As the sage Taylor Swift reminds us, “haters gonna hate.” It’s an admonishment that puts any criticism of the 2023 Las Vegas Grand Prix into perspective. After all, if much of mainstream media, as well as certain regional outlets and influencers, were to be believed, an errant manhole cover would have rendered Formula 1’s most ambitious production a failure before it even really began.
The highly anticipated race promised to be not only one of the biggest events to hit the city since Elvis, but a pivotal moment in the history of Formula 1, the world’s premier motorsport series. And on both fronts, it didn’t disappoint—even if the end result was easily predicted.
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In case you recorded it and plan to watch later, spoiler alert: Max Verstappen won. But then, based on how the season has gone, that was probably the safest bet in town. The 26-year-old Belgian driver has delivered a benchmark performance this year, winning 18 of the 23 races so far this season, including a record-setting 10 consecutive victories. Yet the preliminary days of this past race week were anything but business as usual.
Thursday marked the initial practice session, giving drivers the chance to familiarize themselves with the actual circuit rather than just what they have encountered on a simulator. Initially though, the real-life experience ended up being a real drag, unfortunately.
“Last night, approximately nine minutes into the first Free Practice session, a water valve cover broke on the straight on Las Vegas Boulevard,” said Renee Wilm, CEO of the Las Vegas Grand Prix, in an official statement. “At that time, the FIA, which is responsible for the safe running of the activities on the circuit, stopped the session so that we could look at the broken water valve cover and inspect the track.” During the truncated stint, Charles Leclerc had captured the fastest lap time of 1:40.909, while Hass teammates Nico Hulkenberg and Kevin Magnusson were in second and third, respectively.
Racing resumed for the second practice session on Friday morning at 2:30 a.m. PT, and resulted in Ferrari’s Leclerc maintaining his stop spot with a lap time of 1:35:265, while teammate Carlos Sainz and Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso were right behind him with times of 1:35:782 and 1:35:793, respectively. Then, later that evening, the last practice saw a complete upheaval as George Russell of the Mercedes team clocked a 1:34:093, while McLaren’s Oscar Piastri and Logan Sargeant of Williams rounded out the winning trifecta.
Regarding one of the main challenges the circuit presented, Russell explained that “these tires are running so, so cold on the surface, compounded with these big long straights—the tires get even colder, and then suddenly you brake really hard and put it under loads of stress and the tire can’t handle the cold and stress at the same time. The tire will look like grated cheese. Once that happens, it’s unrecoverable.”
What truly proved unrecoverable, though, was Russell’s position at the front when qualifying commenced at midnight. After the three qualifying sessions were done, Ferrari initially owned the top two spots on the grid, with Charles Leclerc earning pole position, followed by teammate Carlos Sainz, and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.
Saturday night brought the main event, with celebs like Brad Pitt and Shaquille O’Neal walking pit lane prior to the start. By the time the actual race commenced at 10 p.m. PT, the starting grid had Leclerc, Verstappen, and Russell in the top three spots, respectively, as Sainz slipped to 12th place due to a penalty for adjustments made to his car after the incident on Thursday. Talk about adding insult to injury.
Shortly after the start, Verstappen overtook Leclerc, and the duel was on. This street course seemed more conducive to passing than others, as evidenced by the greater number of lead changes than most of the contests this season. But if this year has taught Formula 1 fans anything, it’s that, at least currently, Max Verstappen is practically unbeatable. Regardless of where he starts on the grid or how many setbacks are thrown his way (he served a five-second penalty this race), the odds are that he takes the checkered flag, which he did at the end of the 50 laps. It’s a level of consistency that enabled him to wrap up his third consecutive Drivers’ Championship title well before the season ends in Abu Dhabi next week.
Sure, the final result was what almost everyone has come to expect after such a one-sided season, but what should have been equally expected is that Las Vegas would show a winning hand when it came to presenting arguably the greatest spectacle motorsport has ever seen.
There’s definitely room for improvement, such as adding a giant display screen for the paddock area to better follow the action and standings, but fine-tuning is sure to be already in progress for 2024. As for any naysayers and critics still harping about manhole covers and temporary traffic disruptions, Formula 1 should just take a page from the Swiftie playbook and shake it off.
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