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The Hyperreal Las Vegas Grand Prix

I remember last fall I was alongside an Italian highway, walking with a camera back on my back seven or eight miles from the suburbs of Milan to the Autodromo in Monza after a rail workers strike crippled the north’s infrastructure. I was gathering notes and snippets of footage for a film I someday might finish, thinking that the motorsport culture that’s been part of Italy’s culture for most of the (modern) country’s existence could tell me something about the 20th century. The Autodromo Nazionale di Monza had just turned 100, founded back when gladiatorial fascists and death-driven futurists were sweeping up the peninsula, its legacy endured in motorsport as the “Temple of Speed.” And if it weren’t for that sacred site, Monza wouldn’t be much more than an anecdote in a Manzoni novel. But now every year the circus comes to town. I was another prostrate pilgrim, hiking what felt like halfway to the Alps to see it: the fastest cars in the world going from 200 mph to 20 in seconds, their brakes on fire and diffusers screaming—you can hear their ghostly cry emerging through the woods of the massive park you have to traverse to get to the Autodromo, like stumbling upon some ancient druid ceremony. The futuro-fascists may have succeeded in one regard: motorsport felt mythically ingrained into Italian culture the same way that Rome or pizza was. When Formula 1 came to town, it was a circus, but an Italian one at least.

When I was watching the Grand Prix itself in a crowd spilling onto the street from a Milanese bar, an old man passed by. I was able to make out that he was asking if Ferrari was winning. “Ferrari primo,” I told him. They weren’t, Ferrari was facing another embarrassing defeat after their early-season confidence led them into a historic slump. What was really happening on track didn’t matter as much, though, because he wasn’t really asking about Ferrari as a team or a brand but as a stand-in for his country. It’s that old nationalist endeavor that revitalized Grand Prix racing after each World War—where “nations” battled it out on track instead of the trenches. It’s oddly atavistic that it still goes like this, although every day that’s changing.

Last weekend that same circus came to Las Vegas, America’s ultimate playground of spectacle. It’s a part of Liberty Media’s push to cement the “pinnacle of motorsport” into US culture. Since Netflix’s Drive to Survive covered the 2018 championship, the sport’s had a huge boon in American viewership, largely from people previously uninterested in motorsport. It’s not as if America’s historic open-wheel fans (IndyCar), diehards for endurance racing (IMSA), or massive stock car following (NASCAR) were unaware Formula 1’s draw, they just weren’t as interested, and largely still aren’t apart from its rising tides effect possibly bringing more viewership to their series. The casual audience for F1 in America was entirely new, basically a non-entity until five years ago, and now it's a market that the F1, its governing body and parent company—the FIA and Liberty Media, respectively—see as worth billions.

They hedged their bets in that gambler’s paradise, getting a 10-year contract to run down the Strip, which probably involved plenty of under-the-table work with politicians and mafioso-style bargaining with the big casinos, whose names all appear in the graphics introducing viewers to the track. Like any good big money cash-grab for developers, it wasn’t exactly ready on time. Within eight minutes of the cars hitting track, Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari was basically destroyed when the car’s powerful aerodynamic ground effect, which vacuums the chassis to the track surface, sucked a water valve cover into the floor of the car (making Renny Harlin’s Driven look like a documentary)—he was lucky that he only lost feeling in his legs for a few seconds after his tailbone practically got pounded by a cannonball. The red flags came out as marshals and organizers quickly started to fill storm drains and manholes with concrete to keep it from happening again, causing the already-late schedule to get pushed back even further, having formula cars screaming down Las Vegas streets at four a.m. on a weeknight.

Locals were already pissed off enough by road closures and measures meant to block the view for anyone who doesn’t pay up, and now the money men had made themselves enemies of even those who had paid over $500 to just dick around near the track (a bargain value to not have even have a place to sit in an event that was charging multiple thousands of dollars for grandstand tickets) after they closed the fanzones for the rest of the Thursday practices—already triggering a class-action lawsuit. This all would have F1, the institution, circling the wagons rather than the track. Lest we forget, they weren’t hiring another bevy of shady promoters to organize the event, they were doing it themselves, out of their pockets.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff, who owns 33 percent of his racing team whose $3.8 billion worth is directly tied to the worth of the entire F1 enterprise, threw a fit targeted at people that “dare to talk bad about an event that sets the new standards.” Wolff wasn’t specific about what those “new standards” were. On the racing end, its iteration at best—the track was designed by modern F1 usual suspect Tilke Engineers whose founder, Herman Tilke, has caused a lot of ire from motorsport fans for making every new track same-y. Although in this instance, Vegas’ track was designed by his son Carston, who maybe had a little more juice for inspiration than his tired father. What it really looks like, though, is that those “new standards” are more about how much money Liberty Media can milk out of F1.

The Las Vegas Grand Prix was never about the racing, which ended up somewhat interesting due to the cars not working properly on the slick, freshly-paved track in the all-too-cold temperatures of the desert night. It was about establishing a new mythos of American motorsport, one where real history is suppressed (see: the Caesar’s Palace Grand Prix of the 1980s or the disastrous 2005 US Grand Prix) in favor of a new invented one). “America is neither dream nor reality,” wrote Jean Baudrillard in his postmodern Tocquevillian travelogue America. “It is a hyperreality because it is a utopia which has behaved from the very beginning as though it were already achieved.” To F1, there’s no history of motorsport in America—history began in 2018, and they’ve invented their new utopic cash-flow. That “new standard” that Wolff is talking about, a hyperreal, money-printing spectacle built on viral marketing rather than real racing.

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