Following months of anticipation, more hype than most fans will have ever seen for a race, rafts of celebrities, Elvis costumes, fireworks and fanfare, F1 did its talking on the track.
Some were worried that because of all the buildup, it would be difficult for the race to match up to expectation. The barrier was spectacularly high, but the action that unfolded, late at night in the Nevada desert, delivered a race that will live long in memory.
It showcased a street circuit with unique qualities that allowed the race spectacle to shine so brightly, it made the multi-million-dollar Sphere (the world’s largest LED display next to the track) look like a minor side show.
It would be fair to say that the race weekend did not start as planned. Carlos Sainz drove over a manhole cover, which came loose and caused extensive damage to his car after just eight minutes of first practice. The session was terminated, and second practice would take place five hours later to allow for the FIA to check 300 other covers to ensure a repeat would not happen.
This is not a first in F1, as there have been similar incidents in Baku and Monaco. It also does not need to be reminded that safety – as in all motorsport – has to be the first priority. Whilst it was a frustrating start, one suspects that the events of the rest of the weekend will swiftly put such difficulties far into ancient history.
Qualifying was the first real chance to get a feel for the characteristics of the track. It’s one of the longest on the calendar at 3.8 miles and has 17 corners. It’s a combination of long straights and slow corners.
The track surface was also a little different, with relatively low abrasion, certainly compared to what we have at BIC. This would mean getting tyres up to temperature is difficult, not least when air temperatures are cold by F1 standards at around 15 degrees.
McLaren struggled throughout qualifying, as they couldn’t get their tyres up to temperature in a car that is not well-suited to slow corners. Both cars failed to get into the final round of qualifying. Ferrari, on the other hand, was revelling in the cold making use of its strong straight-line speed and it came as little surprise to see both cars taking the front row. Unfortunately for Sainz, his incident with the manhole cover meant he had to replace parts earlier in the weekend and take grid penalties.
That put Verstappen alongside Leclerc on the front row, with Russell and Gasly behind, followed by the two Williams cars, which also seemed to enjoy the long straights. There was hope for those further back in the field, however, including Perez who could only qualify 12, as the race format would allow more time for drivers and cars to get used to this unique track setup.
The race got off to a dramatic start, as Verstappen and Leclerc were alongside each other into turn one. They both ran wide and Verstappen took the lead. After careful review the stewards felt that Verstappen had gained an unfair advantage and awarded him a five-second penalty. There was even more chaos further back, as Alonso took a spin, which led to Bottas and Perez taking some damage, whilst Sainz also spun towards the back.
On lap three, Lando Norris reminded everyone of how treacherous a relatively low grip street circuit can be. Having started promisingly he lost his back end and took a hefty hit into the barriers. Fortunately, he was not badly injured and was back in the paddock after a brief hospital checkup.
Back at the front, Leclerc was closing in on Verstappen and completed an overtake on Lap 16. With Verstappen’s tyres fading, he pitted and served his five-second penalty, returning in 10th position. From there, he went through the field swiftly, highlighting the fact that, unlike some street circuits, there were plenty of overtaking opportunities.
On lap 26 he took Russell but also hit his front wing, with a safety car required to clean up the debris. On the restart, Perez looked in good shape and took the lead from Leclerc on lap 32. But just three laps later, Leclerc retook the lead of him.
Verstappen was also on the charge and just a lap later, he was into second and on the following lap he took the lead. Leclerc looked to be cruising in second, but a lock-up on lap 43 gave an open door to Perez, who took second place. The action kept coming, all the way to the final lap, when a dramatic late move by Leclerc got him back into second, with Perez having to settle for third.
Although we ended up with yet another Verstappen win, the action was wheel to wheel for the duration. Aside from the tussle at the front, there were overtakes galore across the field.
Notable performances came from Ocon, who managed an impressive fourth, followed by Stroll and Sainz with the two Mercedes completing the top eight. Overall, it was 50 laps of breathless action, edge of your seat racing, all in the context of the lights and glamour of Las Vegas, witnessed by 315,000 spectators over the weekend.
As the dust settles on the Strip in Vegas, it’s worth one final reflection on the overall event spectacle and what it has done for F1. F1 has raced before in Vegas, most recently in 1982 in a hotel car park.
F1 in 2023 doesn’t do hotel car parks. It’s ambitious, daring, creative and financially capable to come up with a venue that looked spectacular on screen, attracted the world’s most famous celebrities and without doubt will have helped wake up a new generation of fans in both the USA and across the world.
For the purists, the glitz, glamour and celebrity will have meant little without a high-quality racing spectacle. The Vegas circuit delivered that in spades and a huge credit should go to F1 themselves and the circuit designer Carsten Tilke (son of Hermann, who designed the track at BIC). In short, it had something for every fan, and we already can’t wait for its return next year.
* Laurence Jones is senior manager, Marketing and Communications, Bahrain International Circuit