The inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix is promising to be a vintage Vegas event. With casinos offering huge packages for fans, with the race schedule to take place under the lights and along the Vegas Strip, and with promoters building up the spectacle itself, including an “Opening Ceremonies” featuring musical acts and driver introductions, the race is set to pure Vegas.
However, it is important to remember that while this may be the first “Las Vegas Grand Prix,” it is not Formula 1’s first foray into the desert. In fact, this will be the third time the grid has taken on the Vegas Strip. So before this spectacle gets underway, we thought it would be worth a moment to look back at years gone by, when Vegas first hosted one of the world’s fastest sports.
For the third straight season, F1 concluded its schedule in 1981 on United States soil.
However, the 1981 campaign did not draw to a close in New York at Watkins Glen, as it had the previous two seasons. Instead, the 1980 United States Grand Prix would be the final installment at Watkins Glen, as dwindling attendance and concerns about safety saw F1 pull out of that circuit.
In its place? The inaugural Caesars Palace Grand Prix.
Hotel officials believed that drawing the motorsport world to Las Vegas, and Caesars Palace itself, would create a boon to both the city and the casino. In the years prior to 1981, hotel officials pulled together a plan to bring F1 to Las Vegas. Speaking at an event recently at the Mob Museum — which, by the way, is just an incredible thing to write — Bill Weinberger, the former president of the Caesars Palace Grand Prix, talked about how the plan came to be.
“I walked into the office one Monday morning and Bill McKinley [then-president of Caesars World] came in two minutes behind me. He asked did you see the race in Monaco on TV yesterday? I said no. He asked if I knew anything about racing. I said no,” Weinberger said. “He said well, I think it’d be a great idea if we had a race like that in Las Vegas. I said probably. He said I talked to Cliff [Pearlman, the owner of Caesars Palace] and he thinks it’d be a terrific idea. You’re on it.”
There was just one slight problem at the outset.
The lack of a track.
The solution? Carving out space in the parking lot for a circuit that Weinberger literally drew out on a placemat.
“Bernie Ecclestone was the czar of Formula 1 at the time. He and I were sitting in the coffee shop at Caesars Palace trying to put this deal together and he said how in the world are we going to fit a 2.5-mile track onto the space you got,” Weinberger recalled. “I had my hand on the placemat and said how about this? I literally traced my hand around on the placemat. I said do you think we have enough space this way? He said it’s an awful lot of turns, maybe only a few fingers.”
A big reason why the race had to be held in the parking lot at Caesars? Red tape, according to Weinberger.
“The race was going to start where it did end up starting but then come down the Strip, make a right-hand turn, make another right-hand turn and go up the driveway of Caesars Palace where the fountains are, go back down to the Strip, turn onto what was then Dunes, up to the freeway entrance.
“We were going to build a ramp down from the freeway entrance onto our property to the come back down to the finish line. It would have been spectacular,” Weinberger said. “The city said no and the county said no because we wouldn’t be able to get emergency equipment in in case there’s an emergency. The state said no because Las Vegas Boulevard is a state highway and you’re going to have to tear up that road and we aren’t going to let you do that and mess up traffic.
“The federal government said the freeway system is part of our national defense system and it would take an act of Congress to do that. So we wound up doing it all on our own land.”
The result was a twisty, counter-clockwise circuit that drivers grew to hate:
With the first Caesars Palace Grand Prix taking place in October of 1981, race officials were able to see a title fight play out as part of their vision. The final race of the 1981 F1 season saw three drivers in contention for the Drivers’ Championship. Carlos Reutemann, driving for Williams-Ford, entered the final race of the season with 49 points, having won two races. Nelson Piquet, driving for Brabham-Ford, had 48 points on the year with three victories to his credit. Jacques Laffite, driving for Ligier-Matra, had an outside chance at the title as he entered the Caesars Palace Grand Prix with 43 points having won two races including the previous race in Canada.
Reutemann looked in the best spot of the three following qualifying, as he qualified in pole position with his Williams teammate Alan Jones alongside him. He just needed to finish ahead of Piquet, who was set to start in fourth position, to secure the title.
However, the pole-sitter could not count on any help from his teammate, as the two were rather bitter rivals. It began with a reported contract within the team that effectively made Jones the number one driver. Under the agreement, if they were more than 20 seconds in front of the third-placed car, with Jones and Reutemann separated by less than four seconds, then Jones was to win the race.
Yet, starting with the second race of the season, Reutemann did not honor his end of the agreement. At the 1981 Brazilian Grand Prix, Jones and Reutemann were well ahead of the field in the later stages of the race, leading Riccardo Patrese, who was in third place, by over a minute. With Jones right behind Reutemann, the team put out a board with the order: Reutemann was to let Jones pass.
The Argentinian driver never moved aside.
“Sure enough, he didn’t. He kept going, I was furious, I could have challenged him many times. If it wasn’t for the agreement I would have. I was faster and felt I could easily have won, and Frank knows too well that without the agreement I would have slipped it down the inside, or I would have had a go somewhere,” recalled Jones years later.
In Jones’s mind, that meant all bets were off.
“The agreement was there to stop us taking risks with each other. Carlos didn’t abide by the rules of the agreement that he signed. That’s the thing that upset me. I didn’t talk to Carlos after the race. I just said to Frank [Williams, the Team Principal], ‘All bets are off.’ Frank only paid him for finishing second that day as a sort of fine, but if Carlos expected me to give him any help in the championship, that just went out the window.”
Fast-forward to a parking lot in Las Vegas.
“I didn’t need to remind him I was not there to help him, I think the whole world knew that at the time,” Jones recalled years later.
That’s when the mind games began between the teammates.
“I thought I’d play with him. ‘Have you seen where pole is? It’s just a disgrace, there’s s— everywhere, I don’t know how you’re going to get off the line.’ It worked,” Jones recalled.
That led to Reutemann complaining to the team about the layout of the grid, and the disadvantage he saw in his mind given the alignment of pole position on the parking lot layout. Wouldn’t you know it, Jones had a suggestion.
“I said, ‘Well, you know the man who gets on pole can claim whichever side of the track he wants,” Jones explained. Reutemann then complained to race officials, who switched the positions, giving the Australian the more favorable side of the track.
“You could have done the worst start known to man, and still probably have led into the first corner if you started on the inside line, which I now had,” Jones said.
“Of course, I out-dragged him into the first corner, as did (Gilles) Villeneuve, (Alain) Prost and (Bruno) Giacomelli. He was f—ed from there on in and he went backwards.”
Reutemann did go backward, as he struggled with gearbox issues starting early in the race. He finished eighth, one lap behind Jones, who won the first Caesars Palace Grand Prix.
More importantly, he finished a lap behind Piquet, who was now the Drivers’ Champion.
By a single point.
“He didn’t deserve to win (the championship),” declared Jones years later.
Will we see something like this play out in a few days?
That might be unlikely, as Max Verstappen has locked up the 2023 Drivers’ Championship, and Red Bull has already secured their second-straight Constructors’ Championship.
However, there are two battles to watch. First is the fight for second in the Constructors’ Championship between Ferrari and Mercedes. Then there is the ongoing fight between Lewis Hamilton and Verstappen’s Red Bull teammate, Sergio Pérez, for second in the Drivers’ Championship.
And, as we saw at Interlagos a year ago, there may be some friction between the Red Bull duo.
Yet one more reason to watch the spectacle that will be the Las Vegas Grand Prix.