Anytime a sporting event bills itself as “the Super Bowl of” its kind, the pressure to pay that off will be immense. But in terms of spectacle Formula 1’s inaugural Miami Grand Prix more than lived up to the outsized billing. The fake marina, the poolside mermaids and other kitschy touches were a hit. People from all races and cultures turned up in droves, dressed to kill. Female fans trooped out in force. The sun was out, the vibe was Instagram-ready and there was nary a Confederate flag in sight. Nascar, eat your heart out.
By the time Gabrielle Union, David Beckham, Kathryn Hahn and Mila Kunis rolled through the Miami Gardens paddock last Sunday for what some were calling MotorCoachella, the crowd had swelled to around 85,000; a staggering number of them were adorned in the latest fashions from Ferrari, Aston Martin and Williams. In the end they got their considerable money’s worth. It hardly mattered that the race itself was big, fat dud.
Face it: besides the championship games involving Tom Brady – who was on hand for Sunday’s GP, too – most modern day Super Bowls have been yawn-inducing one-sided affairs. Sunday’s title fight between pole sitter Charles Leclerc and defending champion Max Verstappen was no different.
Naturally, it appeared early on as if this main event would make for a much closer clash in styles, with Ferrari’s cornering prowess pitted against Red Bull’s straight-ahead speed. But once they got rolling Verstappen quickly leapfrogged Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz and reeled in Leclerc on the way to opening up a massive lead. If not for a lap 41 caution, Verstappen might’ve authored the worst Miami Super Bowl drubbing since the 49ers ran roughshod over the Chargers in 1995. Verstappen, who arrived at the podium under police escort, taking a Dolphins football helmet from Dan Marino was a nice touch. But after that beating? His rivals probably needed the protection more.
The blowout wasn’t a turnoff at home, either. ABC’s coverage of the race drew 2.6m viewers in the US, the most ever for a live F1 telecast – a slightly smaller audience than the one that tuned in for Sunday’s Nascar race. And that was with NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy enthusiastically and somewhat randomly going on a long tangent about the race during ABC’s preceding coverage of the Grizzlies-Warriors playoff series.
Even more impressive than Verstappen’s blistering result is that he achieved it on a makeshift, hybrid circuit that would come under withering criticism over the weekend for its crumbling hairpin, cramped chicane and overall lack of grip made worse by a near triple-digit heat wave. Twice, the track was resurfaced ahead of Sunday’s race. Fernando Alonso effectively called the surface atop this gussied-up parking lot – an alloy of Georgia granite, local limestone and 24,000 tons of asphalt – substandard. Red Bull’s Sergio Perez called it “a joke”.
Lando Norris, who crashed out of the race after a late scrap with Pierre Gasly through a dodgy patch of asphalt in turn 7, accused Miami’s circuit designers of “winging it”.
“There’s been only one line that has the grip,” said Valtteri Bottas, who smashed up his Alfa Romeo entering the turn during Friday practice. “That makes it a bit more tricky for overtaking.” Verstappen, who nearly crashed out of practice while barreling through the chicane and slipped up again while qualifying third, said the grip off the racing line “almost feels like gravel”.
Even more jarring was Alpine’s Esteban Ocon totaling his car while spinning out of the chicane entry and into a fully concrete barrier. (Later, Ocon slammed the lack of protection on that barrier as “unacceptable”.) Also during Friday practice Sainz wiped out into another unprotected concrete wall outside of turn 14 that had Ferrari scrambling to pick up the pieces in time for the next day’s qualifying session. It wouldn’t be a Super Bowl if there wasn’t a little bit of controversy in the aftermath. (What’s more, it’s a somewhat refreshing change of tone from all the previous weeks’ chatter about porpoising.)
But not every driver was down on the Miami experience. Lewis Hamilton had likened the Miami circuit to the big-box store car parks where he used to race karts with his father but refused to condemn the track on Sunday after the race. (Although Hamilton did take slight exception to the circuit’s bumps early on…) And of course Daniel Ricciardo is always upbeat.
Even though the Australian wasn’t especially thrilled about finishing 13th, Ricciardo could still take stock of how far and fast F1 has come. Seven years ago, in the run-up to a dismal US Grand Prix in Austin that was just about washed out by torrential rains, Ricciardo was asked what F1 needed to do to hook more American fans and his answer – be “more lads-y” – couldn’t have been more ironic. And when I caught up with him late on Sunday in the paddock as he dodged a mob of celebrities and selfie seekers – most of them here because of what petrolheads might describe as a frothy soap opera – well, I wondered if he could see the irony now.
“I remember saying that, yeah,” he said. “I never really thought it would get to this point in such little time. The sport’s really getting into pop culture.
“I feel like everyone here today, or at least the people that I met were here because they love the sport. It’s not for them to get their picture on social media or to be on TV. There’s a lot of popular people who are really showing an interest. We had Josh Allen here, quarterback of the Bills, and he’s obsessed with the sport at the moment. The Watt boys were here. It makes me happy that the sport’s gone the way it’s gone.”
The Miami circuit may have been a letdown, sure, but organizers will have nine more cracks to sort it out. What’s important is that this much-hyped Shula steak matched the sizzle. As a Super Bowl-level event the Miami Grand Prix more than made the grade, leaving no doubt that F1’s American expansion strategy is definitely on the right track.