Shambles and incompetence: F1 enters new Las Vegas dawn with disaster on opening night

A damaged track, angry team principals and fans left short-changed: how can F1 and Vegas recover from this?

Kieran Jackson
Las Vegas Strip Circuit
Friday 17 November 2023 12:22 GMT
Carlos Sainz hits loose drain cover on Las Vegas GP track as practice session cancelled

It was billed as the glistening jewel in Formula One’s crown. In all but name, this was the new Monaco. But the biggest race on the sport’s 2023 calendar – the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix on the streets of Sin City – descended into a total disaster on opening night.

Even for the entertainment capital of the world, nobody could have conjured up this story of incompetence.

Make no mistake: this was a shambles. A complete and utter shambles. What started with Carlos Sainz’s car substantially damaged by a loose water valve cover just after 8.30pm on Thursday night ended at 4am on Friday morning in front of empty grandstands, with fans instructed at 1.30am to head for the exits. Put out of their misery, they trudged home having seen just eight minutes of cars on track.

For two men with their heads exhaustingly bowed downwards on a fan zone table, it was finally home time. A refund must surely be imminent.

F1, so we were told, had left no stone unturned in preparation for this racing extravaganza. A new $500m pit building was built. Unlike their previous forgettable experience in Vegas back in the 1980s, they had cajoled all the major casinos and hotels into a favourable position. The third of three races in the United States this year, the Netflix-inspired American audience waited eagerly for action to commence. But for all the relentless marketing, self-promotion and hype, the fundamental basics of the sport were ruefully ignored here.

A day on from an opening ceremony which made three-time world champion Max Verstappen feel like a “clown”, confusion immediately reigned when Sainz pulled his Ferrari car over on the Vegas strip, eight minutes into the first of two practice sessions scheduled.

Yet replays quickly showed that the Spaniard had not made a mistake. He had instead run over a loose manhole cover, triggering a complete failure of the engine. The floor of the car was also badly damaged and, frankly, he was lucky the car did not spear off into the wall.

With safety coming first – and every drain cover now needing to be double-checked on the strip section of the circuit – the session was cancelled. To add salt to the wounds, Sainz was later given a grid penalty due to taking a new gearbox as a result of the incident. Sometimes, common sense fails to prevail.

A loose manhole cover triggered an opening night of chaos at the Las Vegas Grand Prix (Getty)
Sainz’s car was badly damaged – but he was still penalised despite the unfortunate incident (AP)

Usually so softly spoken, Ferrari boss Fred Vasseur was livid with F1 and labelled the farcical start to proceedings as “unacceptable” in an exquisitely timed team principals’ press conference. Sat next to him was Mercedes chief Toto Wolff, who took the opposite view and hit the roof when asked if the evening’s events represented a “black eye” for F1.

“It’s completely ridiculous,” he said. “How can you even dare talk bad about an event that sets the new standards to everything?”

Really, Toto? New standards? With a second one-hour practice session scheduled for midnight, the updates coming through were inadequately sparse. Every hour was amateur hour. Spectators who had paid thousands of dollars to experience night one in Vegas were left in the dark. Would we have any cars on track?

The answer was yes – but there would be no fans to see it. Following delay after delay, a start time of 2.30am was eventually pencilled in. But an hour earlier, fans were told over the tannoy to leave owing to “logistical considerations”. In reality, staff had to depart in order to return for their scheduled start time later on Friday – meaning the fans were given their marching orders too.

Toto Wolff launched a furious defence of F1 after the incident (Getty)
By the time cars were on track, the grandstands were completely empty (Getty)

So the obvious question begs: why on earth was that decision not made sooner?

By the time cars entered the track, manholes suitably covered, there was an eerie emptiness on the terraces. For an event anticipated to attract 100,000 people a day, it felt like the pandemic once again. It did not matter that Charles Leclerc was fastest; what mattered was that by the time the day finally concluded, nobody really cared.

All in all, it represents a mighty old screw-up from Formula One. Verstappen said on Wednesday the whole event felt like “99 per cent show, 1 per cent sporting event” and on this evidence, it is hard not to agree with him. The start times were late enough before alienating an entire American audience eager for some sleep. There are some serious lessons to be learned.

And looking ahead to two more days, as team personnel trundle home with glimpses of the sun on the horizon, it may well take something special to reinvigorate proceedings this weekend. It is recoverable – it has to be, given the investment made here.

But let there be no doubt: with the eyes of the world on F1 and the bright lights of Vegas, they dropped the ball tonight. This morning. Whatever the time is.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in