F1 Needs to Reevaluate Saudi Arabia
It’s barely been four months since Formula One’s first Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, and it feels like I’m in a time machine with the same concerns about the Jeddah Corniche Circuit, this time with more reason to worry than before. The 2022 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, somewhat like its 2021 debut, showed enough on-track entertainment for fans to find themselves distracted from the many problems of the racetrack. However, unlike last year, the danger to F1’s teams and drivers wasn’t only present at the circuit.
Let’s address the missile-shaped elephant in the room straight away here. Formula One was running during an active terrorist attack on a city hosting a Grand Prix. I can remember F1 walking away from the Arab Spring uprising in Bahrain a decade or so ago and the scary stories about several armed robberies from various Brazilian Grands Prix, but never a terrorist attack mid-weekend. Bafflingly, there is already precedent in motorsport going through this…
Formula E, F1’s electric cousin, went through a similar situation just last year in its 2020–21 season when the opening round saw a missile interception during its award ceremony. And where was this missile-affected ePrix, I hear you ask? Well, you might want to be sitting down when you read the shocking revelation that Formula E was racing in Saudi Arabia when missiles flew overhead. Yes, that’s the same Saudi Arabia where F1 saw its missile attack. What a crazy coincidence.
F1 didn’t televise the content of the late-night meeting of teams and drivers voicing their concerns about racing in Saudi Arabia on the Friday night of the Grand Prix, of course. However, it’s a fair bet to suggest some people weren’t comfortable with F1’s location choices when the meeting took around four hours to conclude and words like ‘boycott’ floated around the paddock.
Even though the race did go ahead, Haas boss Guenther Steiner and his driver Mick Schumacher probably wish it didn’t. Schumacher’s 170mph smash into the concrete walls saw his Haas VF-22 essentially disintegrate with the force of the impact. In an era where teams must keep expenses at a minimum because of the cost cap, Haas reportedly had a $1m repair bill.
It’s always concerning when F1 doesn’t cut to a replay of an incident in case of severe injury — we never saw replays of Jules Bianchi’s ultimately-fatal crash from Suzuka for that reason. Those tense moments waiting to see whether Schumacher was okay after the 33g collision are not what I ever want to see. So, try to imagine what his mother, Corinna Schumacher, must’ve gone through during the Saudi Arabian qualifying, especially after seeing her husband’s high-speed crash that broke his legs in 1999.
Mick Schumacher also suffered a crash in Jeddah that cut his race short in 2021 when the barriers bit hard. That time it was during the race and triggered a red flag. The restart had chaos with five drivers caught up in a crash, which meant the marshals needed another race stoppage. Even this year’s championship contenders Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen had session-ending crashes in 2021 after they found the wall over the weekend.
While F1 escaped any red flags in the race this year, it was a different story for Formula 2, the primary support series at Jeddah. The qualifying session had to be split into four periods thanks to three red flag incidents that ruined the laps of many drivers. But it was the Saturday Sprint Race that showed the limitations of the Jeddah Corniche Circuit. The 20-lap race only had around five laps of green flag running due to the lengthy stoppages that saw the drivers slowly following the safety car for most of the race.
Politics aside, and believe me, I could dive deep into that, the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix is not what F1 needs. Yes, the circuit is better than I initially thought, with the final hairpin particularly creating strategic overtaking options. But the track is enclosed by dangerous concrete walls with little-to-no runoff and clearly not enough TECPRO barriers that absorb the inevitable heavy impacts.
More than that, it has such poor recovery times for the crashes that happen that slowdowns like safety or virtual safety cars and red flag stoppages take far too long to clear, which, in turn, negatively impacts the whole point of racing there. I love Formula 1, and even I was clockwatching during this year’s two-hour qualifying session thanks to the amount of time needed to remove crashed cars and debris.
And the third but probably most worrying issue is the threat of an attack. The Saudi government may try to calm fears over safety by saying the missile strikes aren’t against civilians or visitors, but what if that changes? A few months ago, the international spotlight that F1 brings wasn’t an annual feature for Saudi Arabia and, by proxy, the Houthi rebels that fire the missiles. If you want global awareness of your cause, causing problems during an internationally televised event to hundreds of millions is a sure-fire way of finding some attention.
Whatever F1 decides on the future of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, it must learn from the first two events and make changes accordingly. The circuit must study every on-track incident to prevent the scale of damage witnessed while still penalizing a driver for a mistake. In addition, cranes and recovery points need to be strategically placed to end the repeated lengthy delays.
As for the missile attacks, F1 has to think about whether it values Saudi money more than the safety of its competitors and fans. Be it from a missile or another high-impact on-track crash that causes injury or worse, the sport cannot gasp and say, ‘we never saw this coming,’ can they? People are already asking tough questions today, but if the unimaginable happens in 2023 or beyond, F1 will have no credible answers.
Originally published at https://www.fortloc.com on April 4, 2022.