Jones jumped into the lead at the first corner and accelerated away, “leaving Reutemann to be swamped by Villeneuve, [Alain] Prost and [Bruno] Giacomelli,” Alan Henry wrote in his post-race report for Motor Sport. Reutemann “just went backward,” Garton says. He landed in fifth by the end of the first lap. Piquet dropped to eighth after a rough start but fought hard to regain position. Laffite ran seventh, his championship hopes a mathematical long shot.
As the race continued, the pack order fluctuated.
“Piquet is up to third at one point, then back down to sixth,” Garton says, “then up to fourth and back down to fifth. Jones had toddled off into the distance. Everything was up for grabs. People were passing each other on the track and then coming in for tires and then motoring their way back up again.”
Going into the final corner on lap 75, Laffite, who needed the win (or second place if both Piquet and Reutemann were out of the points) for a title shot, passed John Watson’s McLaren to finish in sixth. The favored Argentine finished out of the points.
“A thoroughly dejected Reutemann trailed home eighth,” Henry wrote in Motor Sport, “fourth gear having long since ceased working on his Williams.”
“By rights, it should have been Reutemann’s season,” Garton says. “That side of it is quite unprecedented. You haven’t had a world-championship contender turn up with the championship lead and go home having not really performed at all.”
“I don’t know if it was physical or mechanical or mental or what,” Brabham designer David North says about Reutemann’s result. Piquet “struggled a bit, but fortunately for him, Reutemann, for whatever reason, had really gone off the boil, and so between Reutemann not performing and Piquet doing what he needed to do, we just about scraped the championship.”
“I remember seeing there were 33 laps to go,” Piquet told Guardian columnist Maurice Hamilton after the race. “By then I was already finished. I couldn’t keep my head straight. I just kept going because I knew if I was in front of Carlos then I had the championship.”
Piquet crossed the finish line in fifth, taking his first F1 championship, and then puked into his helmet. It seems par for the first Caesars Palace Grand Prix, remembered as one of the jankiest, or one of the best, grands prix in the history of F1. Perhaps it was both.
Despite its fantastical marketing, Las Vegas is a real place. And so far, for the real people who live there, November’s Formula 1 race has been a pain.
Crews spent the summer repaving miles of the town’s most traveled roads to F1 spec for the Las Vegas Grand Prix. That includes the part of Las Vegas Boulevard known as the Strip, with the big hotels and casinos. Traffic has snarled, and patience is challenged.
This street circuit is no repurposed parking lot or half-assed temporary course. With a 10-year racing commitment, the $560 million investment in this venue creates another major event on the Vegas calendar of major events. On a 39-acre plot that cost $240 million, a four-level paddock building stretches the length of three football fields, much of its 300,000 square feet dedicated to coddling high rollers. Around 105,000 race ticket holders are expected to contribute to a $1.3 billion economic impact.
Vegas can’t rely on sin alone to attract visitors anymore. There are more than 500 tribal casinos in the U.S. now, sports gambling is on apps, and Americans don’t need a bargain buffet to overeat. So Las Vegas has reengineered itself around events.
One lesson learned from history is that even in November, it’s hot in Nevada. So like the F1 races in scorching Saudi Arabia and sweltering Singapore, the Las Vegas Grand Prix will be run at night. Expect the canyon of megahotels to be lit up to impress.
F1 has also evolved from an ad hoc collection of races into a sleekly marketed sport. The 3.8-mile, 17-turn Vegas course is designed to leverage local iconography.
The long straight down the Strip means cars should be traveling at over 200 mph past the Wynn, Bellagio, and Caesars Palace. Hot passing opportunities may prove to be in the braking zone at the end of that straight near the Aria resort. Fans won’t be stuck in a featureless paved hell looking for a port-a-potty.
–John Pearley Huffman
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