On the way to the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah early on Monday morning, I was reminded, for an instant, of the celebrated spaghetti trees of Ticino. In the media world this is a legendary April Fool, perpetrated by the BBC’s Panorama programme back in 1950s, when they ran a story about harvesting the spaghetti trees in southern Switzerland. This came to mind as our clapped-out old minibus (exotically described as “an airport transfer”) went past a sign that said “Fuel Farm”. I did a double take to make sure, because alcohol deprivation and a serious lack of sleep caused by the night race, might have had curious effects on my brain. But no, it did say “Fuel Farm”. I was glad I was not hallucinating.
Fuel can often be surprising. Fuel dumps, for example, are not places where you throw away fuel; and fuel rails don’t run into fuel stations. You can get fuel injections, but it is not good for your health. The fuel economy is nothing to do with the financial markets, although fuel can have crises.
Still, to my befuddled brain, a fuel farm seemed a brilliant idea. It must be nice to grow money in the back garden. Fuel equals cash, although I seem to recall back in April last year, when the pandemic first struck, that there was a day when oil prices fell to negative $37 a barrel, which meant that a trader was willing to give you $37 if you agreed to take a barrel of oil off them.
Oil does grow on trees, because we all have olive oil, sunflower oil, sesame oil and so on in our kitchen cabinets, but can planes fly on olive oil?
Anyway, the Middle East’s wealth and power comes from oil and Formula 1 is only too happy to help ANY oil-rich country spend its money. It matters not whether that means dealing with kings or emirs, nawabs or nabobs, potentates or pashas. F1 would do a deal with a kangaroo if they were sure that the cheque wouldn’t bounce.
This year we have four races in the Middle East, in countries where they have masterplans – usually called Vision 2030 – to build new economies before the oil runs out. Tourism is a good industry to try and while it helps to have some natural resources (a Grand Canyon, a big mountain or whatever) one can create tourism simply by building things. If you don’t have anything interesting for people to look at, you build something: a stadium, a bridge, a dam, or you can carve the faces of Presidents into a cliff. In Australia they have a tradition of creating giant things, and people apparently travel hundreds of miles to look at a big (fake) prawn, or a massive sheep. Weird, but true.
Copying Paris is a good idea and in Baku they have built an entire district straight out of the City of Light.
Las Vegas probably wins the prize for turning sand into money, although you have to commend Dubai, where they have built an indoor ski slope at the Mall of the Emirates. You can even stay in an Alpine-themed room (the mountains, not the cars) at the Kempinski, if you don’t mind paying really silly room rates. Dubai, like most cities in this region, is just tarted-up desert. Las Vegas with a little less sin on offer.
And yet, it is all vaguely magnificent. They have built the Burj al-Khalifa, a shiny arrow shooting into the sky, three-times as high as the Eiffel Tower. It was built to give Dubai more international recognition and it seems to have worked. In this respect Saudi Arabia seems to be a little bit behind its neighbours, but things are moving quickly and before long there will be hundreds of shiny architectural masterpieces, filled with gold washbasins and parking lots with pink Bentleys and gold Lamborghinis. It is not subtle, nor understated. It just declares: We have money.
Having a Grand Prix is similar bling.
Architecture in the Middle East is much the same as the cars. It isn’t understated and most of it seems to follow the philosophies of Albert Speer, who built on the grandest scale. I thought of Speer one night in Jeddah while watching searchlights creating cathedrals of light in the sky above the circuit.
There are some folk who report about Formula 1 who refuse to go to places where they don’t think they like the politics. For me this is unacceptable because if one is going to praise or condemn one really ought to go and see what a place is like. I have learned over time that very often things are not as they appear in the media.
One has to be aware that one is getting privileged treatment although to be fair we spent a lot of time on long-winded access routes because the coaches being used were too big to go round some of the corners to access the track. We also had to sit in jams while the assorted kings and nabobs flew by in motorcades made up of armour-plated cars so heavy that even a badger wouldn’t dent them. This aside the people were friendly and keen to help as best they could, understanding that F1 is an important spotlight on the country. The only thing I will say about the controversial Crown Prince is that the grandstands lit up with cheers when he appeared, so the local population clearly appreciate the new freedoms he has introduced in the country, whether they know about the nasty business in Istanbul is another matter, as I doubt it was headline news in the local papers. Still, as somewhat said, when the cheering broke out. “He’s a rock star here…”
Apart from being elbowed out of the way by heavies disguised as sheikhs, I didn’t have much to do with the government types on the grid, but earlier in the weekend I did bump into the Minister of Sport and we had a friendly chat and I asked about some of the challenges that they had faced with the race and asked (as a journalist does) if we might be expecting any missiles over the weekend. He chuckled and explained that the missiles from down Yemen way get shot down before they get too far north. This cheered me up.
What was interesting about the chat was that he used to be a racer and so he gets what motorsport is all about and he explained that the circuit is only a temporary thing, part of a much bigger project, and will cease to be a race track once the planned new facility is built up near Riyadh. The rush to get everything ready in Jeddah was quite impressive. The tarmac in the F1 paddock area and some of the approach roads was not put down until the Tuesday night before the Grand Prix (yes, really!) but in the end, despite a few leaks and some technical glitches, everything worked pretty well and at night, with lots of pretty lights, you couldn’t see the faults. This was impressive given the scale of the work and the fact that it began only in April.
Later, an old F1 friend popped up to explain that her job is to tell people the environmental story relating to the Jeddah Corniche track. This is the story she told: the revival of the Jeddah waterfront was a programme that began in 2017 with the inauguration of the Corniche, designed to become a tourist attraction for the city. This now features restaurants, retail outlets, hotels, an aquarium, a cultural centre, in addition to gardens and fountains. The area where the track has been built is the next stage of that programme, extending the Corniche north towards a marina. There was no plan to put an F1 track into this section but when the idea of holding a race straight away came up, they decided to do it. It is a temporary facility, although certain buildings will be permanent, converting to other uses when F1 goes away in 2024 or 2025.
A big part of the original project was the regeneration of the coastal lagoon, around which the track runs, involving an extensive clean-up operation, including the removal of troublesome algae and large amounts of unspecified waste, and the subsequent installation of a system to purify and treat the water, to prevent the same problems in the future. A staggering 162,814 tons of sludge and debris were dredged from the lagoon. When the circuit is no longer used for racing the area will feature other sports grounds, parking spaces and so on. The race is obviously helping to promote the Corniche project and drive tourism growth in Jeddah.
So, it was rather different a story than one might imagine as the primary goal is not to create a racing circuit but rather to make Jeddah into a nicer place, to preserve and improve the waterfront and to create a new ecosystem, including planting 2,000 trees around the track. There are also, it seems, signs that wildlife is returning to the lagoon withmullet, milk fish and blue-spotted stingrays now whizzing about underwater – although I cannot say I saw any…
This all reminded me of Albert Park in Melbourne, where the lake was created to get rid of a rubbish dump and, later, sporting venues were put in so that the park would come to life and no longer be a place where the dregs of society hung out.
Australia came up in the rumour department over the weekend as there are people in Sydney who have been chuntering about bidding for the Australian Grand Prix for 2026 and beyond. It is not the first time that Sydney has made such noises and the people of Melbourne always seem to suggest that people from NSW are all talk and no action. Still, this time it was the State Premier. The last NSW Premier disappeared a while ago because of investigations into dodgy dealings (unproven, of course) and the new boy is Dominic Perrottet.
“We’ve got the greatest cities in not just the country, but the world,” he said. “And seriously, why would the Formula 1 want to stay in Melbourne when you can come here? We think we’re going to have a fighting chance to bring that event here.”
Perhaps this time the blowhards of NSW are serious. Tourism plays an important role in Australian economy. Before the pandemic there were 9.4 million tourists each year and almost all of them went to Sydney. Tourism contributed $21 billion to the local economy. Since then, because of the closed borders, New South Wales needs visitors. Melbourne is not going to give up the Grand Prix without a fight, but the hit from fewer tourists is much smaller than it has been in Sydney. Visitor numbers in Melbourne are half those of Sydney. So, to put it another way, Sydney could bid more for a race.
The ongoing Formula 1 boom, which has been driven primarily by the Netflix Series “Drive to Survive” is leading to interest of various different kinds in the world of media. The US television rights for F1 are up for grabs at the end of this year and while ESPN has a deal that means that F1 cannot negotiate with any rival organisations until February, there are likely to be other bidders, including rumours of a Netflix live offering. Sport generates huge rights fees in the US and the likely competition to win them could produce a big hike in F1 TV rights revenues.
The Hollywood Reporter says that there is a bidding war going on between Paramount, MGM, Sony, Universal, Netflix, Apple, Amazon and Disney over a film project that will involve Brad Pitt in a film about Lewis Hamilton (presumably not in the lead role). Brad Pitt does Ron Dennis? Well, who knows? Here in Dubai he’s selling coffee machines on a billboard across from my hotel… Pitt, rather than Dennis.
What else? Ah yes, Lawrence Stroll could be spotted over the Saudi Arabia weekend being particularly nice to some Saudi Arabian folk. These were the top bananas of the Saudi Aramco oil company, which is looking to slap some stickers on a team. Given Aston Martin’s performance this year, Stroll is going to have to sing like Placido Domingo to get a big dinner, as the word is that Zak Brown is also snuffling around after the same loot. Will be it Lawrence of Arabia or will it be Zak of Arabia? Stroll seems to be quite good at convincing people to part with their money although it is hard to believe that this relates to his charm, which seems to be rather well-hidden most of the time. Who knows, perhaps he can be very charming to members of royal families, people who are richer than he is, Hollywood stars …and folks carrying guns? It certainly doesn’t work for the media.
Right now, investors are not taken in by Stroll’s patter because the Aston Martin share price is right down there with the blue-spotted stingrays, despite the fact that the firm is shifting more cars than has been the case. Why? Well, it seems that it is all to do with huge debts. Things were not helped by the news that the company CFO has walked after just 18 months.
The other chat in Jeddah was about the FIA Presidential election which is coming up on December 17. Things have been a bit lively because Britain’s Motorsport UK came out in favour of the UAE’s Mohammed Ben Sulayem, rather than supporting British candidate Graham Stoker. Others in the UK motorsport community did put out a statement saying that they liked Stoker more than the other bloke. So that’s nice and messy.
David Richards of Motorsport UK – who set up the Middle Eastern Rally Championship, which Ben Sulayem won a bunch of times – was telling anyone who would listen in Jeddah that it is a slam dunk for a UAE victory, although others seem less convinced. Motorsport’s MBS has a lot of supporters, but not as yet the 120 or so votes required to be handed the keys to the FIA. There has been a lot of talk about the way that the campaigns have been conducted, with rumours of clubs being pressured by governments or being offered incentives to vote one way or the other. To be fair the FIA has always been an organisation based on patronage, with votes being cast as per positions on offer, but governmental and financial interference are deemed to be unacceptable. The campaigns also involve some curious goings-on with private detectives digging for information, which I know to be true – because I got a phone call from one of them. Both sides want to be seen to be the favourite, as a lot of clubs wait until they see which way the wind is blowing and then jump into the correct air flow.
There is a fairly clear divide between the two candidates, with Stoker representing continuity and stability while Ben Sulayem presents himself as a reformer. When it comes to their backgrounds Ben Sulayem is probably more old school than Stoker, as he comes from a hugely wealthy Dubai family, which is in keeping with the FIA being led by rich individuals who want the job for reasons of prestige, rather than because they want to work hard. As the federation is by nature conservative, Stoker is probably the favourite because many clubs want to maintain the status quo. Graham is not as dynamic a character as Ben Sulayem, and he likes purple clothing rather too much, but he represents less of a risk. There is also the question of whether Bernie Ecclestone is skulking around behind Ben Sulayem, who has named Mrs Ecclestone as one of his candidates for a Vice-Presidential role. That has sent a few frissons down those with spines in FIA-land, as no-one is very keen to go back to the days when Mr E was pulling presidential strings.
This elections provided some fun on the flight to Dubai on Monday as the plane was packed with F1 people. As usual, I was quick to get to the exit door so as to miss the queues later on, but the attendants were told that they had to offload the upstairs passengers before those who travel in cattle class. So they all came tramping down past me. As I knew every second person from upstairs I began greeting them with the same “Thanks for flying Emirates`” speech as the staff, which left the crew rather confused about how a passenger could possibly know so many other folk on the same flight.
By the time we got to Passport Control, I was ahead of most of them again (as the people upstairs tend to be slow-moving when they get off aeroplanes). In the end I found myself with David Richards, who is so important that he gets a person who walks in front of him to take out other punters if they stray into his path. I asked if there had been any flying crockery in Business Class as I had seen both him and Stoker descend from on high…
Otherwise the chat in Jeddah was all a lot of bla-bla-bla about Verstappen and Hamilton and some low-level stirring about Mercedes’s Kingspan sponsorship. The timing of the deal was probably not great given that Kingspan is deeply involved in the public inquiry relating to the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017. However, there is no question that the whole business was little more than a cynical politician trying to grab some credibility by attacking a rich boy sport and framing the attacks as support for the poor people who lost relatives in the fire.
British politicians these days are so discredited by their lie-telling, their sleaze, their hypocrisy and their incompetence that nothing they say has much credibility. Suggesting that the government was disappointed that Mercedes is accepting Kingspan sponsorship and warning that it may consider changing advertising laws to prohibit the logos from appearing on their cars is just a lot of hot air.
So, as we head to Abu Dhabi for the last race things are not very Christmassy. Everyone has been far too busy going from race to race, filling in forms and struggling with the truly hopeless melange of COVID apps that the locals governments produce. They all have one thing in common: none of them work properly. For the moment I am locked out of Yas Island but hopefully I can find someone who can make my apps turn green, as I have done everything required even if the software cannot handle it. If I don’t show up in Abu Dhabi – and miss my 601st race – it will be because I have either given up and gone home, or thrown myself from a window.
Anyway, the Middle East is not the place go if you want to feel Christmas cheer. Christmas carols and mulled wine are out of place in countries where getting a Gin & Tonic is deemed unacceptable.
A popular FIA election promise might be to only allow Grands Prix in a country if booze is allowed in the Paddock…