Sunday May 19th, 2024 10:27PM

F1 off to rough Las Vegas start. Ferrari damaged, fans told to leave before practice ends at 4 a.m.

By Jenna Fryer-AP Auto Racing Writer

LAS VEGAS (AP) — The Las Vegas Grand Prix had a bumpy opening when the first practice of the $500 million Formula One race was halted nine minutes into the session Thursday night because Carlos Sainz, Jr. ran over a water valve cover that badly damaged his Ferrari.

It caused the first practice to be aborted, a delay of 2 1/2 hours before second practice for track repairs, and all spectators were removed from viewing areas ahead of the 90-minute session that ended at 4 a.m. local time — the deadline for F1 to return the roads to Las Vegas commuters.

“I am very sorry for the fans that this happened, but I believe we will be able to put on a great race,” said Red Bull driver Sergio Perez.

The FIA said Sainz hit the concrete frame around the cover moments after cars took to the track in the hyped return to Las Vegas. After Sainz came to a stop and was examining his damaged car, the governing body ordered all cars off track so it could inspect the entire circuit.

Multiple drainage covers needed to be sealed ahead of the second practice, which was originally scheduled for midnight but didn't begin until 2:30 a.m. on Friday. Track organizers an hour earlier had told all fans to leave “due to logistical considerations for our fans and our staff.”

Ferrari boss Fred Vasseur raged after the abbreviated first practice that what happened to Sainz was “just unacceptable” and said Sainz would not be able to participate in second practice. Ferrari changed the chassis during the lengthy break and Sainz was able to get on track for the extended 90-minute session. But, because of the repairs to the Ferrari, the FIA ruled Sainz will be given a 10-place grid penalty.

Ferrari salvaged the day as Charles Leclerc and Sainz went 1-2 in the second practice session.

During a news conference after first practice, the moderator attempted to ask Vasseur about the “bigger picture" and Vasseur refused to change the topic.

“This one is a good one, I don’t need to have a bigger picture than this one,” Vasseur said. “We had a very tough FP1. This will cost us a fortune. We (expletive) the session for Carlos... we have to change the chassis out of the car, to set up the car, OK? The show is the show and everything is going well but I think it’s just unacceptable for F1 today. You would be upset in my situation."

The moderator made a second attempt and Vasseur said: “Can I leave now? Can you ask Toto a question?” as he motioned to Mercedes principal Toto Wolff.

Wolff grew equally as prickly when asked if the abbreviated session — both Sainz and Esteban Ocon of Alpine were left with damaged cars — was an embarrassment for F1's return to Las Vegas for the first time in 41 years.

F1 and its ownership group Liberty Media are promoting the race themselves and have spent half a billion dollars on the spectacle down the Las Vegas Strip. The Saturday night race is the third stop for F1 this season in the United States, more than any other country.

“That is not a black eye. This is nothing. We are Thursday night, we have a free practice session one that we're not doing. They are going to seal the drain covers and nobody is going to talk about it tomorrow morning,” Wolff said.

When a reporter interjected that the stoppage would not be overlooked — thousands of fans poured out of the grandstands as the track was being repaired — Wolff grew visibly angry.

“It's completely ridiculous. Completely ridiculous. FP1, how can you even dare try to talk bad about an event that sets a new standard to everything?” Wolff demanded. "You're speaking about a (expletive) drain cover that's been undone. That has happened before. That's nothing. It's FP1.

“We shouldn't be moaning. The car's broken. That's really a shame for Carlos. It could have been dangerous, so between the FIA and the track and everybody needs to analyze how we can make sure that this is not happening again. But talking here about a black eye for the sport on a Thursday evening, nobody watches that in European time, anyway.”

It made for a troubling start to the ballyhooed race in which F1 returned to Las Vegas for the first time since it ran in 1981 and 1982 on a course that mostly consisted of the Caesars Palace parking lot. F1 and Liberty were determined to make this year's race an extravaganza, but the hype has been tempered by expensive tickets, exorbitant hotel rates that outpriced many new American fans, and locals simply furious by the months of disruptions to build the course.

The 3.85-mile (6.2 kilometer) street circuit utilizes a large portion of the Strip and passes several Las Vegas landmarks on the 17-turn layout. Because much of the course is open to traffic during the day, the FIA was not able to inspect the track and approve it for racing until early Thursday morning after the course had been closed overnight. It appeared the initial inspection began around 3:30 a.m. FIA rules require a track to pass inspection one day before cars are on track.

Even though Vasseur said “donations” were the only thing that would calm him down after the Ferrari was damaged, he joined three other team principals in praising the event and the efforts of Liberty and F1 for their efforts.

“I think that the show is mega and I’m very happy with what Liberty did around the race and I think it’s a huge step forward for F1, and we have to separate what is the show and the sporting side,” he said. “The show is mega. I don’t want to mix everything and to say that, sorry for the expression, but they did (expletive) on the sporting side because they did the show.”

Added Wolff: “Like Fred said, at the end, this is a mega spectacle, it’s going to set a new standard for the sport and that’s important. And then we have track action and a drain cover that’s become undone. It’s not new and that can happen. It’s a brand new circuit."

The team principals noted there have been similar incidents, most recently in 2019 at Baku when George Russell ran over a manhole cover in the first practice. In 2016, Nico Rosberg ran over a manhole cover at Monaco and the cover flew up and hit Jenson Button's car, causing extensive damage to Button's McLaren.

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