Las Vegas GP diary as ex-team principal leaves fans gobsmacked

Las Vegas GP diary as ex-team principal leaves fans gobsmacked

Red Bull sponsors PokerStars have taken Express Sport behind the scenes as Las Vegas promises to put on the biggest show F1 has ever seen. The entire Boulevard strip has been shut down with Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton set to race down the icon stretch on Saturday night.

I start my trip departing from Heathrow Terminal Three on Wednesday afternoon and from the start, it was clear there was an F1 race on the horizon. The McLaren papaya t-shirts and caps caught the eye throughout the airport more than most, but there were plenty of supporters floating around in Mercedes and Red Bull attire too. There was also the odd Ferrari cap, but much less than their rivals.

Supporters onboard the flight were left gobsmacked when former Alpine team principal Otmar Szafnauer took his seat in the economy carriage. You could hear the muttering as the news travelled all the way back. The 59-year-old would usually have been housed in the exclusive business class section but perhaps even he was priced out on this occasion, having been out of work since the Belgian Grand Prix in July.

One Spanish TV executive, who was catching a connective flight from London, told Express Sport how paddock passes he is usually easily able to sell for €7,000-€8,000 (£6,000-£7,000) had been hiked up to €30,000 (£26,200) for the full weekend. Only in the last few days had he been able to shift the final tickets. 

Vegas has spent far more than £500million preparing the city for the sport that struggled to get off the ground in America until recent years. Nevada had twice hosted an F1 race before, but not in the last 40 years. Now, this will be the third race Stateside in 2023, following events in Miami and Austin.

A lot has changed in Vegas over the past 12 months. My taxi driver, who had driven these roads for well over 20 years, could not stress enough how many new bridges had been popping up in anticipation of the congestion. And they were built much quicker than any other construction in the area, too.

A usual 15-minute drive to our hotel takes 25 minutes. A quick dash to get changed and then I attempted to make it to the Red Bull Grand Prix welcoming party, courtesy of PokerStars. This proved to be a more difficult task than I imagined.

Around the corner thousands of fans had turned up to catch the Las Vegas Grand Prix opening ceremony, where F1 drivers were presented to fans and artists such as Kylie Minogue, Journey, Keith Urban, Steve Aoki, Thirty Seconds to Mars, J Balvin and John Legend all performed. The idea was to have a half-time Super Bowl-type show to kick-off the weekend.

This essentially led to the area being gridlocked. I waited 30 minutes for an Uber and the car hadn’t moved an inch. With the driver still 12 minutes away, I decided to tackle the one-mile trip on foot. It was one straight road, it couldn’t be that difficult, right?

How wrong I was. It was incredible to walk so close to the track, literally within touching distance of all the major attractions. But many of the footpaths and bridges were shut so it was tough to navigate a route. Every 100 yards or so there are very helpful security personnel, but many are not from the area and have been drafted in specifically for the race, so could not advise on directions or locations.

I conceded the night and walked the strip in Sin City back to the hotel, chatting to fans who had travelled from Europe, Asia and even the Cook Islands, to see what could be the best show F1 has ever had. They will also see a key change on Red Bull’s car, with Verstappen and Sergio Perez set to have PokerStars poker chip wheel covers – fitting for the home of the game.