JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — For two consecutive days Formula One cars lapped Jeddah’s Corniche Circuit against the backdrop of a cloud of black smoke on the city’s skyline. The smoke was a result of a missile attack on an oil depot six miles to the east of the track that occurred 20 minutes into the opening practice session Friday afternoon.
The missile strike was among the latest salvos in a seven-year conflict between Yemeni Houthis, who took responsibility for the attack on the Aramco-owned facility, and a Saudi-led coalition. The conflict has resulted in a devastating humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
The inferno, which was visible from the tops of tower blocks surrounding the circuit, took more than 24 hours to bring under control and was still smouldering as the sun set ahead of F1’s qualifying session Saturday night. In that same 24-hour period the race was nearly called off due to a planned driver boycott over safety concerns, but after a series of meetings that stretched into the early hours of Saturday morning, F1’s bosses managed to talk the drivers back in to racing.
The decision to race felt oddly detached from the shocking images of the blaze, which accompanied the coverage of the event throughout its three days of track action. The race went ahead without any further issues after the Saudi Arabian government assured its safety, but ultimately will not remembered for the exciting duel between race winner Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc in the closing laps.
Although the race took place, the longer-term ramifications for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix could be huge, with drivers demanding the future of the event is discussed once the sport has left the Kingdom. Ultimately, F1 must weigh the benefits of racing in the country, which are almost entirely financial, with the safety and reputational risks that come with competing in Saudi Arabia.
Flames pour from a Saudi Aramco oil depot near the Jeddah F1 circuit Friday. Lars Baron/Getty Images
How close did the drivers come to boycotting?
In the early hours of Saturday, word spread that F1’s drivers had agreed among themselves not to race. All 20 had sat in a glass-fronted hospitality suite for over three hours listening to assurances from F1’s top executives, their own team bosses and Saudi Arabian government officials that the event was safe. Yet there was still a feeling among them that continuing on as normal after a nearby missile attack was not the right thing to do.
During the weekend’s opening practice session Friday afternoon, the same 20 drivers had spotted a plume of thick dark smoke on the horizon as they circulated the track. TV shots remained tightly focused on the cars, but attention around the circuit swung towards the burning oil depot beyond the horizon. The sight, which F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali later admitted resembled images of Russia’s war on Ukraine, did not go unnoticed in the cockpits of the cars.
In a joint statement released by the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association the following day, the drivers expressed their shock at seeing the smoke.
“Perhaps it is difficult to comprehend if you have never driven an F1 car on this fast and challenging Jeddah track,” read the statement, “but on seeing the smoke from the incident it was difficult to remain a fully focused race driver and erase natural human concerns.”
Reliable information about the attack was initially scarce, but as the sun set over the Red Sea to the west, a black cloud had engulfed the eastern horizon. In the break ahead of the second practice session, which was scheduled to take place under floodlights at 8 p.m., a number of drivers raised concerns privately and some were not ready in the garage as the clock ticked on towards the top of the hour.
F1 reacted by delaying the session for 15 minutes for “safety” reasons, allowing Domenicali time to brief the drivers and team bosses on the latest information from Saudi officials. By 8:15 p.m. the drivers were back in their cars ready to head out on track ahead of the most important of the three pre-qualifying practice sessions.
Once the session had finished, a follow-up meeting took place at 10 p.m. between Domenicali, FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem, Saudi Arabian officials and the drivers if they wished to attend. The meeting got underway on time, although several drivers arrived late, with some yet to change out of their race overalls following the second practice session and subsequent engineering briefings.
The meeting was visible through the large tinted windows of F1’s hospitality suite, encouraging a mass of photographers, reporters and camera crews to gather outside. After roughly 45 minutes, the security guards on the door stepped aside and Domenicali and Ben Sulayem walked out together to address the waiting media.
“We have received total assurance that the country’s safety is first,” Domenicali said. “No matter what is the situation, safety has to be guaranteed.
“They [Saudi officials] are here with their families — actually here at the track. So they have in place all the systems to protect this area, the city, the places where we are going.
“So we feel confident and we have to trust the local authorities in that respect. Therefore, of course we will go ahead with the event.”
FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem and F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali insisted Friday evening that the race was going ahead, but it soon became clear drivers opposed that decision. Dan Istitene – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images
After agreeing with Domenicali’s statement, Ben Sulayem added: “Who are [the Houthis] targeting? They are targeting the infrastructure, the economic infrastructure, not the civilians and of course not the track.
“We checked the facts from them and we have the assurance from high levels that this is a secure place. The whole thing will be secure so let’s go on racing.”
A couple of follow-up questions were answered, a couple were brushed away, but one landed hard: “Are all the drivers also in agreement with the decision to race?” The answer from Domenicali was short but telling.
“They will be on track,” he said, before walking off in the direction of his office in the race control tower.
The drivers remained in the glass-fronted suite to conduct their usual Friday evening briefing with FIA race director Niels Wittich. At the time it seemed as though the race would go on as normal, as Domenicali had insisted.
But once the formal briefing was done and Wittich had left the room, the drivers remained in place and it soon became clear they were no longer discussing on-track matters and had switched their focus back to the missile attack.
The following meeting went on for several hours, with Domenicali returning to the room before midnight with F1’s managing director of motorsport, Ross Brawn, as well as various team bosses joining the drivers before leaving them to discuss the situation alone.
Reliable details of exactly what was said did not emerge, but not long after 1 a.m. — three hours after the initial meeting had started — it leaked out that the drivers intended to boycott the race. Of course, as we now know, more visits from team principals were enough to convince the drivers to change their mind, but at that moment the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix was on course to be cancelled.
“The drivers were pretty united in their initial discussions,” Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said Saturday evening. “But when they heard from us and the officials we were able to convince them that the race is the best thing to do.”
One thing the drivers made clear is that they would act as one. Either no drivers would race in Saudi Arabia or all 20 would race. Some team bosses have said since that any member of their team, including drivers, could have opted to fly home if they wanted to, but the reality may not have been that simple if the drivers had stuck to their boycott and the whole sport had attempted to up and leave.
A significant proportion of team members, including the mechanics who build and strip the cars, would have had to stay in the country for at least another 24 hours in order to pack freight to leave Saudi Arabia. What’s more, there simply wasn’t the availability of flights out of Saudi Arabia to make an immediate exit possible for everyone, as Alfa Romeo driver Valtteri Bottas explained the following evening.
“We drivers were all concerned if it’s safe for all of us to be here racing, and we got decent explanation on things,” Bottas said. “And also we went through all the options like, ‘What if we don’t race,’ for example, because the teams would still have to stay here for a couple of days packing stuff, and it’s also not like we can create some new fights so that everyone can get home.
“So [we decided] we’re all already here, let’s finish the race. They’ve increased the security and their defence system, so everyone agreed we might as well do the race and hope for the best.”
Pierre Gasly and Lewis Hamilton in conversation during the Friday meeting at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. Clive Rose – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images
At around 2:30 a.m. the drivers left the glass-fronted hospitality suite. Nineteen of them made their way back to their team hospitality units while GPDA director George Russell walked with McLaren team principal Andreas Seidl to race control where Domenicali, Ben Sulayem and the other team bosses were waiting.
No more than 10 minutes later, Russell re-emerged from and marched quickly towards Mercedes’ hospitality. Asked what decision had been made, he responded: “It’s not for me to say.”
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner followed soon after and was the first to confirm the race would go ahead. The message was repeated by McLaren CEO Zak Brown and Alpine team principal Otmar Szafnauer and quickly spread across Twitter to fans around the world. After 4½ hours of talks, the sport had collectively decided to continue racing.
Speaking the following day, Russell said: “I think the clarity was needed, the conversation was certainly needed. And I think it was good, we were all standing united, firstly, between all the drivers, and then together with Formula One, and ultimately, we trust in Stefano, Formula One as a whole. And, you know, we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t think it was right to be here.”
However, it soon emerged that the decision to go racing came with some steadfast conditions from the drivers. First of all, any further attacks in the area would be met with a decision not to race. Secondly, once the event was over, the sport would have a serious discussion about the future of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, with the possibility it could be removed from the calendar.
“I think there will need to be discussions after this race,” Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz said Saturday evening after qualifying third on the grid. “Because clearly what has happened in the last 24 hours is definitely a point of discussion and consideration that we need to take going into the future.”
Russell added: “Obviously, there’s going to need some clarity after this race weekend where we go from here. But from what I understand, everything was under control in this specific region, and what happens outside of the region, you cannot control.”
On Sunday, the 2022 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix race winner Verstappen said: “We had a lot of guarantees that, of course, we would be safe but I think after this weekend, all the drivers also together, we will speak with F1 and of course also the team bosses to see what’s happening for the future.”
Like most other drivers at the meeting, reigning champion Max Verstappen was still in his race suit. ANDREJ ISAKOVIC / AFP
How did F1 justify racing on?
As surreal as it seemed to have missile attacks so close to a sporting event, the show ultimately went on with assurances from senior officials in the Saudi Arabian government that it was safe to do so. Details of the assurances were not made public over the weekend due to concerns about security, but they are believed to include an anti-missile system protecting the airspace over the track as well as the Houthi’s record of targeting energy and economic infrastructure over civilians in previous attacks.
But if a missile could destroy a target six miles from the track, surely another one could be aimed at the track itself, regardless of the Houthis’ history of attacking non-civilian targets? The difference, according to the Saudi Arabian government, was that the military’s defence systems had not extended to the oil depot adjacent to Jeddah’s international airport on Friday but had been in place over the circuit.
“Of course you can’t cover the whole Kingdom,” the Saudi minister of sport, Prince Abdulaziz Bin Turki Al-Faisa, told reporters in Jeddah on Saturday. “So the security agencies cover the areas where there is condensed population, where it has to be covered.
“That place wasn’t covered because it’s not a threat to anyone. From the feedback that we have got, we were lucky that that’s where it happened, but they were even surprised it was that area.
“So it’s not a breach of the security, but as I said the area that we are in, the city itself, the hotels, everywhere else is on full security with all the necessary steps to make sure nothing happens.”
Domenicali added: “There’s been a lot of discussion and debate, but the safety and security for all our people has the maximum level of attention to all of us. There’s no discussion about it, it’s just the first priority.
“And of course when we talk with the right authority they have the responsibility for that in terms of the minister of defence, internal security. When we have received all the assurance things were under control and properly managed, we needed to trust on them as they have the responsibility for that.
“We informed teams and drivers and we move on.”
Williams team boss Jost Capito revealed Saturday there was “also another defence person in the meetings, not from here, from a different country, who looked into that independently and confirmed that everything is in place to have a safe event.”
On Saturday, team bosses remained coy about revealing the exact details of the assurances they had received and made more general statements similar to the one Ben Sulayem made Friday evening, such as the attendance of the Saudi royal family being some kind of gold standard for safety.
“I think if the authorities have their own family here and feel safe, I can feel safe,” Haas team principal Guenther Steiner said. “If they look after their family, if there are assurances and they know the technical systems they’ve got in place … I don’t know the details of that because we’re not involved in the technical systems which are in place, but for me the assurances, if the authorities have got their own families here, and they feel safe, I can feel safe as well.”
Another justification for continuing with the event at the weekend, and possibly future events in Saudi Arabia, was that missile attacks are not uncommon in the region. If anything it sounded like an argument for not bringing a sporting event to the country in the first place, but it seemed to be an attempt to normalise the situation.
Asked if the threat of missile attacks are just part of the deal when racing in Saudi Arabia, Mercedes team boss Wolff said: “We just need to understand that this is culturally very different to how we see our western cultures. For us, is it acceptable to race 10 miles away from a drone rocket that is going in a petrol tank? Certainly not. But for here, within their culture, these things happen here.”
While Jeddah has been subject to Houthi attacks in the past, including a strike on the Sunday before the race, ESPN’s conversations with locals indicated that the rocket attacks on the oil depot and the resulting inferno were not considered normal in the city.
Meanwhile, the most convincing argument for the race going ahead was barely mentioned by F1 bosses, coming later Saturday when Houthi political leader Mahdi al-Mashat announced a three-day ceasefire. The Jeddah oil depot missile strike was one of a wave of Houthi attacks in Saudi Arabia that day and were countered by air raids conducted by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen on Saturday, in which seven people were reported to have been killed.
All of the weekend’s attacks on civilian targets were denounced by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Saturday, but there is hope that the three-day ceasefire could develop into a longer-term peace deal between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis.
Toto Wolff suggested Formula One can be a force for good in the Middle East. Peter Fox/Getty Images
What happens next?
The drivers’ insistence that the subject of racing in Saudi Arabia must be revisited once the sport has left the country means this story is not yet over. Based on conversations in the paddock, there is a large proportion of F1’s travelling workforce that would happily not return to the country for a race. But the reality is that F1 is only two races into a 15-year deal with Saudi Arabia worth a reported $65 million per grand prix and has a $40 million per year sponsorship deal with state-owned oil company Aramco.
“I think the drivers are stakeholders in the sport, as are the teams and the commercial rights holder,” Wolff said. “And that’s why everybody’s opinion is allowed and will be part of a discussion.
“But at the end it’s Stefano who decides where we race, together with Mohammed, and that is what it is. But certainly we want to avoid a situation like Friday where we didn’t know if the race was on or not.”
Some drivers already had misgivings about racing in Saudi Arabia due to the country’s human rights record, and it was clear the missile attack only deepened concerns about racing in the Kingdom. Domenicali and certain team bosses continue to argue that F1 can be a force for good in Saudi Arabia, but there’s a strong counter argument that any altruistic messages are hard to swallow as long as F1 is pocketing a substantial race-hosting fee from the government each year.
Wolff: F1 can make Middle East a better place
Domenicali’s media exposure after the attack was limited to a single interview with Sky Sports. However, he was asked if the weekend’s events had left question marks over the future of the event beyond the Sunday race.
“No, I think it is not a matter of question marks, it is a matter of understanding the situation for sure,” he said. “We are not blind but we don’t have to forget one thing, this country also through Formula One and the sport we believe is doing a massive step forward.
“You cannot pretend to change a culture that is a millennium old in a blink of an eye, the resources they are moving in place to move forward, you see here women couldn’t drive a couple of years ago, they are here on the grid, they are cheering, they are changing a lot of laws to make sure this is happening, we don’t have to not consider that.
“Of course there is tension, things to improve, we don’t want to be political on that, but I believe we are playing a very important role in the modernisation of this country, we are focusing on making sure this is at the centre of our agenda.”
The Saudi Arabian government, which has made clear it wants to continue to host Formula One for the length of its 15-year contract despite the attacks Friday, said it will do everything it can to ensure F1 feels safe in the future.
“We are open to sit down, see where the issues are, what the assurances are they need, if they need any of these assurances in terms of the level of security and so on, which we already gave them,” Prince Abdulaziz said. “Whatever they want, we are here to host Formula One as best as it can anywhere in the world. We want to put on the best show and we want people to come and enjoy the best Formula One race.
“So this is given to Formula One or any other events that we are hosting within the Kingdom — even our local competitions and so on. So we will definitely have an open discussion with them to see what their feedback is to discuss with them and what their concerns are about, so we will show them everything.”
When it was put to Domenicali that F1 returning to Saudi Arabia would be a case of prioritising money over morals, he said: “I don’t think that is the right consideration because no one can judge our morality, to be honest, on that respect. It is a matter of putting in place all the things that have to be considered.
“I mean where is the line? That is the question. And our position is always and will be always that we believe what we are doing will have a very positive impact in all the political situation for the best of our life and at all levels.
“This will be always the consideration we take for our future in the sport all over the world. Formula One is in a great moment where a lot of countries would like to host that and of course that could be a consideration that we need to consider for the future.”
On Saturday night, seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton summed up the feeling of many people working in the sport when he simply said, “I’m looking forward to going home.”
Once home, F1, including the drivers, will have to decide whether racing in Saudi Arabia is still an acceptable proposition.