This past weekend, Formula 1 held its inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix. In many ways, this race was something new and unusual for the racing series, something that created plenty of tension among more traditional fans, many of whom suspected that an abundance of style over substance was at work. Things didn’t get much better after the first day’s practice, with one car written off and another damaged by poor track preparation. But by the time the checkered flag flew at the end of Saturday night’s race, even the skeptics had come around, for the cars didn’t just look spectacular on track, they gave us the closest—and one of the most thrilling—race of the year.
The way an F1 event normally works is that a promoter pays the sport a sanctioning fee—somewhere between $20 million and $55 million—and then the sporting circus turns up and races, then leaves. But Liberty Media, which owns F1, decided that it would handle promoting the Las Vegas race itself.
It put plenty of money where its mouth was, too. It built a new permanent pit complex, also housing the fancy Paddock Club hospitality suites, topped off with a massive animated display for a roof. And the 3.8 miles of city streets that made up the track had to be entirely resurfaced with more than 100,000 tons of paving to create the smooth racing surface the sport expects. All in, Liberty spent at least half a billion dollars of its own money on the event.
In return, it promised that the Las Vegas Grand Prix would generate about $1.3 billion for the city. But the weeks leading up to the race saw a steady stream of negative news reports from locals. Setting up any street circuit for the first time involves traffic disruptions, but in Las Vegas that track prep took months and months as roads were prepared, and by race week noses were very out of joint. Locals complained about horrible commute times, and tourists complained that the safety fencing was ruining their view of the gigantic casino buildings. (The ones complaining about the chopped-down palm trees probably had a point.)
Things weren’t helped by the ticket prices, which were several times more expensive than at almost any other race on the calendar. Those tickets seemed reasonable compared to the prices being asked for hospitality, which ran to tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. This further cemented the impression among many F1 fans that this race wasn’t for them.
Then there was the timing. Whether it was a demand from Las Vegas or one from F1, the race was to be a night race, starting at 10 pm local time on Saturday night rather than during the day on Sunday. Great timing for fans in Asia or Australasia, early in the morning for fans in Europe, but the decision had more consequences.