Max Verstappen hated everything about the Las Vegas Grand Prix from the moment he arrived in Sin City. Formula One’s three-time reigning world champion found the excess and opulence over-the-top and prioritized over the actual racing.
He changed his tune — literally — following his 18th win of the season.
“Viva Las Vegas! Viva Las Vegas!” sang Verstappen as he crossed under the checkered flag waved by Justin Bieber. Verstappen had slammed Saturday night’s spectacle at every chance, yet raced in an Elvis-inspired firesuit and took the victory on the famed Las Vegas Strip.
“I hope everyone enjoyed it, we definitely did. Excited to come back here next year and try to do something similar,” said Verstappen, who had markedly reversed his weeklong position on the Las Vegas spectacle.
“It was a fun race. I enjoyed it,” he conceded.
Verstappen passed Charles Leclerc at the start then overcame a penalty to pass Leclerc once more with 13 laps remaining to continue his season-long dominance. Verstappen, Leclerc and Sergio Perez were driven in a limousine to a stage located near the Bellagio — “we go straight to the nightclub,” Verstappen told his fellow podium finishers — but they were instead treated to the casino’s famed fountain show.
The Bellagio fountains had been turned off all week and restarted as part of the victory celebration. None of the participants seemed remotely interested as they stood chatting. After receiving their trophies, they were treated to a New Year’s Eve-style fireworks show over the Strip.
Martin Garrix then launched into a throbbing DJ set to entertain those who opened their wallets for the most expensive spectator race of the season. Celebrities danced along on the grid and everyone seemed thrilled with the show. The stars in attendance included Brad Pitt, Rihanna, Usain Bolt and Shaquille O’Neal as F1 said it drew more than 315,000 spectators over the weekend and estimated an economic impact of $1.2 billion to Las Vegas.
“I really enjoyed it and I am especially happy that we finished the weekend on a high note because it was hurting me to see the sport that I love so much starting so wrong on Thursday,” said Leclerc. “The fact that we had an amazing race makes it all better.”
The race was the third stop this season in the United States, more than any other country, and was promoted by F1 and owner Liberty Media. But the event has been lambasted — especially by Verstappen — for its emphasis on becoming a neon extravaganza.
Tickets were expensive, hotels along the famed Strip hiked their prices, and the sporting element of the 21st race of the season was overshadowed by everything from celebrities, musical acts and a myriad of Elvis impersonators roaming the paddock that included a wedding chapel where former F1 champion Jacques Villeneuve was married earlier in the week.
Liberty expected to spend $500 million on the first grand prix it self-promoted, but paddock speculation before Saturday night’s race was that Liberty had gone well over budget. The entire event nearly imploded nine minutes into the first practice session when Carlos Sainz Jr. ran over a water drain valve cover on the track that badly damaged his Ferrari and F1 had to close the 3.85-mile circuit for inspection. JENNA FRYER, LAS VEGAS, MDT/AP