The farcical tale of F1's ill-fated first Las Vegas gamble

JONATHAN McEVOY: We came to Sin City ready to win big… but we were racing in the hotel car park! As F1 returns to Las Vegas after 41 years, this is the farcical tale of its ill-fated first gamble

  • Formula One makes its highly anticipated return to Las Vegas next weekend
  • The Entertainment Capital of the World hosted two races back in 1981 and 1982
  • They were held at Caesars Palace in the car park failed to make an impression 

It is countdown to Saturday’s Las Vegas Grand Prix, not only the first, but the swankiest, most garish, most Super Bowl-like extravagance Formula One has ever staged.

The first? Well, that bit is arguable because the Entertainment Capital of the World — self-proclaimed in the bell-ringing, kaching-ing world of slot machines, roulette wheels and blackjack tables — hosted two races back in 1981 and 1982.

They were held at Caesars Palace. In the hotel’s car park, in fact, and they failed to make the impression Bernie Ecclestone had hoped for.

The retreat which followed proved the truth that America has often been a hard nut for European-centric F1 to crack. The nadir came in 2005 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where only six cars started the farcical race over tyre safety concerns. F1 was booed out of town.

Now, under the American ownership of Liberty Media, the States is the No 1 target. Vegas’s introduction means there are three races a year that side of the Pond — Miami, in its second season, and Austin, added in 2012 and one of 10 venues to have staged the US Grand Prix since 1908. And if Miami bubbles with celebs on the most Americanised and glitziest of grids, Las Vegas promises to ratchet the razzmatazz off the dial.

Formula One returns to Las Vegas next weekend for the first time since 1982 

A 3.8-mile track stretches along the Strip at the heart of a backdrop that, when illuminated for a chilly 10pm local time start (6am, Sunday GMT), is certain to look stunning on TV.

And so important is the project to Formula One’s owners that they have broken with custom to largely fund and organise it themselves, rather than charge a local promoter to do so. An estimated half-a-billion dollars has been invested in the event.

John Watson, who drove in both Caesars Palace races, missing out on the world championship to Keke Rosberg in the 1982 edition, takes us back to his arrival in Sin City, saying: ‘I’d never been anywhere like it. It was a giant entertainment organ for grown-ups. A no-children place.

‘I remember they put most of the drivers, certainly those from significant teams, in a separate wing in Caesars Palace that was reserved for the high-rollers. The rooms, with mirrors everywhere, were bigger than the average semi-detached house in the UK and for your gratification and pleasure, whatever your fancy was.

Alan Jones celebrates his win in Vegas in 1981, flanked by Alain Prost (left) and Bruno Giacomelli bob thomas

‘It was the early Eighties and Britain was beginning to get attuned to the good life, but this was on a different level.’

Las Vegas was hoping that Formula One would bring in high-stakes, big-money gamblers, but as Watson recalls that ambition went unfulfilled. ‘The crowd was slightly down in the second year and a line was drawn under it,’ the five-time grand-prix winner, now 77, told Mail Sport.

‘People there wanted to make money, not spend it. That was clear the moment you got through the foyer at Caesars from the row upon row of slot machines right there.

‘There are no clocks up on the wall and it is as though you are locked in a place where time and space are suspended.’

Britain’s John Watson (above) pushing for an elusive world title in his McLaren in 1982

Watson did so on a two-mile track he described as being ‘like three paperclips side by side’

It is still thus across the hotel-casinos through which the new race will snake. I ask if anyone among the drivers then was a big gambler. Watson, racing for McLaren alongside Niki Lauda by 1982, thinks not, though remembers that the French may have been keenest; Lauda not so. ‘Like the casino bosses, Niki was interested in getting money, not wasting it,’ said his old pal.

‘The person who’d have been the biggest gambler would have been Bernie. He used to go to a lot of London casinos. Whether he got involved in Las Vegas at the blackjack tables, I don’t know.’

Of the tiny track in the car park, Watson said: ‘If you put three paper clips side-by-side that was the layout. The facilities weren’t great for the teams, but that wasn’t the reason it fell by the wayside — it was fundamentally because the big spenders didn’t show up.’

Formula One bosses now hope to stage their shinier Las Vegas reincarnation for a decade — maybe more, on the basis that if it works, why stop?

At least they blow in on the back of Netflix’s Drive to Survive series that has opened up the sport to new audiences in the United States, younger and more diverse ones.

Sell-out crowds of 100,000 are anticipated daily, ranging from three-day General Admission for $500 (£410), tickets that include ‘free’ Wolfgang Puck food and soft drinks. The top ticket in town is for the Wynn Grid Club at $150,000 (£122,000) for four nights and lavish hospitality.

Watson sounds a warning. ‘Those races in 1981 and 1982 had the advantage of being title deciders,’ says the Northern Irishman. ‘This one doesn’t. It was decided three or four races ago, so it means the event does not quite have the same spotlight on it.

‘They love blood, sweat and tears in America — certainly tears and joy — and if I were Formula One I’d have an unwritten guarantee that the world championship is decided in Las Vegas.

‘What would enhance the race is if there was an American team called Andretti and a significant American driver. That would give the press something to work with. As it is, there are three star names on the grid. Max Verstappen, Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton — the three world champions.

‘But by far the best known in the world and certainly in North America is Lewis. He knows how to get the crowd going. If I were in charge of Formula One, I’d do everything within my power to make sure that, by hook or by crook, he wins in Las Vegas. If he doesn’t, someone’s not doing their job.’

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