With the superb new facilities available at circuits these days, drivers hardly complain about the track any more. Well, maybe except for Sochi.
But if they do complain, at least there’s nothing these days quite like the Las Vegas street circuit, which held the final round of the 1981 and 1982 championships. Once each year, the parking lot of the Caesars Palace Hotel was transformed into a racetrack. When the planned track design was released, Motoring News ran a headline proclaiming: “MICKEYEST MOUSE EVER.”
The layout was 3.650 kilometres long and over 75 laps, a total race distance clocked in at 273.750 kilometres. Consisting of a total of 14 corners, most of them rather repetitive, the track was driven counter clockwise. That was not unusual for American audiences, used to seeing races run on anti-clockwise ovals most of the time. However, by Grand Prix standards, this was an anomaly – most Formula 1 drivers prefer clockwise, because the majority of European tracks are built that way.
As a result, the unusual layout was a challenge for both drivers and machines. Lots of heavy braking points after fast straights (a lap of the track averaged over 100mph) caused a lot of brake, gearbox and engine-related trouble. The anti-clockwise direction and the heat of the Nevada desert tested the drivers’ physical strength – especially their neck muscles – as well as their stamina and endurance. Over the course of two Grands Prix, there were 32 retirements.
It wasn’t only the drivers who disliked the circuit, and the mechanics also had their fair share of complaints. The makeshift pit lane was way too narrow, and could barely accommodate the 30-odd cars that entered the two grands prix there. With no garage facilities to speak of, the cars were left standing in the open air, only centimetres from the fast lane of the pits. The mechanics had precious little space to work on the cars. It was all a bit unprofessional, especially when so much was at stake, since both races turned out to be championship deciders.
Having said that, it wasn’t all bad. The presentation of the circuit at least was better than expected, and it had been made as wide as possible to facilitate overtaking. The organisers had even put in place run-off areas and sand traps. And, unusually for a temporary circuit, the surface was ultra-smooth. No doubt this had something to do with famous Long Beach promoter Chris Pook, also involved with this Las Vegas project, getting taxi drivers to drive around the track to bed down the tarmac!
But still, you might be wondering, how on earth did this place become a suitable location for the final Grand Prix of the year?
The answer is very simple: money.
The season-ending race had traditionally been at Watkins Glen, but they had been unable to meet financial obligations for 1981. By contrast Las Vegas, the gambling capital of the world, had no such concerns. Caesars Palace wanted a good publicity stunt to lure people into the casino, and to help rid Las Vegas of its image of Mafia connections.
It didn’t work, and barely any spectators went to the Grand Prix in either year. People didn’t want to sit all day in the burning desert sun, with no greenery in sight (this was a car park, after all) to watch a car race. Undoubtedly, the Las Vegas visitors were more concerned with trying to make their fortunes on the roulette wheels and craps tables inside. The crowd figure in 1982 was less than 30,000, by far the smallest attendance all year.
But what happened on the track itself? Generally, the turbo engines, especially those of Ferrari, Renault, and the BMW in the Brabham, were much faster than the normally aspirated Ford V8s. Despite the higher-than-expected average speed, Las Vegas was still too twisty for the turbos which were still in an early stage of development, and still suffered greatly from turbo-lag. This evened up the field and gave the Cosworth runners a better-than-usual chance of winning.
1981 offered a three-way battle for the title between Williams’ Carlos Reutemann, who came to Las Vegas on 49 points, Brabham’s Nelson Piquet on 48 and, as an outsider, Ligier’s Jacques Laffite on 43. While Laffite was never truly in the hunt, Reutemann was in a determined mood in practice and took pole from team-mate Alan Jones. Meanwhile, Piquet struggled. In practice, he battled neck and back problems – at one stage, he even required a long massage session from boxer Sugar Ray Leonard’s masseur!
By this stage, there was no love lost between Jones and Reutemann, and at no stage was Jones likely to help the Argentine’s title bid. The Australian took the lead at the start and led all the way to win his final race before his first retirement. Reutemann, though, on one of his moody off-days, lost his 4th gear early, encountered oversteer, and fell all the way to 8th. Piquet, despite all his exhaustion, claimed two points for 5th and pipped Reutemann to the title by one solitary point.
In 1982, the teams arrived in Las Vegas with Williams’ Keke Rosberg on 42 points and McLaren’s John Watson on 35. Ferrari’s Didier Pironi had 39, but he had been seriously injured in Germany. The Renaults of Rene Arnoux and Alain Prost claimed the front row and led early, but Arnoux retired and Prost fell back with a nasty vibration. The win was snapped up by Michele Alboreto in the non-turbo Tyrrell, who previously had only managed a podium place at Imola along with other minor point-scoring positions.
Watson was as low as 12th early, but charged back up to 2nd, although it was to no avail. Rosberg claimed 5th place which sealed the championship. The race was also notable for being the last race for the great Mario Andretti, and also for another American, Eddie Cheever, claiming 3rd in the Matra turbo-powered Ligier.
That was the last F1 action on the track in the Las Vegas car park.
After two years, the Formula 1 fraternity had had enough, even though the event as a whole had probably exceeded the low expectations. The location was abandoned and left for CART to use. In the 1990s, there was a second attempt to host a Grand Prix in Las Vegas, but the casinos could not agree to where the new track should be built. Eventually, when plans were laid for a permanent track south of the casino strip, the United States GP found a new home at Indianapolis, and the notion of the Las Vegas Grand Prix being revived was quietly shelved for a number of years.
Following Liberty Media’s overhaul of Formula 1, Las Vegas was fleetingly linked with a return to the calendar, apparently backed by investment from China. Pitched as a night race, the sun appeared to set once again on a potential return to the City of Lights.