Red Bull Racing's Dutch driver Max Verstappen, Formula One's world champion, arrives for the first practice session of the Las Vegas Grand Prix on Thursday
Las Vegas (AFP) - Formula One’s push to conquer America enters a new phase this weekend as the sport brings its high-octane show to the neon lights of the Las Vegas strip.
Las Vegas is the third American grand prix of the season adding to the Miami Grand Prix and the more established US Grand Prix in Austin, Texas.
The days when F1 was very much limited to a niche audience in the US, where motor racing fans have preferred NASCAR stock car racing and their open-wheel IndyCar circuit, seem distant after the boom created by the hugely popular Netflix F1 series ‘Drive to Survive’.
Fans from across North America have flocked to Las Vegas for the first race in the city since heavily criticised races on a circuit at Caesars Palace in 1981 and 1982.
“Really excited for the race, It’s pretty cool to see what they have done to Vegas, we’ve been here a hundred times and not seen anything like this,” said Daniel Lewis from Scottsdale, Arizona, taking in the sights on the strip, which is now set-up with safety fencing ahead of the race.
There is a sizeable contingent of Mexican fans who have travelled over the border to support their compatriot Sergio Perez of Red Bull.
“They have sold out of ‘Checo’ Perez hats and jackets in the stores,” said Emanuel Elizalde who has travelled from Guadalajara in western Mexico.
But despite the heavy investment in the Vegas event, from American owners Liberty Media, the Grand Prix is far from guaranteed to be an unqualified success.
There are question marks over whether the 3.8 mile track, with tight corners and long straights, will be able to deliver the kind of race that fans and drivers want to see.
“It’s definitely not going to be an iconic circuit in terms of its layout,” said Mercedes’ British driver George Russell.
The race itself is scheduled to start at 10pm local time on Saturday night (0600 GMT Sunday), which is 1am on the East Coast and while the start is designed to reach European television audiences on Sunday morning, the goal of capturing the hearts of American sports fans will surely be hampered.
- Season over -
Fireworks erupt for the opening ceremony for the Las Vegas Grand Prix
In addition, there is little at stake with the championship battle long since wrapped up after Red Bull’s Max Verstappen clinched the driver’s title in Qatar in early October with his team having already secured the constructor’s title.
Dutchman Verstappen hardly helped the flagging hype for the event on Wednesday when just minutes after a glitzy opening ceremony, featuring music and a drone show, he lamented that the Grand Prix was “99 percent show, one percent sporting event.”
Seven-times world champion Lewis Hamilton was quick to defend the organisers’ approach in what remains a relatively new market.
“The sport continues to grow. It is a business and you will still see good racing here. It is a country to tap into and really captivate the audience,” he said.
“Everybody I know in Hollywood is coming and there will be a lot of business going on this weekend,” he said.
The difference of opinion between the two biggest name drivers reflects a tension between the purists, who prefer racing at the traditional courses such as Silverstone and Monza and those who are keener to attract new fans by introducing entertainment around the race.
Haas team principal Guenther Steiner said he can see both sides of the argument.
“We always focus on the race. Obviously, we create a lot of shows around it, because I think in this era we need that because people just don’t go to a place just for a race, they want entertainment around it as well,” he said.
Steiner said the US events have succeeded in attracting a different kind of fan.
“First of all, they come here for Formula One….but are they hardcore fans? No. But do we need only hardcore fans? Also no,” he said.
A year ago, when organisers held a launch event for the Vegas race, there was much heady talk of F1’s American boom and possible further expansion but with little competition on the track, the enthusiasm has shown signs of waning.
“I think the growth is not like it was the last five years,” Steiner conceded.
“Because the hype in the last five years here, I’ve never seen anything like it. Everybody all of a sudden was interested in Formula 1.
“But as long as we stabilize, and I think the interest is still here. I think we can keep the level we’ve got now. Will we have the growth like we had the last five years? Maybe not. We need to be realistic as well”.
Wise words of moderation perhaps - just not very Vegas.