OLIVER HOLT: F1 and Las Vegas are entertainment's newest power couple

OLIVER HOLT: Yes, it’s been a rocky start… but F1 and Las Vegas’ synergy has made them entertainment’s newest power couple as Sin City renews its ambition to be the sporting capital of the world

  • F1’s life in Vegas got off to a horror start with the first practice session cancelled 
  • But plot to develop the sport in the desert is based on city’s renewed ambitions 
  • The paddock is divided over the race location – but there’s 10 years to come

If there was ever any doubt that modern Formula One had found its soul mate in the gleaming, golden towers, roulette wheels, Rat Pack tribute acts and ersatz monuments of Las Vegas, the first sight that greets you in the specially-built $240million (£192.8m) grand prix paddock removes the last vestige of uncertainty.

There, in the epicentre of this festival of speed, glamour and glitz, the first thing you see, opposite the back of the Williams garage at the far end of the pit-lane, given pride of place alongside the teams’ hospitality areas, is a wedding chapel complete with slot machines, ornate candelabra chandeliers and a walk down the aisle beneath heart-shaped arches.

The sign on the front of this little chapel proclaims that this is a ‘Race to the Altar’, and inside there is a picture of a Formula One car hurtling down the Strip past Bellagio and Aria, two of its most lavish hotel-casinos. A message has been painted on the rear wing of the car amid four red hearts. It reads, in a swirly, ornate font, ‘Just Married’.

There was actually a wedding there on Thursday, which meant there was more action in the chapel than on the track that day after the fiasco of a first practice session abandoned after eight minutes and a second one that was so severely delayed it did not begin until the early hours of Friday morning.

Anyone who pays $20,000 (£16,000) for a five-day pass to the Paddock Club has a right to tie the knot in the paddock chapel, so you might as well get your money’s worth even if the wedding felt like a scene from the Hangover.

Formula One has arrived in Las Vegas – and like it or not, it’s here to stay for the long haul

On Thursday, the paddock’s chapel played host to its first wedding as 1997 world champion Jacques Villeneuve married Giulia Marra

Sin City and F1 have only just met, yet it feels as if they have known each other their whole lives.

Whatever the world champion Max Verstappen may say about the event being ‘99 per cent show and one per cent sporting event’, there is a synergy between the city and motor racing that has made them entertainment’s newest power couple and placed their relationship at the centre of the city’s renewed ambition to be the sporting capital of the world.

Sure, there has been some cynicism from the locals, exasperated by the endless disruption caused by grand prix-related construction projects. Residents have taken to calling traffic cones the ‘Nevada state flower’ because they have sprouted everywhere during preparations for the race. Because of the outline of the track, it has become known here as ‘the upside-down pig’.

The event is bigger than just a single race, though. It fits into a pattern of the city using sport to build its profile.

In the past, it was the undisputed centre of the boxing world, but there was little in the way of team sport here, aside from a minor league baseball team called the Las Vegas 51s.

That has changed and the pace of change is accelerating.

There is ice hockey in the desert now and the Las Vegas Golden Knights, who play their home games at the T-Mobile Arena opposite the MGM Grand, are the reigning Stanley Cup champions, something that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. Earlier this week, Major League Baseball’s team owners gave their approval for the Oakland A’s to move to Vegas at the end of next season, where they will eventually play in a $1.5billion (£1.2bn), 30,000-capacity ballpark on the site of the Tropicana hotel on the Strip.

The city has undergone a massive overhaul to create the unique street circuit, and Vegas is only looking to continue its sporting rejuvenation

Cars on the track will pass under the watchful beam of the Sphere, the largest spherical structure in the world

The site is not far from the Allegiant Stadium, the home of the Las Vegas Raiders, the NFL team who arrived here in 2020.

Next February, the city will get American sport’s ultimate seal of approval when it hosts the Super Bowl. An NBA team will arrive soon, too, with a stadium planned for the south end of the Strip, beyond the Mandalay Bay hotel.

Now there is the deal for the Las Vegas Grand Prix, which is the equivalent of staging the Super Bowl 10 years in a row and which puts F1 at the heart of the way sport is being used by cities and countries to drive economic growth and leverage regional power and influence.

Walk through the sprawling hotels and casinos in Vegas, establishments so extensive that they feel like small towns with their own high streets, bars, restaurants, shops and blackjack tables, and sport is everywhere. It is on every screen at every turn, even in many high-end restaurants.

Sport is not just the opium of the masses any more, it has become the drug of choice for big business. It has become the narcotic no autocrat can do without.

So it has become the drug of choice for fabulously wealthy states like the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which have identified it as a key new income stream, a means of driving tourism and a way of achieving acceptance and growing prominence in world affairs by camouflaging human rights abuses with its beauty and its popularity.

Vegas suffered because of that. In recent years, it has seen its position as the undisputed fight capital of the world eroded by Saudi Arabia, in particular, which has claimed more and more of the highest profile heavyweight fights.

Just this week, the regime in the kingdom has announced a huge bill featuring Deontay Wilder, Joseph Parker and Anthony Joshua in Riyadh two days before Christmas. In February, Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk will fight there for the undisputed world heavyweight title in what will be the biggest event of them all.

So scoring a deal for an F1 race is Las Vegas’s way of continuing to widen its sporting attractions and drive its local economy.

An article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal last week featured an interview with a local estate agent who talked about apartment prices in the Signature, the three tower blocks overlooking the start-finish line, shooting up in value.

Saudi Arabia is creeping up on Vegas as the go-to destination for big-money sporting contests

But Sin City will focus its sights on turning itself into the Monaco Grand Prix for the Netflix era

It is clear that, in Formula One, Vegas has a partner which wants to turn this race into the Monaco Grand Prix for the Netflix era. 

Whatever the event’s teething problems, it is already clear that F1’s owners, Liberty Media, envisage this as the sport’s new blue riband event, the Monte Carlo for the Drive to Survive generation, a race amid neon and glamour that looks, on television, like a video game. Which, presumably, is Liberty’s ultimate aim.

If the partnership with F1 is a no-brainer for Las Vegas, it is more nuanced for the sport. Verstappen articulated the reservations that many feel about the direction F1 is moving in and the dangers of sacrificing substance for the illusion and celebrity which Vegas epitomises.

Adrian Newey, the genius designer who is the mastermind behind Verstappen’s all-conquering Red Bull car, smiled wryly as we sat outside the team’s hospitality area on Thursday night and I asked him whether he liked coming to Las Vegas.

‘It’s quite plastic, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘It’s like one of those dirty habits, like eating cheeseburgers or something. I guess my reservation is that, as a show collectively, we don’t try to make it too WWE.

‘Formula One, there should be a bit of grit to it. It’s still a dangerous sport. It shouldn’t just be show. In terms of the argument about coming here, I have to admit, I am much more on the Max end of it.’

But if some have reservations, others are proselytizers for the race and for Liberty’s direction of travel. Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team principal and CEO, reacted furiously when Mail Sport’s Jonathan McEvoy suggested that the Thursday night practice fiasco was a ‘black eye’ for F1.

Wolff’s disproportionate rage may have been a product of the fact that, like everyone else getting to grips with the unusual timings of the race weekend, he was tired.

But his reaction was also indicative of the way the sport is divided by its direction of travel and increasingly sensitive to criticism of the Vegas race.

Max Verstappen is one vocal sceptic of the bombastic project and derided its showiness

His chief technical officer at Red Bull Adrian Newey admitted he was of a similar opinion

Vegas is the third American grand prix on the F1 calendar alongside increasingly popular events in Austin and Miami. 

F1 CEO, Stefano Domenicali, has been instrumental in pushing the success of the way the sport has finally cracked America as it retreats from its traditional heartlands in Europe.

If Verstappen spoke up against the colonisation of the event by the forces of showbiz, it was left to the greatest driver of them all, Lewis Hamilton, who is an increasingly impressive ambassador for the sport, to put a cogent and persuasive case for the other side and argue that Vegas represents a way forward.

Hamilton, who is involved in the ongoing production of an upcoming movie set in F1 and starring Brad Pitt, talked about the lure of the city for those who are steeped in American culture and have been brought up on films like Martin Scorsese’s Casino, the Hangover and Ocean’s Eleven.

‘It’s pretty cool,’ he said. ‘I was mentioning the other day that I’ve seen Casino a thousand times. So, it’s amazing to be here.

‘It was something we spoke of, dreaming of having a race here, many years ago. It’s very surreal to be here and it’s exciting. You know, it’s such an incredible place, so many lights. It’s a great energy, a great buzz.

‘The sport continues to grow. It is a business ultimately and I think you’ll still see good racing here. It’s just such a big country. We needed to have at least two races here.

‘This is one of the most iconic cities there is amongst the other amazing cities they have in America. It’s a big show.

‘It’s never going to be like Silverstone, but maybe over time, the people in the community here will grow to love the sport, just as we’ve had the privilege of growing up and experiencing.

‘Maybe the track will be good, maybe it’ll be bad. I think don’t knock it until you try it. I hear there’s a lot of people complaining about the direction that Stefano and Liberty have been going, but I think they’ve been doing an amazing job.

‘This sport is growing massively, it’s going to grow even more once we get this movie out.

Toto Wolff lashed out at suggestions Friday’s practice fiasco was a ‘black eye’ for the event

Lewis Hamilton had a measured viewpoint, one reared on the glamorous pull of the city – but spoke of his desire to race in Africa

‘I’m on to Stefano because I really want to get a race in South Africa or in Africa, so if it’s not South Africa, it will be somewhere else there hopefully, because we’re on all the other continents.

‘Everybody I know in Hollywood is coming to the Vegas race. 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 it is a good spectacle for people to watch, even for those back home who have maybe never been to Vegas, they’ll still get to see what Vegas is about.’

There are more weddings planned for the paddock chapel over the weekend before the race starts at 10pm local time on Saturday night, but Formula One and Las Vegas have already recited their vows.

Their union is under way, for better or for worse.

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