A sorry oddity: the last time F1 raced in Las Vegas


The pinnacle of racing.... in a Caesars Palace car park. As F1 returns to Las Vegas, Damien Smith looks back to 1982 and the last grand prix held there: the finale to a season that fizzled out

Las Vegas Michele Alberto 1982

Michele Alberto's reign as Las Vegas' last grand prix winner will end this weekend — over 40 years since F1's last visit

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The contrast between the glitzy, neon – and potentially migraine-inducing – Las Vegas Grand Prix and the sorry oddity that was the old Caesars Palace GP has become something of a cliché this week. But clichés exist for a reason: they tend to carry a universal truth. And it is certainly true that Formula 1’s twin visits to a casino car park 40-plus years ago remain among the most deflating grand prix episodes when the opposite should have been the case.

Then as now, the tawdry commercial flagrancy of Sin City was a perfect fit for motor racing’s gauche premier division. It should have worked. If only someone had bothered to build a proper circuit and engage with the locals. Might we be saying something similar on Sunday morning? Now there’s a question. The track looks OK (on paper), but reports this week of residents chafing at the disruption caused doesn’t exactly bode well on the latter point.

Back in 1981 and ’82, both Caesars Palace GPs were the final rounds of those seasons – and both featured what should have been tense and thrilling title deciders. The first tends to hog most of the attention, perhaps because it had the novelty advantage of being the first in Vegas – and includes tales of bizarre experiences such as Mike Doodson’s, told in amusing fashion in the December edition of Motor Sport. Also, the ’81 title climax had more tension than in ’82. How Carlos Reutemann wilted for Williams (with or without a phantom gearbox problem, depending on who you want to believe) and allowed a heat-exhausted Nelson Piquet to nick the title by a single point became the stuff of weird F1 legend.

1981 Caesars Palace GP

1981’s visit to Las Vegas was hardly a showstopper

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But in the interests of balance – and because it remains until Saturday night/Sunday morning the most recent F1 grand prix to grace the grubby streets of Vegas — let’s take a look at 1982, at the conclusion of that traumatic season.

Just like this year, the second (and final) Caesars Palace GP was a Saturday race, held on September 25. Yes, the end of September. Remember when F1 seasons finished so early? Just like IndyCar today… And just like the year before, the world champion was confirmed by landing an inglorious fifth place. In this case, Keke Rosberg followed in Piquet’s wheel tracks by doing just enough to claim the title.

From the archive

Motor Sport was not impressed by the whole experience. But for a change it wasn’t Denis Jenkinson or Alan Henry writing our report. Instead, it carried the initials of ‘JH (on behalf of DSJ and AH)’. That must be Jeff Hutchinson, more usually a super-sub at Autosport, who according to Mr Doodson taught Piquet, Rosberg, Thierry Boutsen and probably more on the F1 grid how to fly planes.

In Motor Sport, JH certainly flew off the handle – and carried off a pretty good impression of DSJ in his opening paragraph. “There was a time when races at Monza were memorable and formed a fitting end to a grand prix season as a final high-speed, no-holds-barred, flat-out dice, after which everyone collapsed in a heap happy to have ended the season on such a high note,” he began. “Nowadays, with Monza emasculated by silly ‘chicanes’ and everyone wanting to get on the money-making Formula 1 bandwagon, the season tends to drag on” – the end of September, remember! – “and this year it fizzled out in the car park of a big hotel in the desert gambling oasis of Las Vegas in the state of Nevada in the United States.”

Oh dear. JH’s mood wasn’t improved by the race he witnessed. The two Renaults, as was regularly the case in 1982, set the pace, Alain Prost taking pole position from René Arnoux. Prost was already out of the reckoning for the world title, 11 points down on leader Rosberg. Didier Pironi was just three behind – but of course was also out of the reckoning. The Ferrari driver’s F1 career was over following his leg-smashing crash at Hockenheim.

1982 Caesars Palace GP

1982’s visit wasn’t much better than the year before…

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So that left John Watson as Rosberg’s only threat – albeit a faint one. Forty-two points played 33 (in the days when a win scored nine). Wattie needed to win with Rosberg failing to score, to win the title on number of victories across the year. In a season when 10 drivers had won races the McLaren driver had two – Zolder, overshadowed by the death in qualifying of Gilles Villeneuve, and his passing masterclass from 17th in Detroit. Rosberg had just a single victory to his name, the Swiss Grand Prix that had actually taken place in France at Dijon (!) – and that had pushed him past Pironi’s points tally.

In short, Arnoux’s Renault turbo engine failed him (again), while Prost faded with tyre problems to finish fourth. Michele Albereto, who’d qualified a fine third, picked up the pieces to score his first F1 win, the 11th victor of a crazy season, breaking a drought for Tyrrell that stretched back to 1978.

And Wattie? He’d qualified poorly, in ninth, dropped to 11th at the start – then put in another great race drive to climb to second. Not enough. Rosberg kept his moustache clean on the way to fifth to become champion by five points from a tied Pironi and Watson.

The race was a couple of twists away from high drama. What if Alboreto’s Tyrrell had let him down? Or Rosberg’s Cosworth DFV had failed? Wattie would have been champ. But in truth, he knew he’d left too much to do around the Caesars Palace car park.

Niki Lauda John Watson

Niki Lauda (left) and John Watson (right) of McLaren at 1982 Monaco Grand Prix

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Today, Wattie says he has “disappointments” from his career rather than “regrets”, and that “1982 is one of them. Some of it was down to me, some down to the team and the circumstances in the team. Niki [Lauda] had come in out of retirement at the start of the year and there was a little bit of a love affair, as you can imagine. What I regret is not having that amazing quality Niki had in terms of self-belief, and the ability to convey that. He was very succinct in everything he did. He was a smart operator.”

From the archive

Wattie, honest to a fault, admits his own “naivety” probably held him back from his life’s goal. He didn’t quite have it in him, to have that selfish streak that Lauda and so many of the greats have built in. “On the night before the Vegas race Ron Dennis had a word with Niki and said ‘listen, John can win the championship,’” Watson recalls. “If he’s behind you and is quicker, will you let him go?’ That was the first time Niki realised he was in a team he wasn’t able to control, as he had at Ferrari and Brabham. And at that point I think he kind of checked out, went through the motions.” Lauda’s engine blew on race day.

“If I’d had those values and qualities that Niki had maybe I’d have achieved some of what he had, but maybe not all of it,” says Watson, a little wistfully. “Still, if I’d had one world championship it would have been phenomenal.”

In Motor Sport, JH’s judgement on how it played was once again worthy of DSJ in its withering – and comically dismissive – assessment. “This season has seen no single driver dominating the scene, which you can either interpret as competition being strong or a mediocre standard of driving ability; equally no single team has dominated the season like Williams and Lotus have done in the past, which again can be interpreted as a sign that a lot of teams are very strong – or they are all pretty hopeless.”

On Saturday, Caesars Palace 1982 will finally be displaced as the most recent Vegas grand prix. There are no titles to be won because that’s long been decided, but it doesn’t matter – because the race is barely the point. This time F1 – like Elvis – is taking a residency. This time it won’t be leaving the building.

Caesars Palace 185
Caesars Palace - Grand Prix Circuit

1981 - 1982


Temporary road course


2.268 (Miles)


Grand Prix circuit laid out in the car park

Fastest Race Lap

Michele Alboreto (Tyrrell 011-Ford), 1m19.639, 102.523 mph, F1, 1982

Fastest Qualifying Lap

Alain Prost (Renault RE30B), 1m16.356, 106.931 mph, F1, 1982

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