Formula 1 World Champion Max Verstappen cut an unhappy figure heading into the Las Vegas Grand Prix weekend – this supposed new marquee event for F1, who had poured millions of its own cash into the event, was being shot down in flames before a wheel had even been turned.
Wednesday night’s opening ceremony kicked off proceedings.
Live musical performances and the drivers being raised on large platforms to the crowd were held to celebrate the inaugural round at the Las Vegas Strip Circuit.
“We are just standing up there, looking like a clown.”
The Dutchman then delivered his second scathing blow, calling Las Vegas, “99% show, and 1% sporting event.”
So what was the Las Vegas Grand Prix, a sporting event or an entertainment one?
On the first day of practice, it turned out to be neither.
Just eight minutes into FP1 a loose water valve cover struck a devastating blow to Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari.
The red flag was waved, Sainz’s red and white liveried SF-23 car was a near write-off and the rest of the session was abandoned as circuit officials set about inspecting every drain cover across the 6.2 km circuit.
With the inspection came a lengthy delay and already questions were being asked about Vegas’ suitability to support an F1 round, much to the displeasure of Mercedes Team Principal Toto Wolff.
Asked if this was a premature blemish on the event, Wolff gave a spirited response: “That is not a black eye, this is nothing, we are Thursday night, we have a free practice one session that we’re not doing, they’re going to seal the drain covers and nobody’s going to talk about that tomorrow morning anymore,” he said.
“It’s completely ridiculous, completely ridiculous, FP1 how can you even dare trying to talk bad about an event that sets the new standards, new standards to everything.”
Wolff had a point.
This wasn’t the first time such an episode had occurred in F1, with Monaco and Baku each seeing loose drain cover incidents in recent years.
However, Wolff’s comments wound up being a bad omen and the actions surrounding FP2 would very much be discussed the next day, leaving Verstappen to feel more than vindicated with his scathing assessment.
With a 4 AM curfew looming, race organisers elected to remove all fans from the venue moments before FP2.
Eventually, two and a half hours later than scheduled, the second practice session, extended to 90 minutes in length, got underway – with nobody allowed to watch it.
The most expensive GP of the year by some margin suddenly saw the hard-earned cash spent by visitors on day one rewarded with nine minutes of practice.
Surely an apology was due? Not exactly.
F1 and Vegas GP organisers released a lengthy statement detailing why they deemed escorting fans away from the circuit prior to FP2 necessary, citing logistical and staffing issues.
“We know this was disappointing,” a portion of the statement read.
“We hope our fans will understand based on this explanation that we had to balance many interests, including the safety and security of all participants and the fan experience over the whole race weekend.
“We have all been to events, like concerts, games and even other Formula 1 races, that have been cancelled because of factors like weather or technical issues.
“It happens, and we hope people will understand.”
Unfortunately, nowhere within the statement was there a distinct apology to those who had been impacted.
Oh well, at least fans would see tickets refunded.
Umm, about that.
To add insult to injury, ticket holders for the first day of practice weren’t offered a refund, but instead a $200 voucher to the official Las Vegas GP shop.
Three-day ticket holders, who missed out on a third of what they paid for, received nothing.
Cue outrage from the World Champion.
“If I was a fan, I would tear the whole place down,” Verstappen said when Dutch television told him about the compensation offer.
F1 was rapidly developing a “black eye” and desperately needed the racing product to deliver.
However, ever since the simplistic Vegas configuration was revealed to the world last year, there were countless concerns that it would not provide a worthy enough spectacle, further complicated by cooler temperatures and a lack of grip offline around the Las Vegas Strip layout.
After qualifying Verstappen was no more positive than he’d been since touching down in Nevada.
“I think Monaco is like [the] Champions League and this is like National League,” he quipped.
Fast forward to post-race and the majority of the gird managed to change their tune.
Las Vegas finally delivered a racing exhibition that fans could appreciate, with multiple battles throughout the field, not least at the front, where Verstappen had to rely on the lucky intervention of a Safety Car midway through proceedings to elevate him past an impressive Charles Leclerc to take the victory.
Both Mercedes drivers were well amongst the action, going up and down the order throughout the race and both felt Vegas delivered on the sporting side of things.
“Yeah, I have to be honest, it’s, it’s been quite surreal being here and, and seeing everything that that’s going on, the track, it was actually a lot better to drive than I anticipated,” said George Russell.
“It looks pretty, it looks pretty basic from the track map, but it’s actually got quite a lot of character, really challenging circuit to drive, but with the nature of the low downforce circuit, the slipstreaming really isn’t that substantial.
“I don’t know how many overtakes there were in the race, but it wasn’t straightforward to pass.”
“I’m really grateful that the race was so good,” said Lewis Hamilton.
“I don’t know how it was as a spectacle for people to watch, but there was so much overtaking, it was like Baku, but better.
“And I really wasn’t expecting the track to be so great, but the more and more laps you did, I just really loved racing.
“Lots of great overtaking opportunities.
“And I think for all those that were so negative about the weekend, saying it’s all about show, blah, blah, blah.
“I think Vegas proved them wrong.”
Even the team bosses were impressed, including Red Bull’s Christian Horner.
“I think the most important thing for this race was for it to deliver on track and I think it did that today,” he said.
“I thought it was a great Grand Prix and I think you know, Max would have thoroughly enjoyed that race because that’s what he loves and that’s what he’s here for.
“You know, the fact he won it in a Elvis Presley suit and was singing Viva Las Vegas on an in-lap.
“Whilst, you know, you have to respect that it doesn’t sit comfortably with him, some of the razzmatazz that goes around Formula One and it’s quite refreshing that he’s actually prepared to speak, you know, he’s given his honest opinion.
“Now, I think he also reflects that it’s an important event for Formula One and I think the race and the way it delivered today is something that you could certainly see he enjoyed.”
But what of Vegas’ most vocal critic, what did Verstappen, the victor think of it all?
“Well, I always expected it to be a good race today,” the Red Bull ace contended when the question was placed to him on Saturday night.
“It was just – like I said before – four long straights, low speed corners, you don’t lose a lot of downforce.
“So that has never been my issue.
“But yeah, today was fun.
“That’s the only thing I want to say about it; I think today was fun.
“I hope everyone enjoyed it.
“I think the DRS effect was strong but good.
“I mean it made for fun racing out there.”
Hardly a seal of approval, but after a calamitous start, perhaps fun was the best Vegas could hope to have heard from Verstappen once the chequered flag eventually fell at the end of an exhausting weekend.
Vegas: sport or entertainment?
The jury is still out and only time will tell whether the entire sport has learnt from the good and bad of the previous weekend.