F1 a victim of its own hubris in latest Grand Prix debacle as Las Vegas shambles unfolds

Thomas Maher
Carlos Sainz clambers out of his damaged Ferrari at the Las Vegas Grand Prix.

Carlos Sainz clambers out of his damaged Ferrari at the Las Vegas Grand Prix.

Formula 1’s much-anticipated Las Vegas Grand Prix has got started in the worst possible circumstances – and it’s all entirely self-inflicted.

F1’s return to Sin City sought to banish the demons of the past when the much-maligned Caesars Palace circuit held two races back in the early 1980s – the tiny car park track doing little to capture the imagination of the American public.

High on the swell of huge audience figures as American media company Liberty Media has helped push the sport into the consciousness of their home country, the Las Vegas Grand Prix is the first taken on with F1 itself as the organiser and promoter – dealing directly with the city of Las Vegas to incorporate some of the most iconic aesthetics of the city into the F1 track.

F1 makes life difficult for itself with disastrous Friday showing

Having given itself an incredibly tight deadline to make the ‘inaugural’ Las Vegas Grand Prix happen in late 2023, fears about the readiness of the F1 track appeared to be allayed approaching the weekend as it became evident that, somehow, everything had been built in time.

Much was made in the lead-up to the event of the excessive ticket prices, which priced the average fan out of attendance, while residents of the city also were put out by construction and closures of the streets as well as visibility-blocking films being applied in pedestrian areas to prevent visibility of the circuit – even if that meant blocking out the actual views of the city or the new Sphere architectural abomination.

With pricing of both tickets and hotel room rates taking a nose-dive as the weekend loomed, had F1 already over-estimated the level of interest – and finances – people had in it, or in attending?

Regardless of all the background negativity, F1 rocked up in Vegas and promptly did a great job with their launch event. Under Liberty Media, there’s no denying that F1 has become much better at creating moments of interest that allow for greater accessibility and visibility for casual fans – whether that be through social media or on the ground (for the wealthier patrons).

A glitzy and glamorous lightshow and concert were held to launch the event – all the drivers appeared on elevated platforms to smile and wave to the crowd. Predictably, the more extroverted personalities embraced this, while drivers who prefer to maintain lower profiles felt suitably uncomfortable. Memorable? Yes. Tacky? Also, yes. Watching it, it’s difficult to reconcile the glamour of being the same sport as the not-long-past days of a Sunday lunchtime race on a balmy day at the likes of Magny-Cours.

It took just nine minutes for the event to stumble – and stumble significantly. Carlos Sainz’s intimate encounter with a manhole cover immediately resulted in a red flag and a huge amount of time needed to fix the circuit’s many manhole covers. None of which had been adequately secured to prevent them from being sucked up from their moorings as the ground-effect cars swept over them.

In fairness, these things can and do happen occasionally. It happened at Baku in 2019, destroying George Russell’s Williams, with then-race director Michael Masi having failed to spot the problem with the manhole as he also served as the FIA’s safety delegate. Two years previously, under Charlie Whiting, a drain cover cost Haas dearly at Sepang as Romain Grosjean crashed.

Even at Monaco, a circuit with experience of racing dating back a century, recent drain cover incidents destroyed Jenson Button’s McLaren in 2016, and Rubens Barrichello’s Williams in 2010. Going back further, Juan Pablo Montoya’s McLaren was ripped apart by a drain cover in Shanghai in 2005.

The point is that these occasional errors are made. It’s for this reason that most of the team bosses were reluctant to criticise during the press conference, with even a furious Fred Vasseur reluctant to condemn the track inspection and sign-off that should have identified the manhole covers as an issue.

But it’s the response to such failures that make all the difference. The significant delays to FP2 meant staying up until 2.30am just to start the session and, due to it being extended to 90 minutes, meant it ran to 4am before preparations could even begin to be made to reopen the roads to the public. How many early-morning commuters were affected by the delays?

Even the fans who had shelled out such significant amounts of money to attend were then herded out the gates by the police and the security staff – the decision having been taken to clear the area due to the fact unionised labour laws meant the delays would force staff to work beyond their permitted hours – a potentially huge issue for F1 to have to then deal with.

With disgruntled fans shepherded out the gates, with the possibility of refunds not even suggested in a later statement from LVGP, there’s the other issue that the blameless teams have been caught up in the mess.

With Carlos Sainz needing a new chassis, engine, battery, and electronics, his requirement to use fresh components triggered a huge grid penalty – the stewards spent three hours trying to find a loophole in the Sporting Regulations to let him off the hook – a loophole that couldn’t be found. With their hands tied by the rulebook, Sainz and Ferrari will thus take a grid penalty for an incident completely out of their control, just for having the audacity for driving on a track that wasn’t ready for use.

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How can Toto Wolff say Las Vegas debacle isn’t ‘a black eye’ for F1?

As a fan of F1, it’s painful to have to write negatively about what happens in the sport sometimes. F1 deserves applause for having opened the floodgates to make the sport a much bigger deal than it has ever been, an approach Liberty Media has largely found success with. But the endless tinkering with the sport – think the ever-unpopular Sprint races that just won’t go away – and the need for ‘more, more, more’ that has seen the calendar swell to 24 races with back-to-backs and even triple-headers – F1 needs to calm down a bit, and stop making life so difficult for itself.

F1 teams introduce updates and upgrades to their cars through an extensive research and development programme, before being methodically introduced to the calendar in a controlled manner. It’s perhaps this approach that F1 needs to start taking in general, rather than employing the ‘throw stuff at the wall to see what sticks’ methods that have been employed in recent years. Las Vegas was rushed onto the calendar, and it shows – even if some of the team bosses leaped to Liberty’s defence.

“That is not a black eye,” Mercedes’ team boss Toto Wolff angrily admonished a journalist during the press conference. “This is nothing!

“We are Thursday night, we have a free practice session one that we’re not doing, they’re going to seal the drain covers, and nobody’s going to talk about that tomorrow morning anymore.

“It’s completely ridiculous! Completely ridiculous, FP1, how can you even dare try to talk bad about an event that sets the new standards to everything? And then you’re speaking about a f***ing drain cover that’s been undone. That has happened before! That’s nothing, it’s FP1!

“Give credit to the people that have set up this Grand Prix, that have made this sport much bigger than it ever was. Have you ever spoken good about someone and written a good word? You should about all these people that have been out here. Liberty has done an awesome job and just because in FP1 a drain cover has become undone, we shouldn’t be moaning.

“Talking here about the black eye for the sport on a Thursday evening, nobody watches that in European time anyway!”

Maybe not a black eye for F1, but a poke in the eye for the many, many dedicated fans around the world who regularly get up at ungodly hours to bolster those audience figures that F1 insists aren’t yet waning.

A wake-up call is needed to calm F1 down. Rather than insisting all is rosy in the world, it’s time for a breather. The FIA may have its own issues and occasionally drop the ball itself, but the governing body has always provided a suitable checks and balances referee to rein in the commercial rights holder. But Liberty Media has got a taste for seeing graphs rising, and it’s now proving to be detrimental to the sport.

The top echelon of motorsport found itself having to dig out the cement bags to secure numerous manhole covers to get cars on track – why weren’t they welded more securely down in the first place? Why isn’t there a suitable line in the regulations that the stewards can overrule a grid penalty when circumstances are so completely out of the hands of the offending team and are, indeed, due to a failure of the facility itself? How can it be acceptable for a leading competitor team like Ferrari to be penalised for the track not being ready for use?

Also, rather than the vaguely self-congratulatory message (it can’t be called an apology) sent out by LVGP after the farcical practice day finally ended, a less aloof approach would probably work far better at sending the right message to the fans. ‘Sorry fans, we f**ked up. Sorry commuters, we f**ked up. And sorry teams, we f**ked up. Oh, and sorry Ferrari – here’s the money back that repairing your car will cost. Don’t worry about the budget cap stuff.’ See? It’s not that difficult. So where’s the contrition, for anyone that was affected by the poor preparation?

I’ve written in the past that F1 needs to remember that it is a racing series first, and a spectacle second. For years, the balance has been correct. Abu Dhabi 2021 proved the scales had tipped too far the other way and here we are, two years later, asking the same questions of the people who run the sport.

Rather than trying to shirk responsibilities or try to get out of having to hand out refunds to the ticketholders, a rapid and crystal-clear declaration that the outcome of refunds would be reached would do a hell of a lot to smoothen over the cracks Thursday’s shambles has resulted in. Swallow the pride, ditch the greed, and get the wallet out – nine minutes of track time at the start of FP1 is not what the ticketholders paid for, regardless of what comes later in the weekend.

As I said earlier, I intensely dislike having to be negative about F1 – whether it be the on-track spectacle, or the off-track decision-making. But, sometimes, whether it be through the rampant desire for gimmicky racing or the stubborn pushing through of races that the sport insists will be popular – to the detriment of historical venues and countries –  it can be very difficult to be positive. While Wolff may have angrily shouted that this isn’t a black eye for the sport – in America or otherwise – it’s impossible to argue against the reality of the situation.

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