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The British Grand Prix is as classic as races come in Formula One. The iconic Silverstone track hosted the first world championship race in 1950, and has held a significant place in the series’ rich history ever since.
But through a weekend that saw the F1 paddock double as a Hollywood movie set and the Brits do the home crowd proud on the track, F1’s newest race — the Las Vegas Grand Prix — also made its presence known.
Las Vegas branding was obvious to fans watching both at the track and on television at home. Purple billboards carrying the logo for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority sat across the start-finish line, taking prime real estate alongside some of F1’s biggest sponsors. A glittery Las Vegas baseball jacket was even visible in the back of the TV shots during the grid walk.
The presence Silverstone was more than a marketing exercise for the Las Vegas Grand Prix, set for mid-November. Throughout the weekend, the founding partners from the city’s major casinos — key figures involved in making the race happen — were in attendance, learning all they could ahead of November’s event.
“Going and seeing how everyone else does it is a big eye-opener,” said Brian Gullbrants, chief operating officer for Wynn Resorts in North America. “You learn what to do, what not to do. You take copious notes and go, ‘OK, how can we make that better?’ I think we’re doing that here.”
Launching a new grand prix from scratch is always a big challenge. Making it a success, particularly in year one, is never guaranteed. It is why scouting out other F1 events is an important part of the learning curve for the Las Vegas organizers, picking up what they can ahead of what is set to be the most anticipated race of the 2023 season while forging its own identity.
To be the best, Vegas wants to learn from the best.
Learning from the best
Throughout its history, F1 has established a reputation for pairing on-track action with off-track glamor. Races such as Monaco and Singapore have become big draws for A-list celebrities. They’re the place to be seen. Vegas will be no different.
But F1 has worked hard to refine and enhance the wider fan experience, particularly through the “Drive to Survive”, boom when races are regularly sell-out events. Most grands prix now emphasize the extras, ranging from concerts to the food and beverage offerings, to provide the best fan experience.
This was a big thing the founding partners of the Las Vegas race sought to learn from their event visits since the grand prix was announced in early 2022: How do you make what works for F1 events around the world fit with the Vegas way of doing things?
“When you work with the Las Vegas Grand Prix team, you quickly learn they are obsessive about the fan experience, and making sure the Vegas fan experience is unlike any race in the world,” said Sean McBurney, the regional vice-president at Caesars Entertainment.
“The way you do that is by really integrating all the activities that organically happen as part of F1 along with the amenities that we have in Las Vegas.”
The British GP and Las Vegas are at polar opposite ends of the spectrum of F1 races for reasons besides age. Around 90 minutes outside London, Silverstone sits in the middle of the English countryside. Many of this year’s record-setting 480,000 fans camped in the fields surrounding the track, creating a festival atmosphere F1’s city-based races simply cannot offer.
But attending major races, each with their distinct elements and atmosphere, has helped the Vegas race officials see first-hand the infrastructure and organizational demands involved in hosting a grand prix, particularly dealing with the kind of numbers seen at Silverstone. Around 100,000 are expected to attend race day in Las Vegas.
Steve Hill, the CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, said it had been a “massive undertaking” in Las Vegas to prepare for the race. “We’re building a four-way bridge over the circuit right now, on one of our main highways, in order to make sure we have access to hotels, because they’re inside the circuit,” he said.
“What we’re having to take on to make this work is just a pretty spectacular undertaking for everybody involved. We’ll learn a lot, but we know this is going to be fantastic.
“We’ll do it forever, and it’s going to get better every year.”
What to expect from year one
“Forever” is a long time, yet both sides have committed to a lasting collaboration. The Clark County Commission has already approved the annual closure of Las Vegas Boulevard for the next 10 years, saying in February it expected a “lifetime in partnership”. F1 itself has invested over half a billion dollars in the project, including the construction of a permanent paddock building that will become part of the Vegas skyline.
But year one is still “a year of building”, according to Steve Zanella, the chief commercial officer at MGM Resorts. “We had to go through and build the track (with) a lot of construction and interruption for people,” he said. “Going into next year, we’ll be able to just focus on the guest experience and how to better move people around the city, and just to improve it overall.”
One thing Las Vegas cannot ensure fans who attend the race is a pivotal moment in the championship. By the time F1 rolls into town for the penultimate race of the season, the title race is likely to be long settled, particularly at the current rate of Max Verstappen victories.
The Vegas organizers are not concerned about the one-sided championship impacting fan interest in the race. “It’s not just about the championship,” said Zanella. “It’s about the competition in every single race. Combining that competition with a world-class destination like Las Vegas, and it being the first ever, I think people want to be there for the inaugural event.”
One recurring question from fans is the cost of attending the race in Las Vegas. While general admission tickets start at $500, a seat on the main grandstand costs $2,500.
The founding partners feel there are different levels of all fans who want to attend, meaning the interest has remained strong. “It is expensive, but the demand is greater than we’ve seen for any event ever,” said Gullbrants. “It’s really about a little bit for everybody at different levels.”
Las Vegas is no stranger to major sporting events. But what it believes sets F1 apart from the other games and exhibitions it has hosted is the global appeal.
“From the peripheral marketing opportunity that this is for Las Vegas, this thing can’t be repeated,” said Hill, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority CEO.
“We don’t have a venue that seats the number of people who will be at this grand prix. We don’t have the money to market across the globe and have the eyes of the world on Las Vegas.” Hill said the race would be “the biggest event in the world in 2023.”
Gullbrants said he thought F1 would “help put all of Vegas on a global stage” with a greater reach than any one-off sporting events that may come to the city: “Whether it’s a football game, a soccer game, or anything else, nothing has the reach F1 does.”
Even with a 10 p.m. local start time that will make the race an early-wake up event for those in Europe, and one those on the east coast will stay up late into the night to watch, Las Vegas wants the first race on the Strip to be a memorable event — especially for those on the ground.
“We have very high measures to measure up to: Monaco, Singapore, there’s some phenomenal races out there,” said Gullbrants.
“I have no doubt that myself, my colleagues, Steve, and the entire city of Las Vegas will come and step up, and make sure we have the finest experience for everyone, all concerned.”
Matching up to F1’s established, successful events in year one will be a big challenge for Las Vegas. The commitment from the casinos and, significantly, F1 itself in making this work is evident. But the proof will only come in November when the cars light up the Strip for the first time.
(Photo of Steve Hill, Sean McBurney, Stefano Domenicali, Steve Zanella and Brian Gullbrants: Dan Istitene – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images)