Formula 1 will make history this weekend when the sport takes over the Las Vegas Strip for a maiden night race in the city, 41 years after it last played host to the championship.
In amongst the festivities of the event, the weekend is an objective step into the unknown for teams who will need to battle an off-set weekend schedule and ambient temperatures of around 10 degrees Celsius when the Strip is cast under moonlight.
While Las Vegas twice played host to the premier open-wheel series in 1981 and 1982, a return to Sin City some four decades later presents further jeopardy for teams in that there is no historic data to guide preparation before turning their maiden laps of the brand new, 6.2km long street circuit.
While drivers will have been able to take to their respective simulators at home and at their team’s factories, they will still effectively be working from scratch before a first foray onto the temporary street circuit for the first time on Thursday evening.
A congested 2023 calendar, which sees the final five rounds take place over the course of six weeks, has presented a further logistical challenge to drivers heading into the penultimate round of the year.
“There’s still a lot to do. I still need to go on the simulator. I still don’t even know the track, to be honest,” admitted three-time champion Max Verstappen in the post-Sao Paulo Grand Prix press conference.
“So, the last time I tried it on the F1 game, I think I hit more walls than I was going straight. So, let’s hope that’s not the case when I start driving there!
“It’s going to be very different to here [Interlagos]: very low temperatures, of course in the night there. Street circuit. We have no experience there. We don’t know the track grip. All new. So maybe it will give you a few surprises. I don’t know.”
“I’ve done my simulator session [for Las Vegas] already,” Carlos Sainz said in Austin last month. “Must have been 50 or 60 laps, which is normally what I like to do when it’s a new track.
“I think the big thing there, as you said, will be the temperature and how the tyres behave in those temperatures. Given the track layout – very long straights – a tyre will cool down on those straights.
“Then, getting into a corner on a very low downforce setting, like we’re expecting in Vegas, on a cold tyre, on a new surface, I think there could be many variables for tyres and temperatures in general to be a big talking point that weekend.
“You can be as prepared as you want, but until you see what happens on the car, you cannot react,” the Spaniard warned.
Haas driver Nico Hulkenberg also stressed the importance of this weekend’s FP1 session in getting up to speed at the Las Vegas street circuit.
“No driver will have had extensive preparation for this one, so practice is going to be important,” contributed the German.
“I don’t normally do a track walk, so let’s see if I do one here, could be a unique way of seeing all the sights of the Vegas strip.”
With very little to go by in terms of real data, teams will also be plunged into the unknown in Las Vegas.
“Apart from the uniqueness of the city itself, I consider the layout to be a mixture of tracks like Baku, Miami and Jeddah,” shared Ferrari’s senior driving simulator engineer, Erik van der Veen.
“There are very long straights which are not always straight and not so many corners, which pushes the car in the direction of minimizing drag and therefore running lower downforce.”
The Las Vegas Grand Prix is expected to be one of F1’s coldest races with temperatures forecast to drop below 10 degrees at night. This means that getting the tyres into the right window could prove critical in the battle for pole on Saturday morning when trying to strike a balance through the high-energy corners at the risk of graining.
“Racing in a place as unique as Las Vegas at night, with winter approaching, will produce conditions we do not usually encounter during the season,” Van der Veen continued.
“The expected temperatures are far below the window in which we usually race which means it is very difficult to know what to expect, even more so because it is a brand new circuit on which we have never raced before.
“Fortunately, over the past few years there has been a lot of development in the models of both the car and the tyres which give us a better idea of what to expect in these conditions.
“Nonetheless we have to consider a wider range of conditions than usual to make sure we are as ready as we can be and, more importantly, be ready to react to anything that happens.”
As for how best to generate and maintain tyre heat and grip, that will be another unknown for teams until cars hit the track for the first time.
“As the sessions are held at night, the track and air will both be cold. This will affect the car setup in terms of PU and brake cooling but, more significantly, is expected to alter the tyre behaviour,” said Williams’ head of vehicle performance Dave Robson.
“We expect that generating temperature in the tyre without damaging the tyre surface will be key to generating good grip. Exactly how best to achieve this will depend on the new track surface and how it has aged since it was laid.
“The unknowns of a new track, unusually cold conditions and the complexity of running through the night will act to level the playing field and give every team an opportunity to outperform their underlying cars,” added an optimistic Robson.
“We are under no illusion that this will be a tricky test for the whole team and the drivers and whilst we will not be complacent, we know that we can be agile and effective in these circumstances.
“This weekend is a good opportunity to stretch our gap to AlphaTauri in the Constructors’ Championship and we will take every chance to do just that.”