Bernie Ecclestone wouldn’t bet on F1’s future in Las Vegas

Formula 1 will return to ‘Sin City’ more than 40 years after Ecclestone first took a race to Nevada

Alan Baldwin
Tuesday 14 November 2023 12:53 GMT
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The new pit building constructed for the Las Vegas Grand Prix
The new pit building constructed for the Las Vegas Grand Prix (Twitter - @F1LasVegas)

Bernie Ecclestone, the one-time supremo who twice took Formula 1 to a Caesars Palace parking lot in the 1980s, accepts the sport is finally on the right track the third time around in Las Vegas.

The 93-year-old Briton would still not want to bet on the race’s long-term success, however.

Red Bull’s dominant triple world champion Max Verstappen and his rivals will be speeding down the famed Strip this Saturday, past the lit-up landmark casinos and hotels, in a night-time spectacular.

Ecclestone told Reuters by telephone from his ranch in Brazil that it was the layout he had always wanted and never got.

“The only problem last time was we couldn’t run on the Strip, which is what I wanted to do,” he said. “I wanted to make sure when somebody turned their television on they knew they were in Vegas, not in the desert. They promised me, ‘yes, we can do it’.

“The first year we ran in this area which was Caesars Palace car park, or part of it, but it was on the understanding that the following year we’d be able to do what I had in mind. But it never happened because the people in Vegas, all the hotels, couldn’t see that it was going to be any good for them.

“So that’s why we never went back to Vegas [after 1982].”

This time the race will be the third in the United States this season, after stadium-centred Miami and Austin’s purpose-built Circuit of the Americas.

The race is set to be a sell-out and Formula One and sponsors are pulling out all the stops and spending big to attract the high-rollers and A-listers.

Bernie Ecclestone was the boss of Formula 1 for over 40 years
Bernie Ecclestone was the boss of Formula 1 for over 40 years (Getty Images)

“I hope it is [a success] but I‘m not sure it’s long term,” said Ecclestone.

“I think the last thing they are concerned with is the race itself.

“The most likely is there will be as big a crowd as you can get, this time around. Whether it will hang on, especially with some of the prices ... why would people pay this sort of money to be in Vegas when they can go to Austin and everything is much, much better and much easier?

“They have got a bit of a battle. I hope they win but I wouldn’t want to put my money on it.”

The season-ending 1981 and 1982 races, held amid the concrete expanse of a hotel and casino car park, hardly fired the imagination.

F1 didn’t take to Vegas, it was mutual,” recalled journalist Nigel Roebuck 30 years later in MotorSport magazine.

“Not many of the local populace had the remotest interest in the race, even situated as it was in the middle of town; fewer still bought tickets.”

F1 have ambitious plans for this weekend’s Las Vegas Grand Prix
F1 have ambitious plans for this weekend’s Las Vegas Grand Prix (Las Vegas Grand Prix )

Roebuck also quoted Australian Alan Jones, the 1980 world champion who was retiring after winning the 1981 race, as saying: “What a bloody place to be ending your career.”

F1 writer Maurice Hamilton, in his 2015 guide to grand prix circuits, described the layout: “The few spectators who braved the heat in the open grandstands could barely distinguish cars hidden by concrete walls.

“All that could be seen was the tops of drivers’ helmets going back and forth on what appeared to be the full-size equivalent of a slot-car track.”

Ecclestone said he went there to try and grow the sport in America, where interest has surged in recent years.

“In America in those days, nobody knew what Formula One was and those that did didn’t even care,” he said.

“Formula One today, we’re lucky. I’m pleased to say because Netflix have done an awful lot. Also the people who bought Formula One have made an effort.”

US-based Liberty Media, who took over the commercial rights in 2017 and moved Ecclestone aside, have changed the conversation with the help of the hugely successful Netflix docu-series “Drive to Survive.”

For them, Vegas is central to their vision of the future.

“I think once we have the event in Vegas there’s going to be a whole new recognition for Formula One in the United States, which still is our most important sponsorship market,” said Liberty Media CEO Greg Maffei in April.

“A night race down the Strip that’s going to be iconic ... that’s going to be on every piece of television imaginable.”

Reuters

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