F1 tries to recover from embarrassing first day of Las Vegas Grand Prix

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NBC Sports Bay Area

Formula One is hoping to turn its luck around on the Strip, like so many other Las Vegas visitors who blow a big bankroll on arrival.

The elite global motorsports series placed a $500 million gamble on a new event in Sin City promoted for the first time by F1 and owner Liberty Media. But it now must recover after an opening-night debacle in which the first practice was ruined just nine minutes in when Carlos Sainz Jr. ran over a water valve cover on the temporary street course.

“Judge us by what happens when the checkered flag falls on Saturday,” asked Williams team principal James Vowles.

When Sainz bottomed out on the drainage valve minutes into Thursday night’s first practice, it caused extensive damage to the underbody of his Ferrari and Sainz said the piece broke through far enough to damage his seat. F1 then closed the course to inspect the entire 3.85-mile (6.2 kilometer) circuit that utilizes a long portion of the Strip.

Nine minutes.

Those who spent who-knows-how-much got exactly nine minutes of practice Thursday night.

By the time the next practice started, 2 1/2 hours late at 2:30 a.m., those in attendance had been ordered to leave fan viewing areas. F1 ran a 90-minute session until 4 a.m.. when preparations had to begin to re-open the streets to morning commuter traffic.

F1 President Stefano Domenicali and Renee Wilm, CEO of the Las Vegas Grand Prix, issued a a joint statement Friday night to explain the debacle because “this is important for those who are new to racing to understand.”

The statement did not offer an apology for Thursday night. A second statement from the LVGP offered a $200 credit to Thursday-only ticket holders — most sales have been three-day packages — to be spent at the official merchandise store. The gestures only further angered fans already feeling ripped off.

The statement from Domenicali and Wilm said organizers had to close to spectators out of concern for safety workers and security officials who still had to work the rest of the event. They also said F1 was up against federal law regarding the amount of time transport workers taking spectators back to hotels “can legally and safely drive buses.” They added that hospitality staff needed to begin preparing for the next two days of activities.

“We know this was disappointing. We hope our fans will understand based on this explanation that we had to balance many interests, including the safety and security of all participants and the fan experience over the whole race weekend,” the statement said. “We have all been to events, like concerts, games and even other Formula 1 races, that have been canceled because of factors like weather or technical issues. It happens, and we hope people will understand.”

“We know this is going to be a great event,” they said. “With that let’s get back to racing.”

And without an apology or offer of a refund, F1 went racing as if nothing had happened. George Russell of Mercedes was fastest in Saturday night’s final practice before qualifying and was followed by Oscar Piastri of McLaren.

Fellow rookie and American driver Logan Sargeant was third and followed by Max Verstappen, who is seeking his 18th win of the season Saturday.

Way back in 17th was Sainz, who is trying to salvage his weekend after the opening night disaster.

His team initially said his car was so damaged Sainz could not participate in second practice. But Ferrari used the lengthy delay to prepare him a new car, and he made it onto track to go second-fastest behind teammate Charles Leclerc.

That heroic effort by Ferrari will be punished with a 10-place penalty for Sainz on Saturday night’s starting grid. That’s right: Sainz was punished for running over something on the FIA-approved course.

Why? Because governing body FIA has no provision to the rules to not penalize a team that makes extensive car changes during a race weekend.

Such a laughable start to an extremely hyped race that had started to sour even before F1 arrived.

Locals have been furious over disruptions during the months-long building of the course, tickets have been outrageously expensive and also available at reduced prices on a secondary market, hotels have outpriced average American fans, and the scheduled on-track times have been specifically targeted to the European audience.

Three-time reigning world champion Verstappen has blasted the event as “99% show, 1% sporting event” and thinks the entire spectacle is totally over the top. The race is the third stop this year in the United States, more than any other country, as F1 and Liberty tried to capitalize on the series’ new popularity driven by the Netflix “Drive to Survive” documentary series.

Las Vegas is the most expensive race to attend on the 22-event schedule.

For those efforts, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff was among the team principals who applauded F1 and Liberty despite the valve cover debacle Thursday night. And so was Fred Vasseur, the head of Ferrari who was irate over the incident, defended F1.

“We know that it’s a sporting event, we know that this can happen,” he said. “Now we have to recover on the weekend. I’m still convinced that the event is mega for the F1.”

Wolff was most passionate in his defense of the event and effort by F1 and Liberty. He was incensed with a reporter who challenged him on his insistence that people would be so enamored by the event that they’d quickly move past the Sainz incident.

“It’s completely ridiculous, completely ridiculous! FP1, how can you even dare trying to talk bad about an event that sets the new standards, new standards to everything,” Wolff said. “And then you’re speaking about a (expletive) drain cover that’s been undone, that has happened before. That’s nothing.

“Give credit to the people that have set up this grand prix, that have made the sport much bigger than it ever was. Liberty has done an awesome job. And just because in FP1 a drain cover has become undone, we shouldn’t be moaning … talking here about a black eye for the sport on a Thursday evening. Nobody watches that in European time anyway.”

If they aren’t watching in Europe, than why was the event held late Thursday night? Certainly not for the American audience — at least not those in attendance who were forced out of the viewing areas. Those who shelled out a fortune to come to Las Vegas this weekend had to crowd into the few uncovered sections of fencing along the Strip to catch glimpses of the cars whizzing by before sunrise.

By Friday nights, banners had been erected to block some of the previously unexposed openings.

F1 is trying for a better on-track show and one should hope it can only get better. It’s unclear if at this point it would even matter.

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