Let’s start with the boats, just to get that out of the way.
Formula One bills itself not only as the pinnacle of auto racing, but as the standard of glitz and glamour in international sports. No other competition touches so many corners of the world, or rubs elbows with so much wealth and fame.
The intersection of these interests is most notably represented in Monaco, whose street circuit has hosted more grands prix than any other venue, and whose famous harbor has been the site of not one but two crashes that put F1 cars in the drink, as well as Kimi Räikkönen’s famous midrace journey from his stricken McLaren to a hot tub. Many of F1’s newer street circuits have sought to emulate Monaco by placing boats next to cars—Singapore, Abu Dhabi, Jeddah. And as of a month ago, F1’s newest venue: Miami.
Nestled into the gentle left-handed curves of turns 6, 7, and 8 of the Miami International Autodrome sit 10 pleasure vessels of varied sizes. The race organizers didn’t truck in water for them to rest in, however. Instead, they mounted the boats on top of a plywood stage covered in blue vinyl that mimics (and not very convincingly) the appearance of water. They abut a hospitality center called Mia Marina, home to picnic tables, food stands, a cabana serving tropical drinks, and beige carpet that helps to diffuse the South Florida heat—which is pleasant in shade but ramps up to “Martin Brundle is going to sublimate” in direct sun—and also gives off the impression of sand.
Miami, as much as any major city in the U.S., is famed for its beachfront party atmosphere. And yet the marina and the beach at the Autodrome are nothing more than an audacious bit of public sculpture. There’s no view of the water—South Beach is almost 20 miles away—and neither the skyline of Miami nor Fort Lauderdale is visible from the circuit. The only thing that gives the track itself a sense of place are the spires of Hard Rock Stadium, a not-particularly-memorable NFL venue, and what must be half of the world’s supply of teal paint.
Welcome to the Miami Grand Prix, the greatest show on Earth.
At the Wednesday night party that opened the Miami Grand Prix weekend, seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton likened the event to the Super Bowl, a comparison he repeated in Friday morning’s press conference.
“I was just in New York, and I would just remember just walking through the streets, and I heard someone talking about ‘Hey, you going to Miami?’ and they didn’t know I was there,” Hamilton said. “There’s just talk on the streets: this race, and the excitement. I’ve been to a couple of Super Bowls. This kind of feels like a similar vibe.”
With the United States Grand Prix firmly established on the calendar at the Circuit of the Americas in Texas, and the sport exploding in popularity across the country thanks to Netflix’s Drive to Survive docuseries, the Miami Grand Prix could not have come along at a better time. COTA is like many modern F1 circuits: a purpose-built facility designed for modern cars with racing first and foremost. It’s hewn into a remote strip of land half an hour outside Austin, hardly a Monaco-type destination.
The Miami circuit, however, was built from the ground up, primarily to support the spectacle.
When asked for his thoughts on this Miami race, Alfa Romeo team principal Frédéric Vasseur let loose a burst of Formula 1’s favorite adjective. “Outside of the track, it’s a mega event,” Vasseur said. “It’s probably the best one for the F1 so far, and it was already very impressive to have thousands of spectators on Wednesday evening. It’s a mega great feeling for all of us. … [T]he infrastructure is mega. The show is there, we have tons of requests from the guests, and I think F1 is going in the right direction.”
The F1 journalists I spoke to from outside the U.S. said the facilities at the Autodrome, and promotions around the city, are among the best and shiniest they’ve encountered. To someone well-versed in major American sports, the Miami setup isn’t that far outside the norm. The facilities are top-notch, but they’re just NFL facilities. The citywide advertising and promotional events are nothing more than one would expect for March Madness or the MLB playoffs. But Formula One, for all its yachted reputation, is often contested on old tracks set up in a remote dell or desert. In short, we Americans have been spoiled.
In that spirit, the Miami Grand Prix organizers did their best to spoil their guests. Post Malone is appearing on Saturday Night Live next week. This week? He performed between the third free practice session and qualifying. In addition to the Mia Marina, fans could ride a cable car over the circuit, or avail themselves of dozens of attractions around it: the typical food, drinks, and souvenirs, but also swimming pools, hospitality suites, and cabanas. One tent in the fan area hawked F1-branded fragrances. This was not really a sporting event so much as Six Flags for people with three-car garages.
More than stuff to do, there was stuff to see, and be seen at. Not far from the ersatz marina, Ferrari had lined up a handful of historic GT racing cars; even before Friday’s practice sessions began, fans lined up to be photographed in front of them, or even just by the doors to the Ferrari pop-up hospitality suite. Every few yards along the main pedestrian paths, there were new exhibits (read: selfie magnets): a white Lamborghini Countach straight out of Miami Vice, McLaren’s new supercar, an F1 mule car with a special Miami livery. Or the most 2022 attraction of all: the Crypto.com NFT Art Gallery.
“I was here in October after Austin, and it was kind of just like a car park,” said Mercedes driver George Russell, “and now you come here and it’s one of the biggest, most spectacular sporting events in the world.”
It’s not just the organizers who treated Miami like a spectacle.
“I think when you first hear something’s going to go around a stadium, people then start talking about Caesars Palace from what, 30 or 40 years ago?” said McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown. “This is definitely a proper racetrack. The demand from sponsors and fans has been off the charts, unlike anything I’ve seen since my time in Formula One. Great to see just the atmosphere.”
Inside the paddock, the atmosphere took on a sly flavor as the sport’s two most decorated active drivers, Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, gently prodded both internal and external powers that be. Vettel, who’s discovered an activist streak in his mid-30s, took the stage at Wednesday night’s opening party in a T-shirt that predicted Miami would be underwater by 2060 because of climate change. And Hamilton is currently fighting a battle with the FIA over new rules regarding drivers’ underwear and jewelry. These rules restrict what drivers can wear under their coveralls and hood, purportedly in the name of fire safety.
Hamilton took the dais on Friday morning wearing, in his estimation, as much jewelry as he could put on. And he said he is resisting the new restrictions because he views them as a strike against drivers’ self-expression, and because he has two piercings that can’t be removed, one in his nose and one in an as-yet-undisclosed location (the latter being the subject of much giggling and speculation). That afternoon, Vettel walked through the paddock with a pair of boxer briefs stretched over his firesuit, as a statement of support for Hamilton.
“[Are underpants] the most exciting thing we can talk about?” Vettel mused at Friday’s press conference. Yes, it turns out.
In addition to Vettel’s protest undies, almost every team brought some special piece of gear to this race. Mercedes jazzed up its livery to include Miami-inspired accents. Other teams brought neon wheel covers; Alpine’s drivers showed up on Friday in special pink and blue shirts made to resemble the Miami Vice motif. McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo, no stranger to publicity stunts or colorful accessories, commissioned a special helmet to express his love for Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. (On Friday, he had to stop himself from hijacking the press conference to talk about the film, and seemed bereft when Charles Leclerc, eight years his junior, said he’d never heard of it.)
In the days leading up to the race, the drivers made the most of their time in South Florida. Russell sat courtside at the Heat-Sixers game. Lando Norris and Hamilton both hit the links, Norris with PGA pro Joaquín Niemann, and the seven-time champion with Tom Brady and Marcus Allen. Esteban Ocon visited Inter Miami. Red Bull’s stable of drivers had a full weekend; world champion Max Verstappen took on Yuki Tsunoda in a swamp buggy race, and he and Sergio Pérez threw out the first pitch at a Marlins game.
Pierre Gasly dined with Michael Jordan and swapped a helmet for a pair of signed sneakers. I asked Gasly how the 6-foot-6 Jordan compared physically to the diminutive F1 drivers he usually finds himself around (15 of the 20 current drivers are under 6-foot, with Tsunoda clocking in at 5-foot-2). “When he started to wear my helmet, I said, ‘You’re not stealing my car, you can’t fit in it,’” Gasly joked.
“I’m kind of jealous he met with Michael Jordan,” Tsunoda said of Gasly’s dinner. “I think all the drivers are jealous.”
Yachts on a stage wasn’t Plan A. The original Miami Grand Prix proposal, first published in 2018, had the race situated in downtown Miami, running across a bridge to the port, going past some real yachts along the way, and then looping back toward the city. But local residents, unhappy about the noise and disruption an F1 race would bring, ended that proposal quickly, which left the door open for Dolphins owner Stephen Ross to try to bring the race to Miami Gardens, site of Hard Rock Stadium.
The area around the stadium is the kind of single-story residential sprawl you’ll find around every city in the Sun Belt. And while the residents of Miami Gardens—the largest majority Black city in Florida—protested hosting the race just as ferociously, it was to no avail. A city commission resolution to subject road closures to public hearings was vetoed by Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, whose son worked as a lobbyist for F1 during the initial bid process, and a lawsuit brought by local residents over noise ordinances failed as well.
F1 didn’t ignore its surroundings completely. The F1 in Schools program visited a Miami Gardens school to promote STEM education and give out tickets to the race, while Hamilton, the only Black driver in the sport’s history, remarked that the crowd for Wednesday night’s opening ceremony “couldn’t be any more diverse.”
Still, it’s as unfortunate as it is unsurprising that the people inconvenienced by this race were largely priced out of enjoying the show. Organizers capped attendance at 85,000 per day over the sprawling facility, so as to create artificial scarcity. The cheapest ticket for the weekend, general admission for Friday’s practice sessions, went for $300. Grandstand tickets for the race started at more than twice that. (For the same money, fans could buy a three-day grandstand set along the start-finish line at the Austrian Grand Prix.)
The litany of fun experiences the drivers had generally took place elsewhere around the Miami area. And when a local journalist asked Brown on Saturday what the sport was doing to be more inclusive and court fans of all races and backgrounds, the McLaren boss cited his team’s Speed Shop pop-up event as something all fans could access. But the Speed Shop wasn’t in Miami Gardens—it was in Miami Beach.
Formula One is unusual among sports in that it’s not only insular and exclusive now, but that it has never pretended to be otherwise. There is no outlaw origin story as in NASCAR, or pastoral mythology as in baseball. For better or worse, Formula One has always been about money and status: Ferrari, Monte Carlo, the carefree abandon of wealth.
Nowhere is this more evident—at least, nowhere you can get with a press pass—than in the paddock. Miami’s paddock is nestled under one side of Hard Rock Stadium like a remora under a shark, with offices and hospitality suites for each of the 10 constructors, plus Pirelli and a few other entities. The front half features the biggest teams’ garages, as well as the Sky Sports TV stage. Drivers, team principals, and media personalities buzz from here to there and mill around with near-total freedom, making the area from the entrance to the media center the best 200 feet of people-watching real estate in sports. Maybe the entire planet.
Without even trying particularly hard, I saw four retired F1 world champions—Sir Jackie Stewart, Emerson Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti, and Jenson Button—plus numerous other F1 and IndyCar luminaries. James Corden was rolling a tire around on Saturday while filming a Late Late Show bit. Jordan was in the paddock for Sunday’s race, as were David Beckham, Pharrell, and the Williams sisters.
There are three kinds of fame in the F1 paddock: famous enough to snag an invite (Paolo Banchero, at least until he got to the grid), famous enough to get stopped for photos and autographs (DJ Khaled), and famous enough to have handlers to prevent fans from asking for photos and autographs (Michelle Obama).
But it bears mentioning that this region is not solely the playground of the famous. You can also pay to get in. If you thought $500 for one day’s worth of standing room tickets was steep, consider that access to the far side of Professor Digory Kirke’s wardrobe costs upward of $10,000 dollars. And yet people came out in numbers, tanned and decked out in baseball caps and fancy sunglasses, sipping drinks on the pit building’s rooftop bar and taking photos with passing celebrities or (if they got their timing right) even a driver or team principal. Souvenir prices everywhere were steep, but at the gift shop in the Paddock Club, they weren’t even listed.
Less than an hour before the race, the paddock was chaos, equal parts thoroughfare, staging area, TV set, and block party. (Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz remarked after the race that the paddock was too crowded this weekend.) In those chaotic moments, while trying to make my way back to the media center, I had to duck out of sight of a TV crew interviewing U.S. Open champion Juan Martín del Potro, then dodge Russell and his entourage as they stalked over to the Mercedes garage.
If anything else like this exists in the world of sports, I’ve never seen it.
There’s a charming audacity about the degree to which Formula One called its shot with the inaugural Miami Grand Prix. Not only to hold a race in a new city, in a country that’s only just recently embraced the sport, on an unraced and temporary circuit, but to declare months in advance that this is the biggest, most glamorous, most celebrity-packed event of the F1 season, if not the entire sporting calendar. Even more so than Monaco, the most historic track in the sport’s wealthiest locale.
What a claim to make—and even more so, what a claim to back up. Because while the paddock was a little overstuffed, and the track was a little greasy at times, and the sun was a little hotter than what the group of largely European drivers and team staff were used to, this race was everything it promised. The logistics were flawless, the Q rating as advertised, even the beached yachts ended up being fun and arch in that uniquely Florida way. Your grandmother’s lawn flamingos, adjusted for economic class.
Formula One’s first trip to Miami offered unapologetic glitz and wealth porn on a scale unfamiliar to Americans, mixed with sports and entertainment maximalism unfamiliar to the rest of the world.
Asked for his thoughts on the event, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff also invoked the M-word.
“Mega,” Wolff said. “I think it’s a fantastic achievement by all of those involved: promoters, Formula One, and FIA to have come up with such an event and the city is hyped—is that how you say it? Formula One is all around, the amount of guest requests we have is amazing. I think we’ve finally landed in North America.”
Wolff is right. COTA’s contract runs through 2026, and this weekend’s Miami race was the first of a 10-year contract. Miami’s place as the sport’s biggest bonanza might be short-lived, however. Next year, F1 will race in Las Vegas and three times total in the U.S. for the first time since 1982. Such is F1’s commitment to Sin City that it’s in the process of spending $240 million to purchase land on the Strip for a permanent paddock facility.
As the sun set on Sunday, the constant fizzing of celebrity and the clicking of camera shutters gave way to the sound of power tools, as the 10 teams packed up their garage setups. Laptops and radios bound for bases in England or Italy, tools and furniture for Barcelona in two weeks’ time. Soon, the stylish temporary edifices around the Hard Rock Stadium grounds will follow suit, as the Autodrome reverts to its original form and purpose.
The circus is moving on to the next town.