After a troubling week for Formula One, days of fear and loathing in Las Vegas, the sport finally delivered on the streets of the city to such effect that what was a grand gamble genuinely paid off.
The house always wins here, so of course Max Verstappen took the flag for the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix, but he had to fight hard to do it which meant the racing matched the show and made for the spectacle F1 craved.
It was outstanding. Verstappen had to come back from both a penalty and an on-track clash with George Russell to take victory. In doing so, the world champion vied thrillingly with Ferrari’s second-placed Charles Leclerc and his Red Bull teammate Sergio Pérez, who was third.
The buildup to this meeting, the anticipation, the hype, has been relentless. For Formula One – spending what is understood to be $700m to put on the event, acting for the first time as both promoter and organiser – this was their showcase, their Super Bowl; a step up in selling the sport to the US, the market it wants to break more than any other.
F1 had insisted there would be no race without it being in the heart of the city and including Las Vegas Boulevard, the iconic Strip, both of which were achieved. F1 had the backing of the casinos and a backdrop that made this one of Vegas’s most striking shows: Caesars, the Bellagio, Paris, the Venetian. They line the Strip and the track and the cars looked magnificent hurtling past these landmarks at speeds of more than 200mph. It also made it one of Formula One’s grandest of stages. Failure here would have been very, very public indeed.
Nor was it out of the question. The weekend had opened with no little resentment after fans saw only eight minutes of action in first practice on Thursday and were then unable to watch a second session delayed for five hours and held behind closed doors. They were enormously disappointed and angry, having in many cases paid a small fortune to do so. A class action lawsuit has already been launched.
Worse still, Verstappen had been highly critical of the accompanying hoopla, saying repeatedly that he felt it was unnecessary and that what mattered was the racing, which he believed the sport was showing scant attention.
Coming into the race, then, there was genuine trepidation that when it really mattered Vegas might prove a busted flush on track. There were concerns the 3.8-mile circuit would be a dud, offering few chances for overtaking, and heralding a procession of cars circling the city while managing their tyres – a conservative cavalcade for fans who had paid big bucks for F1 to deliver on its promise of being the pinnacle of motor sport.
The tension only ramped up as the night wore on; the grid a heaving mass like no other, where movement was barely possible. Usain Bolt could be seen head and shoulders above the throng but even the world’s fastest man could move only at a snail’s pace in the morass.
When the lights went out, Formula One held its breath but it swiftly became clear the sport had backed a winner. The track was a belter, the grip sufficient to allow attacking driving and without too much concern for the tyres, attack they did. Pass after pass followed across the field, three abreast at times, ducking and diving as they weaved through the city with abandon, surely calming the nerves of the sport’s hierarchy that had been taut as violin strings all weekend.
Verstappen had nicked the lead into turn one from the off, pushing the pole-sitter Leclerc wide in the process – for which the world champion was penalised by five seconds which dropped him down the field. He duly came back, as did Pérez with a fortuitous pit stop under the safety car, while Leclerc was a warrior for the Scuderia. Wringing the neck of his Ferrari, he retook the lead from Verstappen, lost it to Pérez then won it back again.
Yet Verstappen as always was inexorable, and he flew back toward them both, being biffed by Russell’s Mercedes as he passed . By lap 37 he had regained the lead, while Leclerc delivered a denouement worthy of the race of the season. On the very final lap the Monégasque driver threw his car up the inside of turn 14 – the end of the Strip – in a last‑ditch effort to pass Pérez for second. It was the breathtaking, bravura move the race deserved for a finale.
This was very much the stuff, the weekend’s early woes wiped away with a sensational show that for once lived up to the hype. Verstappen may not have enjoyed the whole extravaganza but by the close even he could not resist joining in. As the team played Viva Las Vegas over his radio he sang along with gusto.
Only at the business end of the weekend, behind the wheel, had Verstappen found time for the city at last. “It was a lot of fun out there,” he said. “I hope they enjoyed it, we definitely did. I am already excited to come back here next year.”
By his standards this weekend, that was a ringing endorsement and one F1 will wholeheartedly accept. Fireworks detonated across the city as the casinos showed their appreciation at the close, and they too will likely feel they were part of something that has legs for the future.
As the King himself noted in Viva Las Vegas: “If you see it once, you’ll never be the same again …” So then for F1, which might have delivered the catalyst to change the game in the US. Viva indeed.
Esteban Ocon was fourth for Alpine and Lance Stroll fifth for Aston Martin. Carlos Sainz was sixth for Ferrari. Russell and Lewis Hamilton were in seventh and eighth for Mercedes. Fernando Alonso was ninth for Aston Martin and Oscar Piastri 10th for McLaren.