Beyond all the hype and razzle-dazzle beaming from all corners of this bright-light epicentre in the middle of the Nevada desert, what Formula One needed from its new flagship event on the Las Vegas strip was an entertaining race. Especially after starting on such unimpressive footing a few nights ago. And contrary to many of the processions in this one-sided season, the entertainment capital of the world did deliver on Saturday night.
Don’t be fooled, though: the top spot of the podium was no surprise.
It has got to the stage now where Max Verstappen is simply inevitable. In this breed of Red Bull car, he remains light years ahead of the other 19 drivers behind him. On Saturday night – on a circuit he described as “National League” standard after qualifying – he was hit with a five-second penalty. Then, unusually, he spurned his first set of tyres as pole-sitter Charles Leclerc retook the lead. The Dutchman then collided with George Russell in the midfield.
Yet no circumstance is too damaging to recover from and, by lap 36 of 50, Verstappen was in the lead and clear. “Viva Las Vegas!” he screeched over the team radio at the end, his mood unsurprisingly glowing following an 18th victory of the season.
But at least Leclerc gave the 105,000-strong crowd something to cheer at the finale. In front of hospitality boxes at the Bellagio Fountains costing $12,000 for the weekend, the Ferrari man boldly dived down the inside to take second place from the helpless Sergio Perez on the final lap; the second race running that Perez has dropped a spot at the death.
It was the absorbing end Vegas executives craved. And needed.
A race week so long amped up to the max, from Wednesday’s opening ceremony to UFC ring announcer Bruce Buffer’s cringey driver introductions before lights out on Saturday, made headlines for all the wrong reasons on day one. The fallout from a loose drain cover on the mesmerising strip section of the track eight minutes into practice was mammoth. The reaction from F1 and LVGP did not help their image either, given their refusal to dish out refunds which should have been obligatory.
But to some extent, it was all about the main event. Much like memorable fight nights at the MGM Grand and beyond in this city, 10 o’clock on Saturday night is when the curtains are finally drawn back and the sporting show itself delivers its masterpiece. F1 provided its usual jolt of stardom in the build-up, with David Beckham, Usain Bolt and Kylie Minogue among the numerous A-list celebrities on the grid.
But when it came down to the racing, this 17-turn circuit with the second-longest straight on the calendar did not disappoint.
There were two safety cars – a usual tool for adding intrigue – after Lando Norris’s early crash and Verstappen’s collision with Russell. There were three leaders, all of whom had time to dream that they would be the first Vegas winner since Italian driver Michele Alboreto won the Caesars Palace car park race in 1982. The introduction of safety car No 2 – ironically caused by debris on track following Verstappen’s tangle with Russell – derailed Leclerc’s chances as he stayed out on relatively new hard tyres, while the Red Bull pairing pitted for fresh rubber.
The process of heating the tyres afterwards came too slow for the Monegasque and it looked as though another Red Bull one-two was a formality. But, just in time, he found the requisite grip and speed to make one of the overtakes of the season just before the chequered flag. His emotions, he admitted afterwards, were mixed.
“On one hand I’m extremely happy with today’s performance, I didn’t leave anything on the table,” Leclerc said. “On the other hand, obviously disappointed because I really believe without this safety car, the win was ours.”
Leclerc’s wait for a first win since July 2022 – and he’s had eight pole positions in that time – goes on while Perez secured second in the world championship despite that final dropped spot: the first time Red Bull has ever claimed the top two positions. Further down the order, Esteban Ocon secured an impressive fourth place for Alpine from 16th on the grid while Lance Stroll completed the top five.
The Mercedes duo of Lewis Hamilton and Russell came only seventh and eighth respectively as they prepare to draw the curtains on a season to forget, with just one more unlikely attempt to salvage a win in Abu Dhabi next week.
But for Vegas – a city completely changed and reordered for this first race of a scheduled 10 – the final act was, eventually, worthy of the hysteria. It was up there with the best races of the year, alongside Singapore and Austin. There are plenty of features to be improved, though.
The top three drivers all spoke in the aftermath about an earlier start time, as well as perhaps a change of month given the ludicrous time-zone switch now to the Middle East. Logistically, the smoothness of proceedings has been questionable. Yet the glistening glow of the views overhead sparkled and, on race day, the action on the city’s streets matched it.
All Sin City, and the sport, needs now is a proper battle at the top.
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