LAS VEGAS (THE WASHINGTON POST) – They had flown to Nevada from all corners of the globe – London, Paris and Abu Dhabi – and for the price of USD60,000 each, about 70 members of an exclusive Formula One fan group finally gathered together on the roof of the Cosmopolitan Hotel just after 10pm Saturday night, to watch the Las Vegas Grand Prix. They looked out over the Strip and, of course, held up their phones to film as the race cars roared through the canyon of towering casinos at more than 200 miles per hour, the engines below buzzing their champagne glasses and bottles of Belvedere.
The group, based in the United Arab Emirates and known as Aioka, took shots of limited edition Volcan tequila and sipped on Stella Artois beers, shifting their attention from the straightaway of the track to the beats of French DJ Cedric Gervais every few minutes before watching 26-year-old Dutchman Max Verstappen rally to win his 18th race of the season. He did it in dramatic fashion, overcoming a penalty for clashing with Charles Leclerc on the first lap and being later forced to drive around damage from another wreck later in the race.
It was the kind of scene that Verstappen had been critical of during a turbulent week for the sport – he had called it “99 per cent show and one percent sporting event” – but the party thrown by Aioka, once known as The Rich List, was exactly what organizers had envisioned when they sunk USD500 million into bringing Formula One to Sin City.
Saturday night’s race, which didn’t begin until 10pm local time and presented tricky logistics because of chilly temperatures, provided a captivating product for its European audience on television. On the ground, the race felt like it was just another part of the backdrop to the glitz and glamour of the Strip, which hosted dozens of parties that charged exorbitant prices for fans to attend. But it was the peak of a 72-hour period that brought turbulence to the sport yet supplied an international spectacle for the highest of high rollers – a celebration of an excessive sport in the most excessive of cities.
“I feel that Vegas – and I think America – have made this experience Formula One on steroids,” said Liam Robinson, a business developer for Aioka who helped create Saturday night’s extravaganza.
The build-up started early Saturday. At the Bellagio, a pop-up bar called “Shoey Bar” served cocktails in branded leather driving shoes for USD135. Nearby, 3,600 people paid USD12,000 to gain entrance to a structure hovering above the casino’s famous fountain, a project that had caused the ire of tourists over the removal of trees and obstructed views.
On top of the platform, which was the length of three football fields and outfitted with artificial turf and race simulators, Blue Man Group performed. A small boat stocked with caviar and champagne drifted back and forth across the fountain to refill the club. Patrons munched on truffle aioli and Japanese wagyu carpaccio, prepared by the French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. “It’s F1 wagyu. It’s the fat content. F5 is a little too fatty. This is the Formula One of beef,” Vongerichten said. “It’s a race to the finish line.”
Once the fans were done eating, they took their seats in the grandstand overlooking the water valve cover that came loose and damaged driver Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari just eight minutes into the first practice session two nights earlier, the first sign of a possibly rocky weekend. Before Saturday’s main event, a local law firm announced it had filed a lawsuit against Formula One on behalf of the roughly 35,000 fans who had been sent home from the practice run without a refund.
Some fans couldn’t afford to attend the race and instead treated Thursday and Friday night’s practice rounds as their main events. Matt Cook and Ipsi Shinde, friends from San Diego, got hooked on the sport by watching the Netflix docudrama “Drive to Survive” during the pandemic. After the secondary ticket market dipped in recent weeks, they snagged seats for Friday night’s qualifier and each drank tequila out of their Shoey. But they were forced to find a television somewhere in the city to watch Saturday night’s main event.
“It’s a full Vegas scene,” Cook said. “We’ve been mostly been couch fans. This is our first time showing up to it. It’s the most expensive event on the calendar.”
There were others across the city who were angry. Business was again slower than usual at Battista’s Hole in the Wall, a historic Italian Restaurant, whose owner said it was hit hard by F1 construction.
Road closures and detours had made it difficult for locals to reach it on Linq Lane; the longtime owner, 68-year-old Randy Markin, had incurred at least 100 cancellations a night for months, he said. And at the establishment he manages next door, while patrons packed the place before the race on Saturday, that wouldn’t even start to make up for the roughly USD1.5 million that Markin said the bar has lost in sales since the construction began.
“We’re the last of old Vegas. When Sinatra would play Caesars, he’d call me up before the first show and say, Randy, I’m coming down…he’d sit down with the boys and drink and have a good old time. When he’d leave, he would always throw USD1,000 dollars down on the bar, to take care of people,” Markin said. “And F1 doesn’t get that. They don’t get that feeling.”
In the paddock, a wedding chapel had been built next to a pop-up casino. A neon “Race To The Altar” lit up above the door. With an Elvis Presley impersonator officiating, former world champion Jacques Villeneuve was the first to exchange his nuptials there earlier this week. Before the qualifier on Friday night, a woman in a neon dress striped with racing logos married a man in a pink hoodie. A crowd formed outside the chapel to film.
“Oh my god, that’s so Vegas,” a woman said to her husband as she held up her phone. Verstappen, who said he felt like a “clown” during the lavish festivities earlier this week, walked through the shot. A large posse of team members and cameras followed him. He sternly looked straight ahead and didn’t peer into the chapel.
“I understand that fans maybe need something to do as well around the track. But I think it’s more important that you actually make them understand what we do as a sport,” Verstappen said before his race on Saturday. “Most of them just come to have a party, drink, see a DJ play or a performance act. I mean I can do that all over the world. I can go to Ibiza and get completely s—faced, you know?”
On Saturday, before Verstappen won, an F1 employee married his partner in the chapel. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Vegas’s latest married couple!” the Elvis impersonator announced. Onlookers outside wondered if it was real.
“We didn’t actually get a marriage license. We’re actually getting married next week,” said Arianna Sanchez, the bride. “It’s beyond Vegas. The things you think about when you’re in Vegas are gambling and getting married. This is definitely a moment we will always remember.”
Even though thousands on the Strip didn’t have tickets – the three-day event cost roughly USD2,000 – they went searching for their own moment to remember. Some people brought selfie sticks to extend above the chain link fences to film the cars whizzing by; others propped each other up on their shoulders so they could catch a glimpse.
Down on the street below the Aioka party, patrons elbowed one another on a balcony at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co for a view. Thousands of people lined the sidewalk in front of Planet Hollywood, marijuana smoke wafting above the crowd. Nearby, on a footbridge covered in sheets of white film, floodlights beamed down on pedestrians. A man with an unbuttoned shirt hauled an 18-pack of Bud Light on his shoulder and tried to peer through to see the track. “Keep it moving!” a security guard screamed. “This is like talking to children!”
That wasn’t a problem, though, atop the Cosmopolitan, which Aioka had leased and covered the Boulevard pool with a platform to hold palm trees, plush white leather couches and neon lights. Robinson roamed the party, shaking hands with clients who had partied with the group in other locales across the world.
Before he packed up and headed to Abu Dhabi for next week’s race, Robinson had hoped the company could get another 20 wealthy fans to join its 11,000-member fold on Saturday night.
They planned to be there until the early morning hours Sunday. “I do truly think that we’re onto something here,” he said while taking a break in a private cabana. Then, at 11.33am local time, he joined everyone else and watched Verstappen, who had raced in an Elvis firesuit, cross under the chequered flag waved by Justin Bieber, singing “Viva Las Vegas” over his team’s radio. – ROMAN STUBBS