This weekend, Las Vegas returns to the calendar after an absence of forty years. On Sunday, the drivers will race past all the hotspots in the gambling capital fifty times to determine who will walk away with the full prize. F1Maximaal looks ahead to the spectacle in an exclusive interview with the last American world champion, Mario Andretti.
The last time Las Vegas was on the calendar was in 1982, the only other year that Formula 1 visited the United States three times. At the time, a Mickey Mouse track in a Las Vegas parking lot provided the backdrop for the season finale. Michele Alboreto then took his first victory in a bizarre season, with Keke Rosberg being crowned world champion with just one victory.
Much attention was also paid to the 1978 world champion, Mario Andretti, who ended his career here. However, the American legend was not granted a nice farewell, because, just like a year earlier, Andretti soon retired with suspension problems. Like Andretti, the Caesars Palace Grand Prix did not return, and to this day the two Nevada races are looked back on with derision.
Weekend full of unknowns
Now Formula 1 is back, and they want to do things better. The premier class of motorsport is no longer tucked away in a corner, but can drive straight through the center on The Strip. This is only possible through the efforts of Liberty Media in combination with the rising popularity in the US. ‘It is awesome. The popularity is now unprecedented, and that is wonderful,” says Andretti with a laugh in conversation with F1Maximaal. “It will be interesting to see Las Vegas again. I think it will be spectacular.’
At 83 years old, Andretti still loves racing and is looking forward to the event with great anticipation. ‘It’s always interesting to see a race on a circuit where no one has had the chance to test yet. It’s new for everyone, and we’ll see who approaches it best. There is no data at all, except for perhaps some simple simulations. So there are a lot of unknowns, and that’s where teams that really work together as a unit will emerge. For fans, like me, there is a lot to look forward to, especially on the technical side of seeing how the drivers absorb the details of the circuit.’
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Formula 1 is now tackling it well
As far as the American is concerned, the race in Las Vegas is now here to stay. “This shows the dedication that the city has to this event,” Andretti said of the fact that the race will take place through the center of the touristy part of the city. ‘I understand that it is a long-term contract. They also built the paddock, with permanent suites. The real estate cost a lot of money, right in the center of Las Vegas. Instead of a hotel in the shape of a skyscraper, there are now suites and a Formula 1 paddock, waiting all year round for that one weekend when the race is held, so it is a huge commercial and financial investment, and that is something good.’
Andretti is therefore pleased that Formula 1 now appears to be taking the American market seriously. ‘This is in stark contrast to 1981 and 1982, when the Grand Prix still took place in a parking lot behind Caesars Palace. Back then you knew it wouldn’t have a long life, but it looks like it will now, and that’s the big difference. It has the chance to become one of the biggest sporting events (in the US, ed.). They put so much work into it, so that’s the goal.”
Residents of Las Vegas suffer from many works
According to Andretti, the circuit will not be as bumpy as in Singapore, Baku, or Monaco. “I don’t think it will be bumpy, because it has all been resurfaced,” says the 83-year-old. ‘I think the circuit will be very smooth, surprisingly smooth even considering the new asphalt layer. The local fans do complain about it being disturbed incorrectly and so on, but you can’t avoid that. “It took serious preparation,” says Andretti, who was in Las Vegas for half a week at the beginning of November.
“I don’t think it can be compared to other street circuits,” Andretti responds to the question whether the straight is perhaps somewhat reminiscent of Baku. ‘You always have to deal with the environment that you have to take into account, so it is different everywhere. I don’t think this circuit can be compared to any circuit. They just have to get started and then look at the data, but at the beginning of the weekend it will really be a bit of a gamble.”
Compromise in adjustment required
“The circuit is very fast,” says the former driver about the Las Vegas Strip Circuit, where an average speed of 237 kilometers per hour is expected. ‘You also have to deal with DRS in Formula 1, so you can release a lot of downforce on the straights. Ultimately it is up to the engineers to evaluate things and try to find a good solution. It always becomes a compromise in terms of adjustment. You want to be very fast on the straights, but you also have to know how to get through the corners.’
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The circuit is characterized by a straight section of 1.9 kilometers, but also has slower sections. “What I can say about Las Vegas is that there are a number of long sweeping corners, and of course you need some downforce to be fast there,” the world champion explains. ‘It is the job of the engineers to find the best possible solution, and to get as close as possible to the optimal setting, or to find the sweet spot, as I always call it.’
Shivering in the desert
Winter is slowly starting in Las Vegas, and the race is also held at night. ‘I think this will play a very big role here, dealing well with the temperatures. The temperature can drop very quickly here, and the race only starts at ten o’clock in the evening local time. So this could be a crucial point, and it could also affect the date of the race in the future. This is something they have to find a solution for.’ In 2024, Las Vegas is even a little later on the schedule.
However, Andretti does not think that safety will be compromised. ‘I don’t expect it, but the drivers will have to adapt. It’s all about who adapts best to the situation and ensures that the tires get the right temperature, etc. Low temperatures are always better for performance, because then you get less tire degradation. The heat is the biggest enemy of tire degradation, but the conditions will be the same for everyone, so it’s all about who deals with it best, as always.”
Does Red Bull risk a repeat of Singapore?
According to Andretti, all the unknowns mean surprises could be in the works. “You saw what happened in Singapore,” the American points to the other night race on a street circuit, where Red Bull had a rare weak weekend, and Carlos Sainz and Ferrari walked away with the full spoils. Red Bull discovered on Friday that the adjustment was not correct, and was not resolved in time. ‘This changed the situation enormously for a number of teams. If you are far from the ideal setting going into the weekend and you don’t have everything in order, then you don’t have the luxury to make much adjustments.’
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And so Friday is crucial. ‘So it is important that you have a reasonably good set-up from the start. That could easily cause a surprise here. As mentioned, in Singapore we saw a very big surprise, and this could result in more of the same. I think this will be an interesting factor over the weekend. There will certainly be some surprises, because everything is so new for everyone,” the American concludes.
By: Mark Hanselman