After many months of hype, Formula One's inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix weekend opened in embarrassing fashion Thursday night as a drain cover that was left loose along the Las Vegas strip damaged the underside of Carlos Sainz's Ferrari, cancelling the first practice and causing an extensive delay that ended with fans not being permitted to watch another practice session in the early hours of Friday morning.
Moments into opening practice, Sainz was traveling down the high-speed Las Vegas strip section of the course when he ran over a drain cover that had its concrete frame fail, badly bottoming out the underside of his car and sending a massive shower of sparks from behind his Ferrari. After a red flag period following Sainz's car coming to a halt, F1 elected to cancel the remainder of the session in order to fully inspect the course.
According to the Associated Press, FIA regulations require that all tracks pass inspection at least one day before on-track activity, but the Las Vegas course had only passed inspection Thursday morning after last-minute finishes and the track not being closed to traffic until late Wednesday night. However, multiple drainage covers ended up having to be sealed, causing the start of the second planned practice session to be pushed to 2:30 a.m.
Once practice did start, it came without any race fans in attendance. Race officials ordered race fans to leave approximately an hour before practice started "given the lateness of the hour and logistical concerns regarding the safe movement of fans and employees out of the circuit." A statement did not offer race fans an apology, nor was any mention made of refunds for fans, many of whom paid exorbitant prices to be in attendance.
Adding to the bad optics for F1 was that race officials issued a 10-place penalty on the grid to Sainz because his team made repairs to his car between the first and second practice. Ferrari team boss Fred Vasseur was incensed following opening practice, calling what happened "unacceptable."
"We f---ed up the session for Carlos. ... We have to change the chassis out of the car, to set up the car, OK?," Vasseur said. "The show is the show and everything is going well but I think it's just unacceptable for F1 today. You would be upset in my situation."
While second practice wound up going smoothly, with Charles Leclerc and Sainz posting the first and second fastest times in a Ferrari 1-2, the cancellation of opening practice added to what has been growing discontent surrounding the Las Vegas Grand Prix. Much of the anticipation for F1's third race in the United States this season has centered around the opulence and spectacle of the Grand Prix weekend, with much more critical factors seemingly being overlooked. For instance, a late night start time will result in the race being run in 40-degree temperatures, allegedly because F1 officials did not realize it gets cold in Las Vegas in mid-November.
Criticism of the Grand Prix as style over substance was fueled by 2023 world champion Max Verstappen, who has expressed dismay at how little focus is being placed on the actual penultimate race of the F1 season. Following a lavish opening ceremony that featured multiple music acts by artists like Kylie Minogue and John Legend, Verstappen lamented how the weekend was "99% show and 1% sporting event" and that he felt like a "clown" up on stage, admitting he was not looking forward to the festivities in Las Vegas.
"I just like to always focus on the performance side of things. I don't like all the things around it, anyway. I know, of course, in some places they are part of it, but let's say it's not in my interest," Verstappen said. "I'm looking forward to try to do the best I can, but I'm not looking forward to [the show]."