What Went Down Behind the Scenes at a Very Dramatic Las Vegas Grand Prix

The first F1 Vegas race in 40 years was a big mix of hot laps and hot mess.

Touching down in Las Vegas on Thursday afternoon ahead of the Formula 1 Race Weekend, the pilot came on the loudspeaker: "If you plan on flying out of the Las Vegas airport this weekend, we've been advised to tell you to give yourself four hours of time before your flight." It was one of the many overestimations for Las Vegas's inaugural Grand Prix.

Rideshare drivers were told to expect the biggest fares of the year, hotels were preparing to sell out, and Harry Reid International Airport was anticipating a flood of visitors unlike it had ever previously seen. But, on the ground none of that really panned out. Instead, you arrived at a Strip mostly inaccessible to guests. You couldn't cross most of it, and the Bellagio fountains and the surrounding area was covered by scaffolding.

Maverick Davile, 53, who is a rideshare driver, told me that he saw bigger crowds in Las Vegas for BravoCon earlier in the month. "It's not nearly as busy as I thought it would be," Davile said, while driving me to the F1 Fan Zone, situated right next to the Sphere.

It made the Jack Daniel’s McLaren ad I saw plastered all over Vegas ring remarkably true: "The biggest weekend in Vegas since last weekend." The fares never surpassed big weekends in Vegas. The hotels never sold out. And when I left Vegas, I only needed about 20 minutes to get through airport security.

From Vegas being home to Formula's second fastest, second longest track, a cabal of celebrities and influencers saturating every corner of the city, an innumerable number of fan events, and a healthy dose of pure chaos, here's what Thrillist saw on the ground during the controversial, highly entertaining, and very pricey Las Vegas Grand Prix.

Everything was more expensive

At 4 pm on Friday, eight hours before the qualifying race is scheduled to take place, the Fan Zone isn't open yet for fans, meaning that getting closer to the Sphere is off limits too. Instead, fans walking over from their hotels on the strip are standing in clusters as workers in yellow vests advise them they can't get closer. The visual effect is like that scene in Toy Story, when the little alien plushies look up at the claw, clustered and frozen in place as they gaze on in wonder. And much like the little plushies, F1 fans are at the mercy of a nebulous entity—not a claw, but the first race in Vegas in 40 years.

Ciprian and Nicoleta Jackson, who traveled to attend the race from Arad, Romania are among the throng of people gathered around the currently-closed entrance to the Fan Zone. The pair has traveled to multiple races, including the infamous Silverstone Circuit in the UK and the Circuit de Monaco in Monte Carlo.

The husband and wife are also huge fans of Las Vegas itself; they got married in Vegas and they travel back three or four times a year; and even as veterans of both the races and the strip, this trip has brought surprises.

"It's a mix of fans and other people. Some people are coming to visit, they don't even know there is a race," Cipriani says. "We were on the plane, and some people said: 'What? We came to see the fountain.' Well, you're not going to see it—because you can't see it. Some people don't know what's happening. Most people do know and they come and they don't care about the sport. But when you go to Monaco for the race, everyone's there because of [Formula 1]."

Another big difference? "It's overpriced compared to other races, even for Vegas it's overpriced. Everything, everything," Cipriani says.

"Even a coffee is more expensive," Nicoleta confirms.

A couple stands wearing Formula 1 shirts in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Ciprian and Nicoleta Jackson, standing outside of the Formula 1 Fan Zone in Las Vegas. | Photo by Opheli Garcia Lawler for Thrillist

That assessment definitely reflects the reality for the Vegas Grand Prix. The race was the most expensive ticket in the circuit, with the cheapest, standing-room-only Fan Zone tickets starting at $500, and grandstand seating starting at $1,000. In the days before the race, ticket prices did plummet as the race failed to sell out—but as an analysis from Forbes concluded, this race was designed for the big spenders, not the casual fans.

Properties including Caesars, the Wynn, and Resorts World offered F1 packages in excess of $880,000, with the Caesars package topping out at a baffling $5 million. Even the tamer packages—which included access to the Paddock and VIP viewing areas of the race—were running between $7,630 and $89,000.

The pricing was so outlandish that, in addition to fans speaking out, some drivers weighed in as well.

"Real fans that really love the sport cannot even afford to get to the races and actually watch the races," Ferrari driver and Vegas second place finisher Charles Leclerc told RaceFans.

Everyone's VIP in Vegas

On Instagram, an endless scroll of celebrity F1 attendees can be seen. Stars like Rihanna and John Boyega were filmed on the track, while others like Lupita Nyong'o and Heidi Klum attended race events as brand ambassadors for Patrón. During the televised grid walk before the race, everyone from Shaquille O’Neal to Rob McElhenney to Kylie Minogue could be spotted.

There was no shortage of flash, even for regular fans in Vegas. Without any special access to races or parties, I still saw plenty of celebrities. At Resorts World, Terry Crews and I shared an elevator. Marvel and Barbie star Simu Liu dined at the next table over from me at Kusa Nori. That is partially a Vegas standard, partially the gravity of the event. There were also chances to feel like a VIP that weren’t totally dependent on your fame or tax bracket.

Hilton Honors members were able to trade in points for experiences like attending a party DJed by Paris Hilton, sitting in on a convo between McLaren drivers Oscar Piastri and Lando Norris, and even sitting in one of the trackside clubhouses to watch the race alongside Alfonso Ribeiro (Carlton in Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) and Joey Fatone (N*SYNC).

Paris Hilton DJs for Formula 1 fans at an exclusive Hilton Honors event. | Courtesy of Hilton Honors

These types of loyalty program offerings are a very intentional investment in Formula 1 as a priority travel destination, according to Dan Reynolds, Hilton's vice president who is head of global content, media and partnerships. 

"F1 is a huge sport internationally. We know that fandom travels to races and they stay with us," Reynolds tells me. "So when things like Drive to Survive on Netflix here in the US really started to take off, we recognized that this was going to grow pretty significantly."

Hilton has already partnered with McLaren, one of the 10 teams that race in Formula 1, for 18 years. During that partnership, the team has always stayed at Hilton properties. So as the sport further embedded itself in the US, Hilton was one of the brands ready to embrace fans in new race cities.

Predictably, there were plenty of unpredictable issues

The first race weekend in Vegas was rocky, even as Formula 1 remained unapologetic about hiccups. Throughout the weekend, if there was one critical voice of Vegas to capture attention and the moment, it was Vegas and world champion Red Bull driver Max Verstappen.

"I think it's 99% show, 1% sport. [Formula 1] still makes money if I like it or not so it is not up to me," Verstappen told Reuters ahead of the race. "But I'm not going to fake it. I always voice my opinion in positive things, in negative things, that's just how I am. It's not really my thing. Some people like a show. I don't like it at all."

One of the biggest problems of the weekend occurred during Thursday night's practice laps. They were pushed for two hours due to a manhole cover that came loose—a major safety issue for cars moving at speeds of up to 212 miles per hour. The incident caused damage to Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz's car. Fans were cleared out of the viewing areas—ticket holders only got to watch eight minutes of the practice.

Fans react during the third practice session for the Las Vegas Formula One Grand Prix in Las Vegas, Nevada on November 17, 2023.
Fans react during a practice session on Thursday night. | JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

In return, those same ticket holders were credited with $200 to spend on official merchandise.

The Thursday night delay extended into scheduled events for drivers on Friday. At one scheduled appearance for McLaren drivers, event host and British TV presenter Will Buxton said that these sorts of challenges were inevitable for a first race in any city.

"Sod's Law, that it had to happen here in Vegas with all of the hype, all of the expectation and all of the hope for a seamless first race weekend," Buxton said. "So let's say not the perfect first day here in Las Vegas, but as you know, if you lose on your firsthand, you just go back to the table and keep on playing and hopefully you start winning."

Another challenge was just getting around. The track bisected the Strip for hours of each day, causing numerous road closures. George Sommers, who has been a taxi and rideshare driver on the Strip for 18 years, described dropping off passengers during Formula 1 weekend as "a nightmare, at best."

Sommers said he had multiple groups of passengers who were trying to find their seating area for the race that were totally lost. "No one knew where their seats were, no one knew where to go. It's terrible," Sommers continued.

After all that, should you plan on attending next year?

No matter what happened during the first Las Vegas Grand Prix, a second year was always guaranteed. The city has a 10-year contract with Formula 1, which means there are at least nine more opportunities to experience a Vegas-style race.

With tickets already on sale and payment plans available, Formula 1 itself doesn't seem to have any reservations about next year's event. And, if it follows the pattern of Miami’s first two years hosting Formula 1, there is plenty of hope for a better event next year. Miami's first year was a relentless onslaught of logistical challenges—but year two went off without many reported difficulties, high attendance, and a positive outlook for the remainder of its own 10-year contract.

"Would I come again?" Ciprian Jackson said, as he stared up at the Sphere. “Yes, of course. Is it expensive? Yes. If it gets more expensive? Yes. Who gives a fuck? The fans will come.”

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Opheli Garcia Lawler is a Staff Writer on the News team at Thrillist. She holds a bachelor's and master's degree in Journalism from NYU's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. She's worked in digital media for seven years, and before working at Thrillist, she wrote for Mic, The Cut, The Fader, Vice, and other publications. Follow her on Twitter @opheligarcia and Instagram @opheligarcia.