Pandemonium in Practice, Discussions of the Track

“We can expect a truly exciting and unpredictable Las Vegas Grand Prix this weekend. We are all left on tenterhooks to see whether Las Vegas will truly Viva” - Hannah Newman discusses the chaos of the Las Vegas Grand Prix (so far…)

Flashing lights, world-famous landmarks and a star-studded reputation: the Las Vegas Grand Prix has been a wish of many for years, an irresistible venue for many different sports. Formula 1 is one of them, with this year marking the inauguration of a brand new Las Vegas Grand Prix. There had previously been a Grand Prix held in Vegas, in both 1981 and 1982, but this circuit, located in the parking lot of Caesar’s Palace, failed to keep its place on the permanent calendar.

Daniel Ricciardo (currently racing for AlphaTauri), stated that his top wish for Formula 1 would be for a “race in Vegas” in an interview in 2017. Perhaps he could see the future, or perhaps the Formula 1 Gods (Liberty Media) were enticed by his request, but as I awoke at 4:00am on a Friday morning to watch Free Practice 1, I was certainly excited to see how the much talked-about track would serve the cars.

Inevitably, as with any new circuit on the racing calendar, there has been a lot of discourse surrounding the Las Vegas Grand Prix, both positive and negative. The event is, as a whole, a massive spectacle, and is undeniably going to be a fantastic source of income for the city. However, locals have complained about the disruption it has caused to their daily schedules – the road has been resurfaced, there has been construction and building works which involved cutting down many trees in the city, and residents have complained about noise pollution and traffic jams caused as a result of this. They have also criticised Formula 1’s decision to make the track almost invisible for locals – screens around the track make it almost impossible to see the race from outside, and while there has been a special ticket rate offered to locals, this does not apply to the main race.

Freezer Las Vegas

Concerns about the race itself have also been raised, including by drivers themselves. The night race, being hosted in November, is in the middle of the Nevada desert. At night, it has been predicted that temperatures could be as low as 4°C, which causes issues when warming up tyres. Ross Brawn has openly admitted that this was not something race organisers had originally considered, meaning that teams now have to pay much more attention to the temperature of their tyres than normal.

For some teams, this could be a positive: teams such as Ferrari and Haas have struggled this season with tyre wear, and so driving on a cooler track could prove beneficial for them. However, teams like Mercedes are famed for managing their tyres well – this may not prove such an advantage for them this weekend. Pirelli have attempted to combat these potential problems by providing teams with the three softest tyres in the range, the C3 hards, C4 mediums and C5 softs. However, there are also no support races at this race weekend, meaning that the surface won’t accrue rubber as it does at other tracks, leading to less grip.

Don’t hit the apex

Another concern that has been raised is the pit exit on the track. The pit exit dispenses drivers straight into turn one, and some have argued that this will cause carnage come qualifying and the main race. The pit exit falls at the apex of the turn, which drivers generally aim for in order to get the best exit, but a driver turning the corner may suddenly find their path blocked by another car exiting the pit lane. I’m not sure we can accurately say how much of a problem this will cause until cars are regularly coming in and out of the pits, but this is surely another thing teams have to keep in mind going into the race weekend.

The FP1 incident…

I don’t wake up at 4:00am often – in fact it’s rare that you’d ever see me up and about while there is still an ‘a’ in the time. But to watch the first ever laps around Vegas, I set my alarm and sat groggily in bed with the race up on my phone. I was hugely excited – I can only imagine how thrilling it must have been for fans at the track to hear the roar of engines around this brand new circuit. Indeed, as the cars rolled out onto the track, with the backdrop of the glimmering lights of Las Vegas, it was a sight to behold. 

However, this was not to last. Only eight minutes into the Free Practice 1 (FP1) session, Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari was suddenly engulfed in sparks as something hit his floor. He immediately had to pull aside and turn off his engine. The race was then red-flagged, and the stewards subsequently made the decision that it was not safe for the session to continue. Esteban Ocon also suffered some damage to the floor of his car.

It was revealed that a water valve cover had come loose on track as the cars drove over it, and eventually got loose enough to strike Sainz’s car. Both Ocon’s Alpine and Sainz’s Ferrari suffered so much damage that both required a chassis change, Ferrari team principal Fred Vasseur saying that “we damaged completely the monocoque, the engine, the battery, and I think it’s just unacceptable.” Sainz required an energy store change, which resulted in him being handed a 10-place grid penalty for the main race, to which the driver said he was in “disbelief”. This seems fair – the collision was by no means his fault, and it seems rather harsh that he, or Ferrari, should be penalised for something entirely out of their control.

As a result of this collision, Free Practice 2 was delayed until 2:30am local time, so that all the manhole covers and drains could be checked and cemented. Fans were also sent home after F1 Las Vegas released a statement stating that due to “logistical concerns” the fan zones had to be closed. This must have been hugely disappointing for the many fans who paid a lot to attend these sessions, and those who had travelled a great distance.

Many have expressed anger at this whole incident – was it something entirely avoidable, especially given that drain covers are a concern at most other street circuits? Did this happen as a result of poor planning? That is for the race organisers to respond to.

What happened in FP2?

After a “heroic” effort by the mechanics at Ferrari (as Carlos Sainz put it himself) and Alpine, the mechanics were able to get both cars back onto the track for FP2.

The second Free Practice session was delayed until 2:30am local time, and was extended to 90 minutes, meaning that the session didn’t end until 4:00am. Many drivers commented on being extremely tired, but also said that much valuable information could be taken from these laps. The low grip seemed a common talking point, with many of the drivers such as Oscar Piastri saying that the track was “very, very slippery”. However, now that they had been able to get some laps under their belts, drivers on the whole seemed to be enjoying it. Lance Stroll said that the track was “fun, fast, cool!”, and Lewis Hamilton said “I had so much fun today.”

By the end of FP2, Charles Leclerc had placed on top with the fastest lap time of 1:35.265, ahead of his teammate Sainz by over half a second. This track seems to appeal to his Ferrari, and so hopes could be high in the Maranello-based team’s garage. Fernando Alonso was also performing well, being the third-fastest around the circuit.

So what can we take from this chaotic start to the Las Vegas race weekend? In reality, there isn’t much that we can truly predict for the main race. For the drivers and teams, this Grand Prix appears to still be one big question mark, but for the viewers (other than those sent home), this isn’t necessarily a negative – it is likely that we can expect a truly exciting and unpredictable Las Vegas Grand Prix this weekend. We are all left on tenterhooks to see whether Las Vegas will truly Viva.