Shotgun weddings. Cocktails in driving shoes. A class action. The only predictable thing about F1’s Las Vegas debut was the winner.
The group, based in the United Arab Emirates and known as Aioka, took shots of limited-edition Volcan tequila and sipped Stella Artois beers, shifting their attention from the start of the track to the beats of French DJ Cédric Gervais every few minutes before watching Dutchman Max Verstappen, 26, rally to win his 18th race of the season. He did so in dramatic fashion, overcoming a penalty for hitting Charles Leclerc on the opening lap and then being forced to work around damage from another wreck later in the race.
It was the kind of scene Verstappen had criticized during a turbulent week for the sport – he called it “99 percent spectacle and 1 percent sporting event” – but the party thrown by Aioka, formerly known as The Rich List, was exactly what the organizers had imagined when they invested $500 million to bring Formula 1 to Sin City.
Saturday night’s race, which didn’t start until 10 p.m. local time and featured tricky logistics due to cold temperatures, delivered a captivating product to its European television audience. On the field, the race felt like just another backdrop to the glitz and glamor of the Strip, which hosted dozens of parties demanding exorbitant fan prices. But it was the culmination of a 72-hour period that brought turbulence to the sport while providing an international spectacle for the biggest players – a celebration of excessive sport in the most excessive of cities.
“I think Vegas — and I think America — have done this Formula One experience on steroids,” said Liam Robinson, a business developer for Aioka who helped create Saturday night’s extravaganza.
Work began early Saturday. At the Bellagio, a pop-up bar called “Shoey Bar” served cocktails in designer leather loafers for $135. Nearby, 3,600 people paid $12,000 to access a structure overlooking the casino’s famous fountain, a project that had drawn ire from tourists because of the removal of trees and obstructed views.
Atop the platform, which was the length of three football fields and equipped with artificial turf and racing simulators, Blue Man Group performed. A small boat filled with caviar and champagne crossed the fountain to fill the club. Guests enjoyed truffle aioli and Japanese wagyu carpaccio, prepared by French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. “It’s F1 wagyu. It’s the fat content. F5 is a little too bold. It’s the Formula 1 of beef,” Vongerichten said. “It’s a race to the finish line.”
Once the fans finished eating, they took their seats in the grandstand overlooking the water tap cover that came off and driver Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari damaged just eight minutes into the first practice session two nights earlier, the first sign of a potentially difficult weekend. Ahead of Saturday’s main event, a local law firm announced it had filed a complaint against Formula 1 on behalf of the approximately 35,000 fans who had been sent home after practice without refund.
Some fans could not afford to attend the race and instead considered the Thursday and Friday evening practice sessions their main events. San Diego friends Matt Cook and Ipsi Shinde got hooked on the sport while watching the Netflix docudrama “Drive to Survive” during the pandemic. After the secondary ticket market crashed in recent weeks, they landed spots in Friday night’s qualifying 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. “Most of us are sofa fans. This is the first time we have attended it. It is the most expensive event on the calendar.
There were others in 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 had been hit hard by F1 construction.
Road closures and detours have made it difficult for residents to access them on Linq Lane; longtime owner Randy Markin, 68, had been experiencing at least 100 cancellations a night for months, he said. And at the establishment he runs next door, as customers filled the place before Saturday’s race, that wouldn’t even make up for the roughly $1.5 million Markin said the bar has lost in sales since the start of construction.
“We are the last of old Vegas. When Sinatra played at the Caesars, he would call me before the first show and say, Randy, I’m coming… he would sit with the boys and drink and have a good old time. When he left, he would always throw $1,000 at the bar to take care of people,” Markin said. “And F1 doesn’t understand that. They don’t have 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 nuptials there at the start of the week. Before Friday night’s qualifying, a woman in a neon dress striped with racing logos married a man in a pink hoodie. A crowd formed in front of the chapel to film.
“Oh my God, this is so Vegas,” one 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, went through the plan. A large group of crew members and cameras followed him. He looked sternly straight ahead and did not look into the chapel.
“I understand that the fans may also need something to do around the track. But I think it’s more important that you really make them understand what we do as a sport,” Verstappen said ahead of his race on Saturday. “Most of them come just to party, drink a drink, see a DJ play or a show. I mean, I can do that anywhere in the world. I can go to Ibiza and get completely fucked, you know?
On Saturday, before Verstappen’s victory, an F1 employee married his partner in the chapel. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Vegas’ latest married couple! » » announced the Elvis impersonator before kissing. Onlookers outside wondered if it was real.
“We actually didn’t 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 are in Vegas are gambling and marriage. It’s definitely a moment we will always remember.
Even though thousands of people on the Strip didn’t have tickets — the three-day event cost about $2,000 — they went in search of their own unforgettable moment. Some people brought selfie sticks and held them above the chain-link fences to film cars speeding by; others propped themselves up on their shoulders so they could get a glimpse.
On the street below the Aioka party, patrons elbowed each other on a Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. balcony 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 with sheets of white film, spotlights illuminated pedestrians. A man with an unbuttoned shirt carried an 18-pack of Bud Light over his shoulder and tried to peer through it to see the trail. “Keep moving!” » shouted a security guard. “It’s like talking to children!”
That wasn’t a problem, though, atop the Cosmopolitan, which Aioka had rented and covered the Boulevard pool with a deck to accommodate palm trees, plush white leather couches, and neon lights. Robinson walked around the party, shaking hands with patrons who had partied with the group in other locations around the world.
Before packing his bags and heading to Abu Dhabi for next week’s race, Robinson had hoped the company could attract another 20 wealthy fans to join its 11,000 members on Saturday night.
They planned to stay there until early Sunday morning. “I really think we’re on to something here,” he said, taking a break in a private cabin. Then, at 11:33 a.m. local time, he joined everyone and watched Verstappen, who had run in an Elvis firesuit, pass under the checkered flag waved by Justin Bieber, singing “Viva Las Vegas » on his team radio.