Column: F1 hits the jackpot in Las Vegas on its $500 million gamble after many stumbles on the Strip

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — There were missteps and mistakes, and a master class in how not to handle customer relations. But by the time Justin Bieber waved the checkered flag on Formula One's return to Las Vegas, the $500 million Sin City gamble had hit the jackpot.

F1 and owner Liberty Media hosted an electrifying event Saturday night that turned out to be both one of the best races of the season and a glitzy international spectacle that can only be pulled off in Las Vegas.

It was like a show with poor reviews that suddenly becomes an overnight hit.

Max Verstappen trashed the race every chance he got, but the LVGP delivered for the eventual winner and he was singing “Viva Las Vegas!” as he won for the 18th time this season. He was an instant Las Vegas convert.

Verstappen said he'd have to analyze the rest of the season before declaring Saturday night the best race of the year, but smiled and said: "It was a fun race. I enjoyed it."

Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez even suggested Las Vegas should be F1's season finale.

The entire mood had changed by the time the roads reopened Sunday and deconstruction began on the circuit that utilizes the Strip. It wasn't the sellout that LVGP CEO Renee Wilm promised investors in a Nov. 3 earnings call, but said Sunday “maybe only a few seats on Heineken” went unsold and she'd yet to debrief with her ticketing staff.

Wilm admitted LVGP made mistakes leading into the race in a Sunday interview with The Associated Press. She said the tight timeline — F1 announced the race in early 2022 — and the scale of the event made for an enormous task.

“It's been a very bumpy year-and-a-half,” she said to AP. “I know we could have done such a better job on many things. We were a startup.”

The race was embraced by the F1 industry, eager to continue tapping into the sponsorship-heavy North American market. Las Vegas was F1's third race in the U.S., more than any other country, and the most expensive spectator event on the 22-race calendar.

But it was maligned elsewhere as out of financial reach for the average American, and Verstappen ripped the race again and again and called it “99% show, and 1% sporting event.”

The three-time reigning world champion would not let up and had another tirade after qualifying third around 1 a.m. on Saturday. He hated all the showy stuff and just wanted F1 to race. Verstappen won the title in early October and has just been extending his streak of most wins in a season since.

After this Sunday's race in Abu Dhabi, he's done for the season. And so Las Vegas was an excessive party simply delaying his next win and the upcoming offseason.

“I understand that fans, they need maybe something to do as well around the track,” he said. "But I think it’s more important that you actually make them understand what we do as a sport, because most of them just come to have a party, drink, see a DJ play or a performance act.

“I can do that all over the world. I can go to Ibiza and get completely (expletive) and have a good time. They come and they become a fan of what? They want to see maybe their favorite artists and have a few drinks with their mates and then go out and have a crazy night out,” he continued. “But they don’t actually understand what we’re doing or what we’re putting on the line to perform. I love Vegas. But not to drive an F1 car.”

He had completely changed his mind by Saturday night, when the podium finishers got a stage-side show of the Bellagio fountains. Then the LVGP lit up the Strip with a New Years Eve-style fireworks show.

It put the NFL on notice that the Super Bowl in February better be half the show that F1 pulled off Saturday night.

But the bumps can't be overlooked, and race promoters were up against a tremendous task in that no first-year event is ever mistake free. This one was promoted by F1 and Liberty for the first time, and their vision was clearly in creating a world class event. Liberty has said it expected to spend about $500 million on the event; industry insiders believe F1's owner went well over budget.

But the LVGP was a street race, and, well, things happen to public roads that are out of F1's control. F1 drivers have run over water valve covers on street circuits before, so it wasn't completely shocking when Carlos Sainz did it nine minutes in Thursday night's opening practice before the track needed further inspection. Those kind of things happen more often than you'd think on street courses.

It was the ensuing response by F1 and the LVGP that infuriated fans. Both parties came off as arrogant and unsympathetic for kicking fans out at 1:30 a.m. as the track was being inspected to ensure the circuit was suitable. A second practice began at 2:30 a.m. Friday morning and ran until 4 a.m., when work began to return the roads to morning commuters. A class-action lawsuit has been filed on behalf of Thursday ticket holders.

A joint statement from F1 and LVGP served as an explainer and said it was “important for those who are new to racing to understand.”

The statement didn't apologize for Thursday night and as far as refunds, only those who had purchased a Thursday-only ticket were given a $200 credit to the Las Vegas Grand Prix merchandise shop. As Wilm told AP on Sunday, most of Thursday-only tickets sold were to locals as part of a Las Vegas resident special.

The statement also pretty much said stuff sometimes get canceled in life, even F1 races, but the rest of the weekend should be fantastic.

Many fans found it to be an outlandish approach to make good on an expensive experience that ultimately consisted of nine minutes to see F1 cars race the Strip.

“Hindsight is always 20/20. Could we have said more? Should we have said more? That's always hard to say,” Wilm told AP. “We were really just trying to get information out to people.”

Fans were ordered to leave because organizers had run up against federal employment laws on hours worked in a day, union rules, and, frankly, F1 had to turn its attention to making sure the next two days were flawless.

They were, and for that F1 gets the win.

But Wilm noted moving forward that LVGP needed better community relations and its residents have to be better informed. F1 drew 315,000 people over four nights and LVGP said the economic impact to the area was $1.2 billion.

But the road closures and disruptions had turned the community against the event before F1 even arrived. Wilm said the LVGP did not ask for a waiver on the live entertainment tax, a decision that allowed Nevada to receive “hundreds of millions of dollars in the coffers to use for teachers, for public safety, for STEM schools” she said. “We're very happy to be able to use our event to help support community benefits.”

And now that F1 is leaving, the roads will be reopened and all have all been repaved and improved — in part with Liberty's money. There will also be a permanent F1 attraction at the end of the Strip that had previously been parking lot, and Las Vegas never looked as good as it did Saturday night.

The Miami Grand Prix had stumbles in its first year in 2022 and found that 2023 was a much improved event. F1 ended up with a hand full of aces by the time the race was over, but to continue, there can't be any more mistakes.

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AP sports: https://apnews.com/sports