We came to Sin City ready to win big…but we were racing in the hotel parking lot! As Formula 1 returns to Las Vegas after 41 years, this is the comic story of its first ill-fated gamble

We came to Sin City ready to win big…but we were racing in the hotel parking lot!  As Formula 1 returns to Las Vegas after 41 years, this is the comic story of its first ill-fated gamble

By Jonathan McEvoy for the Daily Mail

22:36 12 November 2023, updated 22:57 12 November 2023

  • Formula 1 returns to Las Vegas next weekend
  • The Entertainment Capital of the World hosted two races in 1981 and 1982
  • They were held at Caesars Palace in the parking lot and made no impression



It’s the countdown to Saturday’s Las Vegas Grand Prix, and it’s not only the first, but the most extravagant, lavish and most extravagant Formula 1 championship ever.

the first? Well, that’s debatable because the entertainment capital of the world – the self-proclaimed world of bell ringers and the world of slot machines, roulette wheels and blackjack tables – hosted two races in 1981 and 1982.

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

The ensuing decline demonstrated the fact that America was often a tough nut for European-based Formula 1 to crack. The nadir came in 2005 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where only six cars started the farcical race due to tire safety concerns. F1 was booed out of town.

Now, under US ownership of Liberty Media, the US is the top target. The introduction of Vegas means there are three races a year on this side of the Bond – Miami, in its second season, and Austin, which was added in 2012 and one of 10 venues that have staged the US Grand Prix since 1908. If Miami is teeming with celebrities, Las Vegas is , the most glamorous American network, by raising the standard of packets over dial-up.

The Formula 1 championship returns to Las Vegas next weekend for the first time since 1982

A 3.8-mile track runs along the strip at the heart of the backdrop, which is sure to look stunning on TV when lit up at the chilly 10pm local time start (6am, Sunday GMT).

The project is so important to Formula 1 owners that they broke with tradition to largely finance and organize it themselves, rather than commissioning a local promoter to do it. An estimated half a billion dollars was invested in the event.

John Watson, who drove in both Caesars Palace races, losing the world championship to Keke Rosberg in 1982, takes us back to his arrival in Sin City, saying: “I’ve never been anywhere like this.” It was a giant entertainment device for adults. A place free of children.

“I remember they put most of the drivers, certainly those from important teams, in a separate wing at Caesars Palace that was reserved for the big players. The rooms, with mirrors everywhere, were larger than the average semi-detached house in the UK, for your satisfaction and pleasure.” Whatever your imagination.

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

“It was the early 1980s and Britain was beginning to tune in to the good life, but this was on a different level.”

Las Vegas hoped Formula 1 would bring in high-stakes gamblers and big money, but as Watson recalls, that ambition never materialized. The five-time Grand Prix winner, 77, told Mail Sport: “The audience was a little down in year two and a line was drawn under it.”

“People there wanted to make money, not spend it. That was clear the moment I walked through the lobby at Caesars from row after row of slot machines there.

“There are no clocks on the wall, and it is as if you are trapped in a place where time and space are suspended.”

Briton John Watson (above) bids for the elusive world title in his McLaren in 1982
Watson did this on a two-mile track, which he described as “like three paperclips side by side.”

It is still the case through the hotel casinos that the new race will infiltrate. I ask if anyone among the drivers was a big gambler. Watson, who was racing for McLaren alongside Niki Lauda by 1982, doesn’t think so, although he recalls the French being perhaps the keenest; Lauda is not. “Like casino bosses, Nicky was interested in making money, not wasting it,” his old friend said.

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

Of the small track in the car park, Watson said: “If you put three paper clips side by side, that’s the design. The facilities weren’t great for the teams, but that’s not why it fell by the wayside, it was mainly because the seniors weren’t there.” The spenders.

Formula 1 bosses are now hoping to stage a more glamorous version of Las Vegas for a decade – and perhaps more, on the grounds that if it works, why stop?

At least, they’re breaking out on the back of Netflix’s Drive to Survive series, which has opened up the sport to new audiences in the US, younger and more diverse.

The sell-out crowds are expected to reach 100,000 people a day, starting with three-day general admission for $500 (£410), with tickets including Wolfgang Puck food and “free” soft drinks. The highest ticket in town is for the Wynn Grid Club at $150,000 (£122,000) for four nights and hospitality.

Watson issues a warning. “Those races in 1981 and 1982 had the advantage of being decisive in deciding the title,” says the Northern Irishman. “this, no.” It is scheduled three or four races before, meaning the event does not receive as much attention.

“They love the blood, sweat and tears in America – and certainly the tears and joy – and if you were Formula 1 you would have an unwritten guarantee that the world championship would be decided in Las Vegas.”

“What would enhance the race is if there was an American team called Andretti and an important 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 most famous in the world and certainly in North America is Louis.” He knows how to move the masses. If I were in charge of Formula 1, I would do everything in my power to make sure he wins in Las Vegas, one way or another. If it doesn’t, it means someone isn’t doing their job.

    (tags for translation) Jonathan 

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