The Biggest Threat to F1’s $500M Vegas Grand Prix Is…a Loose Drain Cover?

Our correspondent on the Strip details the (potentially overblown) fallout from the practice incident, which damaged three cars, most significantly that of Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz

Ferrari's Carlos Sainz leaves his car on the track in Las Vegas after a loose drain cover damaged his car during the first practice session at the F1 Las Vegas Grand Prix
The car of Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz is removed from the circuit after being damaged by a loose drain cover during the first practice session ahead of the F1 Las Vegas Grand Prix.
Chris Graythen/Getty

Like a cliche terrible night in Vegas, Formula 1 will be looking to forget the events of Thursday evening. Roughly nine minutes into the first practice session for the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix, Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz appeared to run over something on the track, resulting in a shower of Fourth of July-worthy sparks. Fans, keen to see some fireworks, had no idea this moment would be the most exciting they’d bear witness to that night.

I arrived at the practice session not long after Sainz’s accident to find swaths of fans leisurely walking away from the track. I instinctively opened social media to see what had occurred, and saw the announcement F1 had canceled the first free practice — with no intention of resuming it. The issue, as it was later revealed, was the failure of a “single water valve cover” on the street track, which resulted in the FIA (the sport’s governing body), F1 and local engineering teams for the Las Vegas race reviewing the track to ensure no further issues.

As I entered the racing paddock area, the previously bustling grounds were akin to a flat-lined patient. A few patrons played table games inside the paddock’s stakes-free gambling area. Outside the Haas office, team principal Guenther Steiner held court with various personalities. Team mechanics blew vape smoke into the air while drills whirled from the various team garages. F1 had decided to run back a recording of Wednesday evening’s opening ceremony to entertain the fans who were still milling about — by the time I strolled around the paddock, Keith Urban was finishing up his set on the recording before Andra Day took over to sing a cover of “Come Together.” 

Loose manhole covers, it should be said, are not a problem unique to Vegas in the world of F1. George Russell clipped one at Azerbaijan in 2019; Jenson Button hit one at Monaco in 2016; and Juan Pablo Montoya in Shanghai in 2005. The difference between all of those and Vegas is that the previous incidents didn’t occur in the first practice session of the course’s first year after a significant investment by all parties involved that has fundamentally uprooted the daily lives of Vegas residents. 

That spectator experience (or lack of it) became the source of a rather heated exchange during a regularly scheduled team principal press conference. The media room was about half-full as information trickled out that two other cars — the Alpine of Esteban Ocon and the Alfa of Zhou Guanyu — also sustained damage related to the drain cover. But none had damage as significant as Sainz, prompting some hot remarks from Ferrari boss Frédéric Vasseur, who immediately declared the situation “unacceptable.” 

“We damaged completely the monocoque, the engine, the battery,” Vasseur said. “It cost us a fortune.” 

What the Hell Is Going on at the Las Vegas Grand Prix?
Formula 1’s extravagant return to the Strip is getting battered by lackluster ticket sales, outrage from locals and even criticism from its best driver

However, the most passionate comments came from Mercedes boss Toto Wolff, who strongly disagreed when asked if the incident was a “black eye” for F1 and doubled down when pushed about it

“This is nothing. [This is] Thursday night, we have a free practice session 1 we are not doing, they are going to seal the drain covers and no one is going to talk about it tomorrow morning anymore,” Wolff stated. “It is completely ridiculous…. How can you even dare try to talk bad about an event that sets the new standards to everything? And then you are speaking about a fucking drain cover that’s been undone…. Nobody watches [FP1] in European time anyway.”

While Europeans might not be watching FP1, there was a sizable American crowd on the ground in Vegas who were excited to be there. While I was at an event at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway earlier in the evening, a group of attendees pooled together to grab an Uber instead of taking a shuttle bus back to ensure they arrived on time to watch the practice so as not to miss a moment. Those same viewers were eventually asked to leave the grandstands entirely as the second practice session moved from midnight to 2 a.m., and then back again to 2:30 a.m. Police officers and security guards were documented moving the crowds out of the grandstands before turning off the lights. 

A source told The Athletic the crowd was cleared due to “all the unknowns” and to help the staff who wouldn’t have finished until 5 a.m. Once the second 90-minute practice session did finally kick off, the event went off without a hitch — well, besides the 10-place grid penalty Sainz received for having to take a new power unit after the Ferrari mechanics performed Herculean labor to get the car ready the practice again.

Not long before the press conference started, the opening ceremony broadcast played back a lip-synced version of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” As I heard the cars zip around the track from my hotel room at 3 a.m., I had renewed hope the race could bounce back and become the event of the year it was promised to be a year ago when I attended the preview event. Despite the chaos, drivers are seemingly excited, with George Russell of Mercedes saying the track is “a very fast circuit, the highest speed of the year” before declaring that “racing at night is pretty spectacular.” 

Vegas still has two nights to deliver on its promise, a point articulated by Williams boss James Vowles, who stated, “Judge us by what happens when the checkered flag falls.” But until that happens, there’s no denying that there’s one hell of a hangover lingering over the city.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.