until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Formula 1

F1’s Saudi GP gamble has backed it into a corner

by Edd Straw
6 min read

Would any other Formula 1 event have continued after a missile strike six miles away, claimed by forces hostile to the country as part of a co-ordinated, ongoing and escalating series of attacks, other than the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix?

The answer to that question is surely no. But the very fact the show is going on is proof that F1 backed itself into a corner by committing to racing here in the first place.

What happened on Friday was not a one-off, isolated incident. It was the third wave of attacks by the Houthis over the past two weeks attacking infrastructure targets such as the Aramco North Bulk facility – part of the escalation of a conflict that is now in its eighth year.

Saudi Arabian GP F1

F1 and the FIA have made clear they have been assured the race is not a target. That does appear to be accurate given the Houthi rebels have said nothing about the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix – and there has been no lack of rhetoric being thrown around by the Houthi leadership.

Sometimes, F1 is not the centre of the world and its presence here does appear to be incidental – albeit this is something that can be better determined by those with specialised knowledge.

It has also been stated that the safety of the event is guaranteed, presumably thanks to the Saudi Arabian air defence systems. The trouble with that argument is that a known target close to the circuit was hit on Friday.

Even if that target was considered lower priority in terms of defence (after all, the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix is a global event and presumably to be protected at all costs as far as the regime is concerned), the very fact it was hit confirms that safety cannot be guaranteed. No defence system is infallible.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Saudi Arabian Grand Prix Practice Day Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

There’s also the extra consideration that even if the Jeddah Corniche Circuit is not a target, it has been known for ballistic weapons to miss their targets and strike nearby locations. So can there ever be absolute certainty on this point? Again, that’s a question for specialists to answer.

But this is all irrelevant. What the drivers, or at least some of them, attempted to press home was the absurdity of a grand prix being held in such circumstances. A defence strategy is not sufficient justification when facilities on the doorstep of the event are being attacked, and will continue to be targets.

The possibility of lone, isolated threats to the race might be part of any major sporting event and it would be naive to imagine such threats don’t exist elsewhere. But Saudi Arabia is in a state of war, albeit not with Yemen itself but with the Houthi rebels that form one side in the country’s ongoing civil war.

This is not new information and such attacks have been a fact of life in Saudi Arabia for years. Williams team principal Jost Capito argued on that basis that nothing has changed because this is a known problem, so the risk/reward ratio does not shift.

Jost Capito Williams F1 Saudi Arabian GP

“That’s a question you have to ask FOM and the FIA,” said Capito when asked if the financial benefits of coming to Saudi Arabia outweigh downsides. “We are not in charge of the calendar, but the situation here [has existed] for many years. I think there was a missile attack during the Formula E race at the beginning of last year and there were no worries about them coming here at the end of last year.

“The situation for this weekend hasn’t changed at all. The discussions should have been done before and now will be after, but not during the event – as long as we have confirmation that security is there and that we are safe.”

However, what happened on Friday transformed it from a distant, intangible problem into a very real one. The difference to the Formula E event is that the missile strike on the Aramco facility was a success. What’s more, it’s one that has created headlines around the world and will continue to do so.

Even if there were a 0% chance of a direct attack on the circuit and a 100% chance that any such attack would successfully be repulsed, how can that be a satisfactory situation for F1? The condition should not be there’s an effective missile defence system in place, but that the race isn’t taking place roughly where there’s a high probability of attacks in the first place. This was put to several team bosses today, but none even attempted to defend this beyond resorting to the assurances of safety argument.

Mohammed Ben Sulayem Stefano Domenicali FIA F1 Saudi Arabian GP

On a personal level, and this is being written on site in Jeddah, I’m not especially concerned about the threat to safety. The situation here was well-known and the evaluation of any risk was taken before travelling for both the 2021 and ‘22 race and any risk was understood.

But what is more concerning is what it says about F1’s strategy, which has been to bank the riches of a 15-year deal for a race in Saudi Arabia and hope that it’s not caught out by the gamble. It might be exaggerating and technically incorrect to call this a “warzone”, but not by much – how else would you define an area that’s a regular target for missile attacks and drone strikes?

Anywhere else in the world, this race would be unconscionable amid that backdrop. But this was a decision path chosen by F1 several years ago, which could be a factor in the determination for drivers to be persuaded to continue. Even if it was naively hoped a situation such as the missile strike would never arise, this possibility was effectively plumbed into the deal.

This situation alone is a strong enough argument for F1 never to have gone to Saudi Arabia in the first place. And that’s before you consider the other arguments about sportswashing, Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and whether a race here is compatible with the supposed values of F1 – values that are a useful marketing tool but are apparently irrelevant when it comes to the overriding profit motive.

Saudi Arabian GP F1

The hope now is that the rest of the weekend will go off without a hitch and that this situation will perhaps make F1 reconsider its strategy in terms of its willingness to hold races in problematic countries.

That is a complicated question and not an argument to retreat only into racing in Europe and a few selected places further afield. Geopolitically speaking, the idea there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys can be hugely reductive and this is a complicated question that doesn’t always lend itself to easy answers. But just because these are difficult problems to grapple with doesn’t mean F1 can ignore them.

What is clear is that the missile strike on the Aramco facility round the corner was, quite literally, a warning shot for F1. And it’s one that it must heed.

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