With burning rubber under the neon lights, Formula One gave its fans a taste Saturday of what they can expect from next year’s Las Vegas Grand Prix while the sport’s leaders promised that this time the sport is in Sin City for the long run.
Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton and his Mercedes team-mate George Russell took to "The Strip" in their race cars along with Red Bull’s Sergio Perez, revving their engines and performing donuts to the delight of thousands of fans and Saturday night revelers.
F1 chief executive Stefano Domenicali had talked of the sport making a "statement" return to the city during a ceremonial painting of the start line and Hamilton delivered the words that fit the hyped-up mood.
"This race is going to be for sure, the greatest race of all time," Hamilton told the crowd after his barricade bashing trip up and down The Strip, the casino-lined stretch of street that has become synonymous with Vegas night life.
Whether the night race, scheduled as the penultimate Grand Prix of the 2023 season, lives up to that ambitious billing remains to be seen, but it is clear that the return to Nevada is going to be very different to the two underwhelming races held here in the early 1980s.
Those events were held on land adjacent to the Caesars Palace hotel and were mocked as being a race in a 'parking lot,' adding to the sport's struggle to gain a foothold in the US market.
But F1 has enjoyed a huge growth in interest in the States in the past few years, boosted by the Netflix series 'Drive to Survive' which has brought the sport's leading protagonists to life.
This season F1 successfully added Miami to the circuit along with the established United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, and Vegas will complete a trio of races in the country.
“It is an incredible moment for F1,” Domenicali told AFP.
"Yes, I remember when we were here in a parking lot. This is different. This is serious. This is a great statement of trust and belief that F1 is strong in the US and will be even stronger in the future," he said.
While F1 was for many years seen very much as a European sport, encroaching on the traditional territory of NASCAR and Indy Car racing, Liberty Media, an American company, took control of F1 in 2017.
Tickets went on sale on Saturday night with the lowest price being $500 while local media has reported that hotel prices are already surging for the November weekend of the race.
- Fantastic -
While Saturday’s event gave a small taste of what is to come – using just a small straight section of the 6.12km street course – plenty of work remains to produce an exciting but safe race in an area noted for drinking and partying.
"This will be a fantastic event," said Haas team principal Guenther Steiner. "I still try to figure out how it will all work. I arrived here and walked around and you think about closing it all down on a Saturday night to race cars at more than 200mph."
Renee Wilm, CEO of Las Vegas Grand Prix Inc, said there are plenty of challenges ahead.
"I would say sticking to the build schedule, we are obviously in a difficult environment with inflation and supply chain issues but we have a race to put on and we need to bring it together in time," she told AFP.
Wilm said the paddock area for the race, the focal point of so much activity in F1, will be a permanent build with the potential to be visited by tourists year-round.
The course will pass the new MSG Sphere entertainment venue as well as many of The Strip's famous hotels, including The Venetian, Caesars Palace and Bellagio.
After a champagne toast at the start-line, Domenicali enthused about the sport's prospects in the States.
"Just a couple of years ago people were saying F1 is on a downward slope but I am very happy that is that is not the case," he said.
"I think in the US we are just scratching the surface of what we can do."