Formula One bosses were facing up to one of the most embarrassing days in the sport’s recent history after practice for the much-anticipated Las Vegas Grand Prix was completed at 4am in an empty arena.
After months of hype leading up to the £500million race, the first running was abandoned with just eight minutes on the clock.
Second practice was then delayed by two-and-a-half hours, and played out in front of vacant grandstands after furious fans were ejected to comply with local laws.
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc topped the order, with Max Verstappen sixth and Lewis Hamilton ninth, but the event – billed by F1 chiefs as the greatest show on earth – dramatically unravelled more than seven hours previously.
A water valve cover broke free from the newly laid tarmac and tore into the underbelly of Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari at 210mph on the Las Vegas Boulevard.
The force of the impact visibly jolted Sainz in the cockpit and, amid a flurry of white smoke and orange sparks, disabled his machine.
Race director Niels Wittich red-flagged the session, but not before Esteban Ocon also struck the debris. On-board footage from Fernando Alonso’s Aston Martin captured the 42-year-old dramatically dodging the loose drain cover.
Eleven minutes later, at 8:49pm, it was announced practice would not be resumed.
Both Sainz and Ocon escaped without injury – but their cars were severely damaged. A giant hole tore through Sainz’s Ferrari leaving his mechanics facing an extensive repair job. Team principal Frederic Vasseur, who appeared in a pre-arranged press conference moments later, was furious.
“We completely damaged the monocoque, engine and battery,” he said. “It is just unacceptable.”
Second practice had originally been scheduled to start at midnight. But it was postponed as all 30 drain covers along the 1.2-mile Las Vegas Boulevard – which runs against the backdrop of Caesars Palace, Bellagio and Venetian hotels – were inspected.
The covers were removed and holes filled with concrete and quick-drying resin in a hasty repair job. The track was finally deemed fit-for-purpose at 2:30am local time.
However, when the running resumed the stands were empty after strict labour laws posed a security risk. Some disgruntled fans, who refused to leave, were moved on by police.
A general admission ticket for the three-day event costs 500 US dollars (£400), while a hospitality suite was sold at an eye-watering 150,000 US dollars (£120,000) for the three days.
The disastrous failure in Las Vegas comes 48 hours after a Superbowl-like opening ceremony, and a day on from triple world champion Verstappen heavily criticising the staging of the Grand Prix – the first here in four decades – as “99 per cent show, and one per cent sport”.
F1 executives are keen to build on the sport’s growing popularity in the United States. The race in Nevada joins Austin and Miami as the third in America.
Yet the mess here drew parallels with the 2005 United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis where only six drivers took part amid tyre safety fears.
A statement from the organisers read: “There is no higher priority at a Formula One race than the safety and security of drivers, fans and staff alike.
“Following last night’s incident involving a water valve cover, the Las Vegas Grand Prix, F1, and the FIA decided to take extra precautions to ensure the integrity of the track prior to the resumption of racing.
“These additional measures required multiple hours to fully complete, which led to a significant delay in the race schedule.
“Given the lateness of the hour and logistical concerns regarding the safe movement of fans and employees out of the circuit, LVGP made the difficult decision to close the fans zones prior to the beginning of Practice 2.
“With a full round of practice successfully completed, LVGP looks forward to providing a safe and entertaining race weekend for all.”
Leclerc finished half-a-second clear of team-mate Sainz. Verstappen, a winner of 17 of the 20 rounds so far, was nine tenths adrift with Hamilton 1.3 sec back in his Mercedes.
Third practice is due to begin at 8.30pm on Friday (4.30am GMT on Saturday) with qualifying for Saturday’s 50-lap race taking place at midnight (8.00am GMT on Sunday).