Finally then, Formula One has made it to the Strip with the Las Vegas Grand Prix being held in the early hours of Sunday morning 41 years on from the sport’s last visit to the city when it did not get further than the car park at Caesars Palace. Those races in 1981 and 1982 are but a footnote in F1 history, no trace of the circuit remains, but one driver at least still has fond memories.
The meetings in the 80s could not stand in greater contrast to the all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza F1 has put on through the heart of the city this weekend, including an enormous straight down Las Vegas Boulevard, the Strip, with all the landmarks, the Bellagio fountains, Caesars, the Venetian, Paris, that provide the backdrop F1 wanted for their showcase event.
In 1981, there was no collective agreement to host the race among the casinos as is the case this year, nor approval from the city, so the circuit was squeezed on to the Caesars Palace car park and its adjoining land, that gave the meeting its name of the Caesars Palace GP. The casino had taken four years to negotiate hosting the race and spent a lot of money to build the track but their space limitations delivered uninspiring fare.
The result, a flat, 14-turn, 2.2-mile counter-clockwise track going back and forth on itself was aesthetically uninspiring, lacking any character or indeed landmarks. The city was not at its best with the race held on a Saturday afternoon in punishing heat, the conditions unflattering: Las Vegas undoubtedly looks its best at night.
The relentless series of corners with no real straights to speak of or even fast turns were punishing on the cars but also on the drivers. Alan Jones, who had won the world championship for Williams in 1980, would master it that first year when it was the final race of the season and the championship decider.
“It was very hot and fatiguing and there were so many corners a lot of people suffered with sore necks, and I was one,” Jones says. “For the final six or seven laps, I would go through a left-hander and my head would fall over to the right and I would have to wait for the next right-hander for it to come back up again.”
Jones was not in with a shout of the title in that race but the Australian, who is now 77 years old, wanted to win, in what at the time was set to be his final F1 race having announced he would retire at the end of the season. He also felt no inclination to do any favours for his teammate, Carlos Reutemann, who was vying with Nelson Piquet for the drivers’ title.
Reutemann led by a point but the Argentinian had reneged on a prearranged deal at the second race of the season in Brazil, winning at Jones’s expense. Having qualified in second, Jones shot into the lead from the off and did not look back, winning confidently from Alain Prost in the Renault by 20 seconds.
Reutemann, who had started on pole, suffered problems with his gearbox from the third lap and Piquet passed him on lap 17. The Argentinian dropped out of the points and Piquet took fifth and the two points he needed for the title.
Piquet climbed from his Brabham and was mobbed, then passed out with heat exhaustion. Jones had no love lost with the Brazilian after their battle for the title the previous year and recalls his antics in Las Vegas as overly dramatic. “In terms of the exhaustion and the heat, it’s a funny thing when the race stops and you get out of the car everything returns back to normal,” he says. “Of course, Piquet was carrying on and fainting and screaming out for medics …”
The race is not remembered fondly by many, but Jones believes the meeting deserves a little bit better. “I don’t know who they are to criticise it, probably all the rare experts who have never raced a car in their life,” he says. “I have raced on circuits which are just as tight in Europe. it was quite technical to race.”
Jones always took his craft seriously and had not succumbed to the temptations of the city until he climbed from the car as the winner. “I was there to do a job and that was 100% what I had to do,” he says. “So I didn’t enjoy some of the benefits, well not until that night. I can’t say what I did but we had a bit of a party.”
The race lasted one more year. It had not attracted the attention expected and was losing money. Where the track stood is now the Forum shopping mall, part of Caesars Palace, but the last win of Jones’s career remains firmly imprinted in memory at least.
“There was quite a big crowd, a good atmosphere, I thoroughly enjoyed it, I enjoyed the whole thing. Particularly winning it,” he says wryly.