The hype was finally over and the F1 cars hit the track come 08:30pm local time in Las Vegas. George Russell was the first to call the team over team radio reporting “the grip os very low,” and this despite the entire 6km of the race track having been re-asphalted with a high grip surface.
The bright neon of ‘the strip’ was dimmed as the temporary lights hung from their gantries turned the Nevada night into day. It was quickly obvious that the Red Bull cars were running more downforce than the rest of field as the superior capabilities of the all conquering RB19 were on display for all to see.
Sainz Ferrari grinds to a halt
After just nine minutes, the Ferraro of Carlos Sainz stopped on track just opposite the Bellagio Hotel whose fountains were strangely dark as the VIP seating obscured the usual iconic view.
Carlos Sainz received a signal on his dashboard telling him to “STOP THE CAR. ENGINE OFF” the Ferrari and in less than ten minutes the first red flag of the weekend was thrown by race control. Of course the clock ticked on cutting the amount of time the fans would see the cars on track in Free Practice One.
The TV replays suggested Sainz had slowed momentarily on the 1.9km straight before his Ferrari bounced and then cut the engine revs, slowing to a standstill.
Marshalls slow to recover the car
It was over ten minutes before the Ferrari was recovered and on the back of a flat bed truck being returned to the pits lane. This delay suggests the FIA and the conscripted race Marshalls were still finding their feet in terms of speedily clearing away a strike car, something the Monaco officials over the years have nailed to a tee.
Then after 11 minutes, the news came through that the session had been cancelled and would not be resumed, much to the disappointment of the vast array of fans.
As the Ferrari returned to the pits it became quickly obvious the floor at the front of Sainz’s Ferrari had been ripped apart just behind the front wing.
F1 stewards inspect Ferrari damage
The FIA confirmed quickly there was an issue with a drain cover which had clearly become loose and looked to have broken the front suspension on the Ferrari.
The stewards unusually came down from their room to see the damage to Sainz’s Ferrari which was significant although the Spanish driver appeared to be relatively unhurt.
It became quickly obvious that the drain cover had been welded down properly but the entire frame had loosened itself an the entire grate became raised as the Ferrari passed over the top.
Others affected by unsafe circuit
Alpine quickly confirmed they too had suffered damage and would replace the chassis on Esteban Ocon’s car. “We will change the chassis on car 13 due to damage from a suspected drain cover on track,” reported the team’s social media.
Speculation grew quickly that there could be other problems with the track and the entire day’s running may be cancelled.
To change the chassis on a Formula One car is no small job and takes a minimum of three hours to complete before the car can run again. Of course with Practice Two due in around three hours it appeared both Ferrari and Alpine may be compromised in their running due to the unsafe nature of the circuit.
All Friday running in Vegas cancelled
Forty minutes later came the news from the FIA who revealed.
“The concrete frame around a manhole cover that has failed. Now need to check all the other manhole covers, which will take some time. Will be discussing with circuit engineering team about length of time it will take to resolve and will update with any changes to schedule”
Martin Brundle of Sky F1 speculated that now the entire drain covers around the entire 6km would have to be stress tested and that this would mean no further running for the cars for the rest of the day.
Even the repair of the drain cover which hit Sainz car would require new concrete to be applied and the drying times for this would be extensive.
Horner optimistic track will re-open ‘quickly’
Of course losing the entire first day of running in Formula One’s most vaunted event of the year is a PR disaster for the sport and questions will be asked over how thorough the safety inspections prior to the F1 cars hitting the track really were.
The Red Bull team boss confirmed both the team’s cars were undamaged. “We’re all good so far. From what I’ve heard one of the Alpine’s has picked up a bit of damage and I’ve had a quick chat with Fred [Vasseur, Ferrari boss] who confirmed the damage is quite significant on that Ferrari,” confirmed Christian Horner.
When asked whether the schedule should be changed were it not possible to run again this evening, Horner appeared confident this would not be the case.
“We’ve just got to be flexible. It’s a great shame for the fans who have come out to see the cars running but safety comes first. We’ve just got to get this right and hopefully it won’t take too long.”
Ferrari boss furious
Fred Vasseur was furious over what happened to his driver and car and explained to assembled media: “We damaged completely the monocoque, the engine, the battery. I think it’s just unacceptable. It cost us a fortune. We fucked up the session for Carlos. We won’t be part of FP2 for sure. I think it’s just unacceptable for F1 today.”
It later became apparent that not only had Ocon and Sainz suffered damage, but the Alfa Romeo of Zhou Guangyu also took a hit to the floor of the car.
TV footage showed that Fernando Alonso who was ahead of Ocon and Sainz on track saw the errant drain cover and made a high speed adjustment to prevent his Aston Martin hitting the metal object.
Concerns over track temperature proved unfounded
The great unknown for the highly anticipated Las Vegas F1 weekend was how the tyres would cope with such cold temperatures, yet early signs were the track layout and car setups were not causing an issue.
Christian Horner confirmed that even though just a couple of laps had been completed, “the surface while fresh… the tyre temperatures were all coming up… everything was starting to behave quite well. It was just a shame the running got cut short because it was just starting to come in.”
When pressed on whether extra time would need to be allocated by the FIA one Friday were the entire first day to be wiped out, the Red Bull boss appeared confident the second practice session would get under way – at some point.
“I think they’ll get it sorted… we’re here all night anyway,” he joked. “12 o’clock? Why not 2 o’clock in the morning? People in Europe can see it then too…”
Multiple issues discovered
As the first practice session was due to be completed, the news came through that a number of issues had been found with other similar coverings around the track.
This is not new in Formula One as during the first practice session in Azerbaijan in 2019, George Russell’s Williams struck a manhole cover and required a chassis change before practice two.
The FIA the checked 360 similar installations around the circuit and the second active session was started on time, though Russell failed to make FP2 due to the extensive damage on his car.
Story developing….. more to come….