Fury among fans and senior F1 figures after opening Las Vegas session descends into farce

Spectators forced to miss second practice after cars damaged by drain covers

Giles Richards Las Vegas






Formula One had enormously high hopes for a grand foray into the New World, its Las Vegas Grand Prix set to be the sport’s showcase event of the year, long accompanied with no little hubris. Yet its opening day ended in public embarrassment that left senior figures fuming and the crowds, if anything even more disgruntled, streaming away having seen only eight minutes of action. What had already been a serious disappointment after the first practice session had been abandoned when Carlos Sainz’s car was badly damaged by a drain cover, descended into farce when, after a four-hour wait, fans were told to leave the circuit at 1.30am local time yesterday morning and were unable to watch second practice at the sport’s first meeting in Las Vegas for 41 years. Following the red flag after eight minutes, emergency work took place on the 3.8-mile street circuit to enable second practice to be held after a two-hour delay. When FP2 did begin it was against the discomforting backdrop of empty stands. Even F1’s paddock club – where tickets cost up to $50,000 – had closed by 2am. The fans had been told to leave because of logistical issues. It appears contractual commitments and transportation reasons meant the organisers could not keep staff on any later. Sainz did take part in FP2 following repairs to his car after the Ferrari struck a water valve cover while travelling at almost 200mph on the track’s longest straight, the iconic Strip of Las Vegas Boulevard. His car came to a halt opposite the Bellagio casino and when Sainz emerged he was clearly concerned. The FIA had to stop the session to check all the drain covers on the 1.2mile straight. Ferrari’s team principal, Fred Vasseur, was furious. “It is just unacceptable,” he said. “It cost us a fortune. It’s just unacceptable for F1 today.” Tempers were clearly running high in the aftermath. As F1’s grand plan appeared to be unravelling, the Mercedes team principal, Toto Wolff, was uncharacteristically equally as furious in his defence of the sport. When it was put to him that the incident was an embarrassment, his response was vitriolic. “It is completely ridiculous. How can you even dare to talk back about an event that sets the new standard? You’re speaking about a fucking drain cover that’s been undone,” he said. “Give credit to the people who have set up this grand prix, that have made this sport much bigger than it ever was, [F1’s owner] Liberty has done an awesome job. “Just because in FP1 a drain cover has become undone we shouldn’t be moaning. Talking here about a black eye for the sport on a Thursday evening? Nobody watches that in European time anyway.” Yet there was moaning and doubtless too wailing and gnashing of teeth within the hierarchy of F1 because people very much were watching in Las Vegas and the US. By the time FP2 finally began, plenty of people were also paying attention in Europe and the incident was far from the opening to the race F1’s owners had anticipated. For the first time Liberty Media is organising and promoting a meeting itself with the aim of building the sport in the US. The costs of putting the race on in Las Vegas are believed to have reached as much as $700m, with F1 having bought land, constructed its own permanent pit and paddock building and resurfaced the track. That it was an issue with the track has made F1 look amateurish in front of the new fans it is trying so hard to bring in. Then to add insult to injury those fans, many of whom had paid a fortune to be there, could not even watch what running there was. Nor was the initial problem in practice a minor issue. As Vasseur noted, it was a major impact and potentially dangerous. Pictures of the underfloor of Sainz’s car showed it had sustained serious damage and the drain cover was dragged clear from the concrete surround intended to hold it in place. The FIA then set about removing all 30 of the covers on the Strip and replaced them with resin and quickdrying concrete. By 12.45am they were able to announce that FP2, set to have started at midnight local time, would begin at 2am, (later further delayed to 2.30am) and run for 90 minutes rather than one hour. The timings of the weekend, with all sessions set to take place in the evening and the race scheduled for 10pm local time tonight, were intended to minimise disruption in the city but on Thursday ended up being decidedly unfriendly for fans. Booing could be heard in the grandstands on the start-finish straight, where the cheapest weekend tickets cost $1,700, when the first session was stopped. Then, having waited from 8.45pm to 1.45am, the fans were told to leave. Practice duly went ahead but it was to grandstands dark and deserted, the long plannedfor celebration of F1’s resurgence in the US taking place effectively behind closed doors. It could not have been more unedifying or underwhelming. The session was completed without further incident with Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc heading the timesheets from Sainz and Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso. However, the sense that the sport had long since bade farewell to contact with reality was enhanced after Sainz was given a 10-place grid penalty because Ferrari had to replace a damaged energy store on his car. The FIA stewards admitted that, much as they had tried, there was no way to avoid penalising the Spaniard as the rules did not allow for leniency. Further serious questions are already being asked. There were no support races and F1 had done no previous running on the track because of the limitations imposed by closing the roads. That no form of test running had taken place, especially given that on-track covers are a known issue at street circuits, now appears hopelessly optimistic. The week has been an immense build-up of anticipation and hype, the Las Vegas GP intended to be the sport’s own Super Bowl, but the meeting has begun in ignominy. Even if the rest of the weekend goes smoothly, as opening bets go, F1 spun the wheel in Vegas and landed on zero. Today Qualifying Sky Sports F1, 7am; highlights Channel 4 11.40am Tomorrow Grand prix Sky Sports F1 5.55am; highlights Channel 4 12.30pm