The gambling capital of the world saw its biggest bet pay off when it played host to the Las Vegas Grand Prix. PETER COSTER watched the show:
It was hyped as “The greatest show on earth,” which upset the purists, such as Formula One world champion Max Verstappen.
He described the Las Vegas Grand Prix as 99 percent show and one percent sport when F1 descended on the gambling capital of the world.
That didn’t prevent the Red Bull driver from wearing an Elvis Presley-style, star-spangled jump suit in winning the race in the city that never sleeps.
“Just wear the suit, Max” would have been the plea from Red Bull principal Christian Horner, who knows something about showbiz as the husband of former Spice girl Geri Halliwell.
Liberty F1, which owns Formula One, spent nearly half-a-billion US dollars with its corporate partners on creating the street circuit in its efforts to turn F1 into an even bigger money spinner than it already is.
The surprise was the circuit, which turned out to be one of the fastest on the F1 calendar behind only Monza, Spa and Silverstone.
The 300km-plus track ran between concrete walls down the famous gambling strip.
The circuit itself proved as dangerous as expected, which added to the adrenaline-rush among the several hundred thousand fans who paid a minimum of 1500 US dollars for a general admission ticket, with a free pass for the celebrities such as Kylie Minogue and David Beckham, who were at trackside.
Mega rockers U2 suspended their Achtung Baby residency at the $2.3 billion Sphere so as not to detract from the Grand Prix.
They also just wanted to go to the race.
On the first day, those who paid found themselves ordered out of the grandstands when it was decided there were not enough staff on hand to guarantee their safety.
Most of the staff had gone home when the second practice session started at 2.30 in the morning.
That was after Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz ran over a valve cover on the track, which tore the bottom out of his car and saw him penalised 10 grid spots for something over which he had no control.
The chassis and battery storage unit in the Ferrari had to be replaced, with stewards unable to find any wriggle room in the regulations to allow him to start at the front of the grid, where he should have been.
Furious Ferrari chief Fred Vasseur said the monumental effort by mechanics in rebuilding the car represented a loss of two million dollars.
There were more than 40 of these valve covers on the circuit, which all had to be replaced to prevent them from being sucked up by the vacuum created under the F1 cars, which virtually brush the track.
Carlos Sainz might have reflected on that as only the seat of his fire-proof pants were between him and possible dismemberment.
When the race did start, McLaren star Lando Norris found himself a passenger after spinning into the barriers, destroying the car and finding himself in hospital after struggling to breath. Team boss Zac Brown described as “a very big hit.”
Both McLarens had failed to make it through qualy one on a track that had not rubbered down without the usual F2 and F3 support races.
Melbourne driver Oscar Piastri, already a rising star in his rookie year at McLaren, made up for that in the race.
The 22-year-old started 18th on the 20-car grid but stunned his team with a brilliant drive that saw him running as high as third before an extra stop for a tyre change saw him finish 10th.
But not before he recorded the fastest lap of the day.
Max Versteppen did what he has throughout he third season as world champion. He won after starting on the front row alongside pole sitter Charles Leclerc when Sainz was pushed back because of the valve cover incident.
Verstappen even had time to lend a tow to Red Bull’s Sergio Perez before the Mexican was passed under DRS on the last lap by the pole sitter.
This was the first Grand Prix to be held in Las Vegas since 1981. The first race in Las Vegas was the previous year, when it was one by 1980 Australian world champion Alan Jones.
Both races were run in the Caesar’s Palace carpark on a track that had been laid out by the then casino boss drawing a line backwards and forwards between his fingers on a restaurant table mat.
The hype in those days was usually around world championship boxing matches, such as the so-called fight of the century between Marvellous Marvin Hagler (his real name changed by deed poll) and Tommy “Hit Man” Hearns, who was satisfied with a nickname.
This correspondent was sitting ringside behind the great Sugar Ray Robinson, who might not have been aware of exactly where he was after more than 201 professional fights, of which he won 174. He smiled but his wife , who was sitting beside him, did all the talking.
Caesar’s Palace was again the venue. Hagler won by a third round knockout. The lead-up to the fight was the marriage, again in the carpark, of former world middleweight champion Jake LaMotta.
Robert De Niro played LaMotta in the movie Raging Bull and old pugs roamed around the casino talking to anyone holding a notebook.
Leon Spinks, who defeated Muhammad Ali when he was near the end of his career, grinned with a mouthful of gold teeth.
He was later to lose them to a bunch of late night attackers in his motel room as Las Vegas slowly shed its gangster rap, and showbiz legends such as Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack replaced the mob who put the money up to build the city in the Nevada desert, where the American government was still testing the atomic bomb.
Glitz and glamor is now legit in sin city, although two of the more experienced girls at the notorious Chicken Ranch outside Las Vegas (where prostitution is illegal) offered their services free of charge to the top F1 drivers.
None would have had time in the unlikely event they might have been inclined as the greatest show on earth left in as hurry for another desert town.
This time in the Persian Gulf, which hosts the final Grand Prix of the season this week.
Viva Abu Dhabi!