Formula 1’s very own Super Bowl in Vegas, which came with all the pomp befitting of the gambling and entertainment paradise, vindicated its lack of humility with an action-packed grand prix.
The 50-lap blast around the Strip’s casinos was a spellbinding thrill, dispelling concerns over whether or not the series had forgotten about the sporting aspect of its grand spectacle.
F1’s big wigs surely breathed a huge sigh of relief after track issues on Thursday and criticism from locals had threatened to take the shine off its new crown jewel, a Monaco Grand Prix for the Netflix generation.
On the eve of the race, world champion Verstappen became a sounding board for traditional fans who felt alienated by an event that took F1 further out of its European comfort zone and into the limelight as a global entertainment enterprise.
“A show element is important but I like emotion. When you go to Spa, Monza, they have a lot of emotion and passion,” he said.
“I understand that fans need something to do as well around the track. But I think it’s more important that you actually make them understand what we do as a sport because most of them just come to have a party.
“They become fan of what? They want to see maybe their favourite artists and have a few drinks with their mates and then go out and have a crazy night out. But they don’t actually understand what we’re doing or what we’re putting on the line to perform.”
Photo by: Jake Grant / Motorsport Images
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19
The above is just a summary of an eloquent two-minute answer that saw Verstappen become a statesman befitting his status as a triple world champion, an involuntary role which he had thus far largely shunned.
Verstappen’s response was met with approval by many weary fans on social media, and there are merits to his reasoning.
Eye-watering ticket prices, as well as the fallout from fans being removed from the grandstands ahead of Thursday’s delayed FP2 session, fuelled a sentiment among many long-time fans that the Las Vegas Grand Prix was simply not for them. Not just in its European heartland, but also on the US east coast, where a 3am qualifying session and a 1am race start was not exactly a compelling invitation to join the party.
F1’s owner Liberty Media has firmly widened its focus away from the core audience of motor racing fans to a much broader target market, and in Vegas F1 and its teams doubled down on wowing corporate guests and VIPs. It’s an approach also used at that other new American race in Miami, which its CEO Tom Garfinkel described as “a wine and food festival with a race going on.”
From the teams’ perspective, the event was a huge boon from the start, so if sponsors were delighted with the unique hospitality options Vegas provided, then how could anyone be against it?
F1’s clash of cultures was hilariously symbolised by Verstappen’s team-mate Sergio Perez being completely dumbfounded during the driver presentation by UFC announcer Bruce Buffer bellowing in his face. Perez’s facial expression might well have represented a large share of puzzled fans watching on TV.
Verstappen’s weariness about the focus on entertainment and commerce is valid, but equally F1 cannot come to Las Vegas and put on a mundane show.
And while there were undoubtedly many visitors that were more interested in the party scene than in the sporting competition, F1’s blockbuster race on Saturday gave it the best possible platform to turn some of those first-time visitors from diverse backgrounds into ardent racing fans.
All you need to become a fan of any sport is that initial spark. It doesn’t matter how you get it.
As long as F1 protects that delicate balance between old and new, there should be room on the calendar for both the extravaganza of Las Vegas and the history-soaked passion of Monza, just like there’s room for Monaco’s elitism and the rowdy festival atmosphere of Silverstone.
The Las Vegas Grand Prix is not for everyone and it probably never will be. But on a diverse 24-round schedule, maybe that’s okay.
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