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LAS VEGAS – The seconds ticked away on a countdown clock displayed on the Sphere, and for a moment it actually felt like New Year’s Eve.
This was an incredible scene. Truly incredible. After the buildup to one of the most-hyped, most-expensive and most-discussed races in Formula One history, fans were finally about to see race cars hit the track against the backdrop of the Las Vegas lights.
The track looked spectacular – like a real racetrack, except on the Strip itself. It was a surreal scene for visitors and locals alike, and there was a buoyant, jovial vibe among fans who had made the trek toward their various seating zones.
This was really happening! F1 did it. What a massive achievement. In the main grandstands, fans counted down the final seconds and erupted in cheers as their favorite drivers pulled out of the garage bays in front of them to make their initial practice laps.
It was a wonderful moment for motorsports, but not much more than that. Because as you well know by now, it only took eight minutes for it to go badly wrong.
From cheers to boos
The freshly repaved course includes a few valve drain covers, which sit atop pipes that lead to the water/sewer system below. These aren’t manhole covers – a person could not fit down them – but workers can stick a key inside to open or close a valve on the system.
As the F1 cars drove over the course at high speeds, generating suction between their floors and the pavement, one of those covers came loose. The cement around the drain cover failed to hold and it came apart – creating a classic Las Vegas bad beat for Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, who ran over the cover and destroyed his car.
Not great! Well, at least not great for the people who were excited about F1’s Vegas race. Those who have been openly rooting against it – and there are many – seemed to be celebrating on social media.
What seemed at first to be a typical red flag soon turned into the cancellation of the first practice session, and the fans who had been so enthusiastically cheering earlier let out loud boos.
The atmosphere went flat. No one seemed to really know what to do. Stay in the seats until the next practice? Go walk around? Leave altogether? It was truly like the giant balloon of good vibes suddenly popped.
It only got worse. The second practice, which had been set to begin at midnight local time, was delayed indefinitely. Would it even happen at all? Now there was real concern.
Along the Strip, fans who had left the track craned their necks and stood on their tiptoes with phones aloft to snap pictures and videos of workers who were addressing the other drain covers on the course. Each one was circled with pink spray paint, then examined and repaired as necessary.
An online store shows these valve covers available for $63 apiece. Yes, a $63 part derailed a $600 million race.
OK, maybe that’s being overdramatic. As some have pointed out, this has happened at street courses before in F1 – most recently in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 2019.
No offense to Baku, but that wasn’t nearly on the scale of hype and anticipation that all things Vegas have been. To make that comparison and somehow justify it after fans who paid ticket prices for Day 1 of the most expensive race in F1 history and only got to see eight minutes of cars on the track is disingenuous.
And that was indeed all Thursday’s ticketholders got to see, because by the time the track was repaired, it was 2:30 a.m. local time. Instead of having all the workers remain at the track well past their scheduled shifts, F1 opted to clear the grandstands and pricey suites (well over $10,000, in some cases) and send everyone home.
A track with some views
The likelihood of refunds is unclear. After the infamous Spa race in 2021, during which rain washed out the action and fans never saw a green-flag lap, ticketholders never got their money back.
Perhaps for many fans who attended Thursday, that wasn’t a big deal. Those who purchased three-day tickets have another practice session to watch on Friday night, followed by qualifying, and then the full race on Saturday.
But for fans who shelled out money for a Thursday ticket – the cheapest option of a virtually unaffordable week – this was a terrible turn of events.
As one follower said on X: “Imagine paying money to go to this and having work at 9 a.m. tomorrow. Never felt like such an idiot in my life. Only had Thursday tickets as well.”
Still, there was something to be salvaged from the night. When the cars finally took to the track for a 90-minute session from 2:30 to 4 a.m., fans who had been forced out of the stands used their creativity to find various viewing angles.
The black tarps on fences turned out to be transparent when the track lights were on, which made the sidewalks a half-decent place to watch cars zip by. The white coverings on pedestrian bridges didn’t prevent people from watching cars drive underneath – as long as they obeyed the half-hearted commands of tired security personnel to “keep moving”. The escalators attached to the bridges turned out to offer excellent viewing angles for those who didn’t mind making a few up-and-down trips.
F1 can try to block sightlines and force people to buy tickets, but it can’t cover every possible view of a 3.85-mile, 17-corner track. Even a glass elevator on one bridge served as sort of a luxury suite; several fans stood inside and sipped on beers, protected from the desert chill, as they had clear and elevated sightlines for cars coming onto the Strip. They seemed only slightly annoyed when someone from street level would hit the call button, temporarily removing their view.
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff argued the night’s events were not a black eye for F1 because people would forget about it by the end of the weekend. He’s probably right when it comes to the type of people he’s dealing with – executives, CEOs, sponsors, high-dollar spenders – because the rest of what happens here will create their overall impression of the event.
But the average fans, the ones who endured the bizarre nature of the Las Vegas Grand Prix’s opening day firsthand, will remember it for a long time.
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(Lead image: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)