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LAS VEGAS — “This is going to be the best race of all time.”
For Formula One to have Lewis Hamilton, its best-known and most successful driver, give such a ringing endorsement of the 2023 Las Vegas Grand Prix at last November’s launch event was gold dust for the sport.
It made for a perfect quote to go on F1’s trailer for the grand prix, released right after the checkered flag dropped in Brazil two weeks ago. In keeping with all the messaging surrounding Las Vegas — easily the sport’s most ambitious step under Liberty Media — it was all about fueling the hype and excitement for its latest big swing at cracking the United States.
Las Vegas is so much more than just another race to F1. Arguably, there hasn’t been an event in the 73-year history of the world championship that has been subject to so much build-up and buy-in – quite literally, from F1 – courtesy of the championship’s key players.
The Las Vegas Grand Prix defines what F1 wants to be, and the direction in which it is heading. It wants to be one of the greatest spectacles in all of global sport. But it requires more than hype alone to achieve that.
“From what we’re seeing in the build-up to the race, it’s more akin to a Super Bowl than a grand prix,” said Christian Horner, Red Bull’s team principal. “It’s going to be a hell of a show for Formula One.
“But the most important thing is that as a sporting spectacle, it delivers and it produces a great race. The amount of interest that there is in the U.S. is phenomenal. I think that we really need to deliver to make sure that we capitalize on that interest.”
21 Super Bowls
When Liberty acquired F1’s commercial rights in 2017, it set about taking the sport to new, untapped markets and targeted what it called “destination cities.” Then-CEO Chase Carey outlined his hope for “21 Super Bowls” in a season — of course, the schedule has since expanded to 24 races as of next year — by creating a festival atmosphere at each stop on the F1 calendar. Cities should embrace F1 and the sport should embrace them back.
Miami was the first new event to meet the criteria of being a “destination city” for F1. It drew in a vast number of A-list celebrities when it debuted last year, and doubled down on the Miami identity. It drew on the color and buzz of South Beach, and played heavily on the relationship with the Miami Dolphins at the Hard Rock Stadium.
This weekend will be the same, but more so. F1 is leaning heavily into the Las Vegas themes. The seating in the fan areas are styled like giant dice and stacks of poker chips. There’s a house of cards themed around all the drivers. A miniature “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign greets entrants to the paddock. There’s even a slot machine lever above one of the timing bridges.
All this symbolizes F1’s direction under Liberty Media. The series has torn up all its conventions to make it happen, even taking on the responsibility of promoting and organizing the race, as well as footing the bill. It’s running the grand prix on a Saturday for the first time since 1985. It bought a 39-acre site in Las Vegas for the pit building that will serve as its permanent base in the United States, the neon red F1 logo being visible from the skies over the city. This is a race that wants to be one of the most visually spectacular on the calendar.
Extravagant? Yes. But that’s the point.
It’s about as far away from F1’s ‘traditional’ European heartland races as can be imagined. Purists be dismayed by the proliferation of city-center street races (like Jeddah and Baku) while more traditional, storied tracks (such as Spa) face uncertain futures. But there is a balance to be struck. The ‘destination city’ model was always intended to reach far beyond racing, serving a greater purpose that targets different fans, sponsors and markets.
When two-time world champion Fernando Alonso debuted in 2001, the F1 calendar had 17 races and only one proper street track: Monaco. Now six circuits fit that criteria.
The Spaniard did not see it as a negative shift. “As a sport, it’s just the number of races that have just increased,” he said. “Some of those extra races now are held on street circuits for basically different interests, and try to grow as a sport.
“So we embrace that change as well, and we try to help this sport as much as we can. Everyone is doing the same.”
Much of the paddock has embraced Las Vegas. The drivers have expressed their excitement about racing in such an iconic city. What once seemed like a far-flung dream for the sport has become a reality.
Yet, for all the hubbub, this has been a challenging event to get off the ground.
It’s typical for first-year races to face some bumps in the road. But few have faced as sizable a backlash as the response to the disruption F1’s construction work has caused in Las Vegas. Social media has been awash with videos of disgruntled residents unhappy with traffic issues, the blocked view of the Fountains of Bellagio, and the film put across glass walkways to stop people getting a free view of the race.
When The Athletic arrived on Monday, our Uber driver from the airport vented his frustration about F1’s disruption, claiming it had cost him 60% of his typical revenue. Local opposition has not been quiet.
The race has also faced criticism for steep ticket and hotel prices, both of which have experienced sharp drops in the lead-up to the race weekend. Renee Wilm, the CEO of the Las Vegas Grand Prix, told The Athletic in October that they “couldn’t be happier” with the demand for tickets, and that there was only “limited inventory” left. The race organizers also put single-day tickets on sale in response to fan feedback over there only being weekend packages available. F1 anticipates a crowd of 100,000 fans per day.
Getting Las Vegas and its Strip, one of the most famous pieces of road in the world, ready for F1 meant there would always be heightened challenges. One F1 paddock source familiar with preparations, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Athletic last month organizers in Las Vegas were “scrambling” but acknowledged this was typical of most new races.
“This entire project has been one of balancing of interests,” Wilm said. “We want to make sure that the customers have a great experience. We want to make sure the drivers enjoy our track. We want to make sure the teams are looking forward to coming back to Las Vegas year after year to race.” She said F1 will be in Vegas “for many decades to come.”
The execution of the event will rely on more than novelty, Elvis references and “The Hangover” memes. Anytime F1 visits a new city, there’s a buzz and excitement — and uncertainty.
That is for more than just the operations of the event itself. Ranging from the 10 p.m. PT start time and its impact on the audience across the world — especially for the bulk of U.S. F1 fans on the East Coast braving a 1 a.m. lights out — to the cold temperatures, and what that will do to the racing, there’s fundamental uncertainty about what will play out in Las Vegas this weekend.
In a year that has been all too predictable, thanks to the dominance and excellence of Max Verstappen and Red Bull, that’s no bad thing.
But off-track, all want this race to go as smoothly as possible. F1 made a half-a-billion-dollar bet on making its Las Vegas dream a reality, and showing its desired direction is the right one to pursue.
Now, it must deliver.
More from The Athletic’s Las Vegas Grand Prix coverage:
(Lead image: Jared C. Tilton, Dan Istitene/Formula 1 via Getty Images; Design: John Bradford/The Athletic)