MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — DJ’s spinning at the beach. Drinks flowing in the marina. Celebrities roaming the grounds in the shadow of an NFL stadium with fans nearby trying to catch a glimpse of some real Netflix stars.
Formula One, the sleek, wealthy globetrotting series that has exploded in popularity in North America, formally opened its three-day Miami Grand Prix on Friday with a must-be-there vibe and the promise of more to come. There are two F1 events in the U.S. for the first time since 1984.
Promoters wanted this event even before F1's popularity soared behind “Drive To Survive," the wildly popular Netflix series that has made F1 the hottest property in motorsports.
The enthusiastic reception on a hot, humid day in South Florida didn't surprise seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton, who is credited for “manifesting” this event in 2017 when he chose Miami as his dream destination for a new race when American company Liberty Media bought the series.
“I think (it's) perhaps more a cultural thing here in the States,” Hamilton said. "It's the NBA. It's NASCAR, IndyCar and in my 16 years coming over here, it's been such a slow build, trying to bring awareness to the sport. The Americans have to wake up at odd times in order to watch grand prix.
“But I think the new step that's been taken into bringing awareness, you know, the Netflix show, it's really brought in that amazing fanbase," Hamilton said. "And now maybe it's time to start focusing on how we can include more people here because it's such a diverse country.”
F1 will have three races in the U.S. in 2023 when a November night race is added to the calendar on the Las Vegas Strip.
For now, Americans can watch this championship battle between Ferrari and reigning world champion Max Verstappen on Sunday and then in October at Circuit of the Americas, the Texas track that brought F1 back to the U.S. in 2012 after a four-year hiatus.
The Miami race is the fifth of 22 races — a 23rd event in Sochi was canceled after Russia's invasion of Ukraine and hasn't been replaced — and so far its been a battle between Ferrari and Red Bull.
Championship leader Charles Leclerc was fastest in first practice and George Russell gave Mercedes a massive boost by pacing the second session.
Leclerc covered the 19-turn, 3.36-mile circuit (5.41 kilometers) in 1 minute, 31:098 seconds in his Ferrari earlier Friday, when Russell was second fastest for Mercedes. Verstappen was third and followed by Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez. Verstappen and Perez are second and third in the standings behind Leclerc.
In the afternoon practice, it was Russell ahead of Leclerc, while Perez was third and Hamilton a much-improved fourth after he was eighth in the early session. Hamilton and Verstappen battled to the finale in last year's championship but Mercedes has been slow out of the gate and team principal Toto Wolff apologized to Hamilton two weeks ago for giving him an “undrivable” car. Hamilton had finished 13th, while Russell was fourth at Imola.
Russell said “it's too early” to know if upgrades to the Mercedes ahead of Miami have helped him and Hamilton.
“We don't really understand it, to be honest, why we hit the ground running,” Russell said. “We always knew ahead of this weekend that the conditions should suit us better. This is the first real hot race of the season, so that's been a factor, but the car is working well and it's only Friday so we're not getting too carried away.”
Verstappen and Leclerc, meanwhile, have split the first four races with two wins each as Ferrari has been incredible since it debuted its new car built under the 2022 regulations.
Hamilton showed up at the track wearing all the jewelry he could find in protest of the FIA's crackdown on body piercings and bling during competition. The governing body for F1 says the jewelry is a safety hazard, but Hamilton said he cannot remove his piercings and was willing to miss the race.
He ultimately submitted a document to the FIA that said he'd removed everything he could ahead of first practice and was granted a temporary waiver on his nose piercing.
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