The novelty of South Florida hasn’t worn off: F1’s still all about ‘Miami vibe’ in Year 2

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The drivers at the 2023 Miami Grand Prix were already laughing about it by Thursday: Questions about the “Miami vibe” — and, invariably, they always seemed to be phrased that way — were already becoming tiresome and cliche before any racing, or practice, even began in Miami Gardens.

Still, there is something undeniably special about the Miami Grand Prix, which formally kicked off its second race weekend with practices Thursday at the Miami International Autodrome. The race debuted last year and immediately became not just one of the hottest tickets in Florida, but on the entire Formula One calendar. It’s the first race of the year in the United States, in a popular vacation destination with an international population, and glitzy attractions perfectly suited for a sport loved by the world’s rich and famous.

The novelty has not worn off in Year 2.

“The vibe is pretty sick so far,” said Belgium’s Lando Norris, tongue planted in cheek, but even he couldn’t stay sarcastic for long. “Everyone enjoys it here. It’s good weather, just good fun, cool that a lot of different people come here, and it’s an important weekend because we have a lot of partners and brands for us, especially. We have a lot of American brands, so there’s that side of it. I love coming here and hope it’s a good weekend.”

Norris, who drives the No. 4 car for McLaren, will have his helmet painted like a beach ball. France’s Esteban Ocon, who drives the No. 31 for the Alpine F1 Team, dined with Heat star Jimmy Butler on Wednesday. Drivers hung out with Dolphins and went through a miniature combine on the field at Hard Rock Stadium. Finland’s Valtteri Bottas and China’s Zhou Guanyu, both from Alfa Romeo in Formula One, went to a Marlins game Wednesday. The celebrities were already out and about Thursday, too: Actors Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez were at the track to promote “Fast X” and Ocon walked into the facility with him.

The weekend will only get more star-studded as it goes on. On Friday, there were just a pair of practice sessions. Qualifying is set for 4:30 p.m. on Saturday and then the race Sunday will be the main attraction.

“It’s just very unique, different,” said Nico Hulkenberg, who drives the No. 11 for the Haas F1 Team. “It feels like a grand prix weekend, but also it feels like a grand prix with a lot of entertainment, or maximum entertainment, and feels special and unique for that reason.”

The venue is a quintessential South Florida spectacle and there weren’t major changes from Year 1 to Year 2.

At one end of the track is a beach club, where live bands jam at a pop-up Hard Rock Cafe, DJs play music at a Flor de Cana tent, and fans lounge in pink chairs around a table tennis setup while dancers shimmy on roller skates nearby.

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At the other end is the infamous “MIA Marina,” which still doesn’t have real water for its yachts to sit in, but serves as a major attraction thanks to its great views of the tracks and pop-ups from local bars, including Miami Beach’s Sweet Liberty.

The marina remains, in so many ways, the perfect metaphor for Miami — it’s both beautiful and fake, simultaneously expensive and cheap, and, most of all, very, very silly.

“It’s just a nice place to be,” said defending champion Max Verstappen, who drives the No. 1 for Bull Racing. “It’s pretty relaxed in terms of the atmosphere. Of course, it’s quite busy for us throughout the week, but, yeah, we always enjoy getting down here.”

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F1 also has a real local connection this year: Williams Grand Prix Engineering rookie Logan Sargeant, the first American driver in F1 since 2015, hails from Fort Lauderdale and grew up racing at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, and watching the Dolphins play “countless” games at Hard Rock Stadium.

“I was just here at Christmas watching a game. “Now, here we are -- first home Grand Prix. ... It’s pretty cool.”

The “Miami vibe” doesn’t come without some controversy, though. The race is in Florida, after all, and England’s Lewis Hamilton took a swing at some of the state’s politics Thursday.

Hamilton, who drives the No. 44 for Mercedes-Benz in Formula One, often wears a rainbow sticker on his helmet in solidarity with the LGBT community and said he’ll definitely wear it this weekend because of Florida Parental Rights in Education Act, which passed last year and strictly limits discussions of LGBT topics in elementary, middle and high school classrooms in Florida.

“It’s not good at all,” the seven-time champion said. “I stand by those within the community here. I hope they continue to stand firm and push back. I’ll have the rainbow on my helmet. It’s no different to when we were in Saudi [Arabia].”