‘99% show’: F1 drivers’ Las Vegas Grand Prix critiques sum up a tricky balance

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LAS VEGAS — Max Verstappen believes this weekend’s Las Vegas Grand Prix will be “99 percent show and one percent sporting event” as Formula One prepares for one of the most-hyped races in its history.

F1 returns to Las Vegas after 40 years away this weekend, staging a race on a street circuit that incorporates the iconic Strip. It promises an event heavy on the spectacle and showbiz pull off-track — rendering much of the on-track action a secondary thought.

Three-time world champion Verstappen has rarely shown much enthusiasm for the added commitments outside his racing duties.

“I just always want to focus on the performance side of things,” Verstappen said Wednesday night. “I don’t like all the things around it anyway. I know of course in some places that is part of it, but let’s just say it’s not in my interest.”

Haas driver Kevin Magnussen agreed with Verstappen’s summation: “It pays the bills.”

Verstappen was honest in his thoughts about the additional requirements facing the drivers in Las Vegas. This included an appearance in Wednesday’s opening ceremony, in which Verstappen said he was “just standing up there, looking like a clown” and a red carpet event at Wynn later in the evening that he had “zero interest” in attending.

“Some people like the show a bit more,” he added. “I don’t like it at all. … I like to be in Vegas, but not so much for racing.”

When the racing becomes secondary

F1 has regularly balanced its calendar with more traditional events on permanent circuits versus city-based street tracks that tend to be more commercially lucrative. Las Vegas, a race that is funded and promoted by F1 itself, is the epitome of the latter and something the series anticipates will make it “a lot of money” through what it hopes will be a decades-long residency on the Strip.

“We are adding races to the calendar, and it’s getting to a point where I think sometimes everything feels a bit repetitive and everything feels a bit overpacked and we’re trying maybe to overdo it a bit,” said Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz. (ANP via Getty Images)

Lewis Hamilton, for one, appreciates what this grand prix could do for the sport. The race was “something we spoke of dreaming of having many years ago”, making it “surreal” for F1 to have finally pulled off the event.

The Mercedes driver and seven-time world champion spoke about the importance of a race like Las Vegas to the growth of F1 in the United States and from a commercial point of view. “It’s a business, ultimately,” he said.

“Everybody I know in Hollywood is coming. There’s a lot of high net worth people coming. There’s going to be a lot of business going on this weekend, and hopefully a good spectacle for people to watch.”

Hamilton said the race would be “a big show, for sure” but added: “Don’t knock it until you try it.

“I hear there’s a lot of people complaining about the direction that Stefano (Domenicali, F1’s CEO) and Liberty (Media, which owns F1) have been going, but I think they’ve been doing an amazing job. The sport is growing massively.”

Balancing show versus the spectacle

When F1 comes to the U.S., it’s natural that there is a spike in media and partnership commitments given the rise in the sport’s popularity. It’s been no different in Las Vegas.

“I think for all the teams, expanding the American market, expanding as a sport, it’s huge — huge for the valuation of the business, sponsors, attracting more sponsorship, hopefully more American sponsorship,” Lance Stroll said. “But I hope we don’t just go into the kind of avenue of these kinds of races and lose the purity of Formula One, as it’s nice to have the balance.”

Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris were among the four F1 drivers who kicked their race weeks off with the Netflix Cup golf competition. Come Wednesday night during media day, a majority of the drivers participated in the star-studded opening ceremony before heading to the paddock for the usual media sessions. All while they’ve only just arrived in Las Vegas within the last few days and are adjusting to the time zone switch (friendly reminder: It’s a 10 p.m. PT race start on Saturday). Some only just started practicing the Las Vegas Strip Circuit on the simulator, like Magnussen who did his first run in the simulator last week.

“I do believe looking forward and looking into the future we’re going to need to reconsider a bit the way we go racing,” Sainz said, referring to the weekend schedule. “We are adding races to the calendar, and it’s getting to a point where I think sometimes everything feels a bit repetitive and everything feels a bit overpacked and we’re trying maybe to overdo it a bit.”

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - NOVEMBER 15: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes walks in the paddock during previews ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Las Vegas at Las Vegas Strip Circuit on November 15, 2023 in Las Vegas, United States. (Photo by Kym Illman/Getty Images)

Lewis Hamilton spoke positively about F1’s growth and the addition of Las Vegas. “There’s going to be a lot of business going on this weekend, and hopefully a good spectacle for people to watch,” he said. (Kym Illman/Getty Images)

Striking the balance of the sport and the business is no easy thing. Sainz wanted to keep the details to himself on how to ease the demand on drivers, but said he felt F1 does “a lot for the sport and they need to put on a show to make the sport better.” And at the end of the day, being part of the spectacle is part of the gig as it stands today.

“I do this job because I want to come and drive and race cars and things like that,” Norris said. “I’ve never been the biggest fan of it, doing these types of big events and shows and things like that. But I guess (it’s) part of the job, and it’s a business.

“That’s how it has to run (at) the end of the day.”

Verstappen recognized the commercial factors when asked if he’d spoken to F1 about his concerns over the Las Vegas race. After all, having its world champion and one of its most visible stars airing concerns doesn’t aid the image of the new event – and the sport as a whole.

“I don’t know, I guess they still make money if I like it or not,” Verstappen said. “So it’s not up to me.”

More from The Athletic’s Las Vegas Grand Prix coverage:

(Lead photo of Max Verstappen: ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)

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