Fear and Loathing at the Las Vegas Grand Prix: What (Probably) Happened

f1 grand prix of las vegas practicef1 grand prix of las vegas practice
Fear and Loathing at the Las Vegas Grand PrixANP - Getty Images

As much as I wanted to attend the Las Vegas Grand Prix in person, I'm watching at home. It's only a four-hour drive from me, but I've been spoiled. I grew up going to racetracks with a pit pass because my dad was a prominent race-car builder. Later, I did volunteer stints with the CART Safety Team and even had my own pickup truck loaded with kitty litter, brooms, and backpack blowers. I drove out onto tracks while cars were circulating under yellow, cleaned up after Nigel Mansell hit the wall in Phoenix, and picked up chunks of car after Jacques Villeneuve speared through the middle of Hiro Matsushita's car at the same track.

Nowadays I either attend such events as a guest of some automaker with full hospitality and an all-access pass, or I go as a volunteer turn marshal at one of the corners with a full track-access pass. But no such invitations came my way (we need to work on that), and my corner worker resume didn't have enough recent events on it to qualify me for this F1 event.

Still, what happened on FP1 on Thursday night hit very close to home. I could feel the impact nearly as much as Carlos Sainz did, and before the broadcast team said so, I was convinced it was a lifted manhole cover. It turned out to be a much smaller (but blockier) drain cover, but it was still a righteous hunk of iron.

auto prix f1 usa practice2
Carlos Sainz’s car during the second practice session in Las Vegas, November 17, 2023.ANGELA WEISS - Getty Images

Some of the events I worked at were high-level street races, including the Long Beach Grand Prix and the F1 Grand Prix in Phoenix. If you work a corner at a street race, the first thing you do is get to know your drain and manhole covers. You've got to make sure they're securely bolted or welded down. Even if they're welded, you inspect the welds for cracks. And if things don't look right, you call race control. This happened more than once in Long Beach: last year's welds had cracked and needed another pass.

My choice for watching at home is the F1TV app, because we're a streaming household. I rarely utilize the available independent stream of all 20 in-car feeds, but I watched each and every one of them in the crucial period to see what might have happened. Here's what I found.

Sebastian Ocon is the first one through the pertinent section of the track that goes down the Las Vegas Strip, otherwise known as the pig's back if you've seen the Simpsons Spider-Pig memes. There's nothing there, and no yellow flag, and he takes the normal line. But two things happen as he nears the end of the straight: his engineer radios him to say, “yellow where you are” and then he drives past a green light.

A green light (or flag) is displayed downstream of a yellow zone to indicate the danger zone is behind you, but Ocon never saw the yellow. From this I conclude the yellow must've been displayed just as or after he passed the hazard. Could his car have vacuumed up the edge of the drain cover and initiated the yellow? Possibly. But he didn't hit it. Not yet.

f1 grand prix of las vegas day 1
Fernando Alonso in practice on Thursday, November 16.Ethan Miller - Formula 1 - Getty Images

Next through the area is Fernando Alonso, and he was well warned of the yellow flag by his engineer: "There's yellow flags the second half of this straight. Yellow flag. I don't know what the problem is." Fernando sees something at the last second, abruptly swerves left, and misses it. It's not clear what it is, because I can't see anything in the road myself. Not surprising considering the smallish black drain cover that's shown in still photographs I saw online later.

Some three seconds behind him, Carlos Sainz enters the straight. You see him pass Zho Guanyu, who is letting him go by, then barrels down the straight on a flyer. "There's a yellow flag before 14. One-four. inaudible lap time update."

Carlos acknowledges with "OK" and then promptly hits something that I still can't make out. It's a hard hit that shakes the car, and then the engine shuts off and the steering wheel goes into warning mode less than a second later. As he coasts to a stop, he exclaims, "Oh, I just hit a massive... argh."

Zho seems much of this behind, but at some distance because he hasn't yet started his flying lap. After his engineer warns him of the yellow, Sainz's car flashes past. Carlos's car emits routine sparks that indicates Ferrari is running their car low this weekend, but then there's a massive shower as Carlos hits the object. Zho encounters something dark bouncing down the track, and zigs to the left. “Something out there,“ he radios.

At this point, Carlos is out, and Zho seems to have hit something, too. The yellow flag is upgraded to a double yellow for Carlos's stopped car, and then the track goes red. All the cars circulate slowly back to the pit. Ocon does, too, but his in-car camera view has inconveniently switched to a view that points back to him and his glorious Deadpool-themed helmet.

Ocon asks for tire blankets, "As soon as you can," to keep the tires fired up. His engineer acknowledges, then tells him, "Hopefully this recovery time will be, erm, low. There is a gap in the fence where he stopped," referring to the hopefully short amount of time necessary to clear Carlos's car because he's parked it in an accessible place. They clearly don't know about the track issue.

"So we are going to box now please," says his engineer. At the same moment, the steering wheel shakes, after which Ocon does a double take in his right-hand mirror. "Oh Sh*t. I hit something." He then gestures with his hands and shakes his head dejectedly. When he gets to the pits, the engineer informs him of floor damage.

Initial reports suggest the ring in which the drain cover was seated came out of the track. But I've seen pictures of the repair in progress, and I think it's a slightly different story. The drain cover itself does not seem to have been welded down. When an unknown car passes it—possibly Ocon's—it gets tipped by a passing tire or sucked up by the considerable downforce, with the tipped-up edge facing oncoming cars.

When Carlos hits this, the impact drives the tipped-down edge into the outer ring and damages it. The drain cover pops out in the process, after which Zho and Ocon hit it some ways down the track from where it initially came from. The irony here is that Ocon may have unknowingly started the chain of events, then suffered damage when he hit the stray drain cover on the next lap.

f1 grand prix of las vegas practicef1 grand prix of las vegas practice
ANP - Getty Images

The idea that the outer mounting ring was "torn out of the ground" is false because they were able to repair it in a relative short amount of time. Photos show a largely-intact steel outer ring, with a small downstream chunk that's being refilled. From where I sit (and based on what I've seen firsthand before) they reseated the errant drain cover, welded it properly this time, and then had to double check all the drain covers all around this street circuit. How could they have missed one? Hard to say. But they must have. It's a new track, this straight is a public street with limited closed-off access. Stuff happens.

Corner workers are stationed in numbers at the corners, and this was in the middle of a very long straightaway. There are fewer of them stationed on straightaways, and one of the drain covers must have been missed in a track walk. But drain covers ultimately are a track maintenance responsibility, and this was a brand-new circuit built with no expense spared. It's hard for me to conceive that this could happen, because the issue is so well known. But it did.

Fortunately, someone did see the cover tip up, and so the yellows went up promptly. Engineers knew of the area's yellow status and warned their drivers in plenty of time, but they didn't know the reason, because events were still unfolding. Besides, it’s a black drain cover on black asphalt at night. Alonso barely missed it. Carlos simply didn't see it. Maybe he was looking in a mirror, peering far into the next turn-in point. Maybe he was glancing at the display on his steering wheel. We'd have to ask him.

You Might Also Like