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Formula One in Las Vegas off to a bumpy start, but don't call it a 'black eye'

The new asphalt is smooth, but the path has been bumpy for this city’s Formula One reboot.

At 3 a.m. Friday, F1 cars screamed down the Strip in preparation for Saturday night’s Las Vegas Grand Prix. That practice session was postponed Thursday night after an issue on the course led to damage to three cars and postponement of the session after eight minutes.

A water valve cover on the course came loose on the track due to the downforce of Carlos Sainz’s Team Ferrari car. F1 cars generate so much suction, adhering them to the pavement, that they are essentially vacuum cleaners when they pass over any loose materials. The undercarriage of his car was damaged. Likewise were the cars of Esteban Ocon (Alpine) and Zhou Guanyu (Alfa Romeo).

Race officials temporarily shut down the course for 2½ hours to make sure any other potential hazards were securely affixed or welded in place. Spectators were asked to leave, and the grandstand and hospitality areas were emptied.

Read more: F1 resumes practice overnight after repair to Las Vegas track

“There is no higher priority at a Formula 1 race than the safety and security of drivers, fans and staff alike,” race officials said in a statement early Friday morning. “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 fan zones prior to the beginning of Free Practice 2.”

Asked at news conference after the postponement whether the incident was a “black eye” for organizers of the race, Mercedes team chief Toto Wolff dismissed that notion.

“This is not a black eye; this is nothing,” Wolff said. “It is Thursday night. We have one practice session that we are not doing. They are going to seal the drain covers and nobody will talk about that tomorrow.”

The practice session resumed at 2:30 a.m. and was extended to 90 minutes to make up for the abbreviated earlier session.

“With a full round of practice successfully completed,” the statement said, “LVGP looks forward to providing a safe and entertaining race weekend for all.”

Alfa Romeo driver Valtteri Bottas takes part in the third practice session for the Las Vegas Grand Prix.
Alfa Romeo driver Valtteri Bottas takes part in the third practice session for the Las Vegas Grand Prix. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

This was but the latest hiccup in the relaunch of Formula One in Las Vegas. According to Front Office Sports, the average get-in price for the event has dropped 63% across all three days. There have also been significant price reductions for local hotel rooms.

The first Formula One race here, in 1981 and ’82, was a flop. That version was held in the parking lot of Caesars Palace and in sweltering heat.

There’s a three-year contract for the current race, which starts at 10 p.m. Saturday and finishes at 1 a.m. Sunday, although F1 has agreed to support the race for at least 10 years. Las Vegas officials are hoping for a “lifetime partnership.”

A look at some of the curiosities and challenges surrounding the event:

Race to the altar

This is Las Vegas, so it’s only natural that among all the high-tech team garages in the paddock, there’s also a pop-up chapel complete with an ordained minister — an Elvis impersonator, no less — ready to perform legal weddings at the race.

It’s billed as the first F1 chapel. Some ceremonies already are scheduled, and there’s a first-come, first-served system for any other ticketed fans who want to tie the knot.

As for witnesses, there’s a row of red velour chairs surrounding the altar, and there are glass walls, so spectators strolling past can get a good look at the happy couple, who are either getting married for the first time or renewing their vows. Organizers are expecting to host about 20 weddings per night from Thursday through Saturday.

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The newlyweds-to-be walk down a polished black aisle and through neon, heart-shaped arches. Behind the minister is a neon sign reading, “Lights out and together we go.”

“This is the best way to tie Vegas into Formula One,” said Brian Mills, who has been performing weddings in the city for the last 16 years and just finished his 20,000th ceremony. He has done them at NASCAR races, Golden Knights games and the Electric Daisy Carnival.

Mills has the Elvis pompadour, silver-rimmed sunglasses, a studded black jumpsuit, a thick red belt adorned with all sorts of F1-related charms (a tiny race car, disc brakes, wheels) and a checkered-flag scarf.

I now pronounce you fan and wife.

Global interest

Formula One cars are displayed on the outside of the Sphere in Las Vegas on Wednesday night.
Formula One cars are displayed on the outside of the Sphere in Las Vegas on Wednesday night. (Darron Cummings / Associated Press)

A major feature of the race will be the recently completed Sphere, just east of the Strip. At 366 feet tall and 560 feet wide, it’s not only the world’s largest spherical structure but also the biggest LED screen.

The exosphere — the skin of the venue — will show real-time driver information during the race, along with live content and the postrace podium celebration.

Five of the turns on the track pass the Sphere, and organizers say they intend to be especially careful not to inadvertently display bright colors that might confuse the drivers — presumably green, red or yellow, each of which is used on flags in a way to signal instructions to competitors.

Get a grip

Three-time Formula One champion Max Verstappen walks in the paddock on Wednesday night.
Three-time Formula One champion Max Verstappen walks in the paddock on Wednesday night. (Nick Didlick / Associated Press)

Cool weather could present problems for the drivers, with temperatures expected to dip into the high 40s on Saturday night. That will make it challenging to heat the tires enough to make them best grip the turns.

Drivers will swerve to warm their tires before the race, but that’s no guarantee against problems in the curves. The 3.8-mile course features two long straightaways and relatively few high-speed corners to help those tires achieve or retain tackiness.

“We have no idea how it’s going to be, as it is so different to the rest of the year because of the temperature,” Red Bull driver Sergio Perez told reporters this week. “It’s all about keeping the tires in the wind and keeping them warm.”

The coldest Formula One race on record was the 1978 Canadian Grand Prix at 41 degrees.

Pardon our dust

The construction, roadwork and closures associated with staging the Las Vegas Grand Prix took months and were no small inconvenience to the community.

That prompted the top executive of F1’s parent company to issue an apology to locals.

“I want to apologize to all the Las Vegas residents, and we appreciate their forbearance and their willingness to tolerate us,” Liberty Media chief executive Greg Maffei said recently in an interview with Fox News. “We’re going to bring something like a billion and seven to the area, so it’s not just for the benefits [for] who want to view. We hope there’s a great economic benefit in Las Vegas.”

Read more: Sergio Pérez is the driving force behind Formula One’s growing Latino fan base

The process should go more smoothly in the future, organizers say, in part because the course will not require repaving for at least six years.

Meanwhile, airport officials are recommending a “4-3-2-1 plan” for visitors leaving Las Vegas on Sunday, the day after the race.

That means planning transportation to the airport to arrive four hours before flight time, checking bags three hours before, getting in line for security two hours before and allowing for an hour at the gate.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.