The Jeddah weekend was dominated by the explosion that occurred on Friday evening, five miles to the east of the circuit, at the Saudi Aramco North Jeddah Bulk Plant, close to the King Abdulaziz International Airport. This happened a few minutes before the first F1 practice session began and a huge dark cloud of oil smoke was visible, although this had no impact on the circuit, as strong winds were blowing from the north. So you can safely assume that any report you may have read about smoke blowing across the circuit was written by someone who was not there.
The other amusing giveaway were the reports that this had all happened 16km (10 miles) from the circuit. These probably derived from people using Google Directions to figure out the distance and not bothering to look at how far it was as the crow flies, rather than in a car. Figuring out what was happening was not that hard. One found a street that lined up with the source of the smoke and then used Google Earth and simply followed the direction of the street until one found an oil facility. Readers of this blog may remember back in December that I accidentally dropped by the “fuel farm” at the airport in Jeddah – on my way home – so when things went bang on Friday, I had a pretty good idea of what had happened and where. The Houthi movement in Yemen has been firing missiles and drones at Saudi Arabia for months… and they soon claimed responsibility for their successful strike.
To be honest I was not overly bothered by all this. Having grown up in London in the 1970s and 1980s, one was used to bomb attacks caused by the IRA. One day, if I ever write the story of my life, I might relate adventures that I had as a result of this, but today is not really the moment.
Anyway, when I stopped to think about it, by far the scariest thing in Jeddah were the driving standards, which offered a much more immediate threat to life and limb than any explosive device. I am not kidding. After years travelling the world, watching drivers in action, I have reached the conclusion that while some drive too quickly, and some drive without sufficient competence, the two elements are rarely combined.
In Saudi Arabia every journey to and from the circuit (and it was not any great distance) seemed to include seeing at least one shunt – and a number of near-misses. The statistics bear this out. In 2010 there were only 250,000 drivers in Saudi Arabia, today there are three million, so in 12 years the number of people with driving licences has multiplied by 12. According to a recent survey by MDPI (whoever they are) Saudi Arabia has one of the highest death rates caused by road accidents, with about 130,000 people each year popping their expensive clogs and not coming home from missions to the supermarket. It really is quite shocking. I decided at one point that I might have finally found a plan for how to get rich. I shall write a book called “How to use Indicators” and have it translated into Arabic, so that the drivers of Saudi Arabia, of which there are believed to be around three million of the 35 million people in the country, will be able to spend more time on Earth before disappearing off to some garden in the sky.
If you check out the website Expatica.com, which is designed for foreigners who want to settle abroad, there are some useful tips about driving in Saudi, the first of which is: “grow a pair of eyes in the back of your head”.
I guess that if chameleons could get driving licences, they would be safe in Saudi Arabia, as each of their eyes can pivot and focus independently, allowing them to observe two different objects simultaneously. I cannot say I saw any chameleons driving in Jeddah, but I did see an awful lot of absolutely hopeless driving, most of it at very high speed and often with the driver squinting into a mobile phone, adjusting his dish-dash, or preening his beard. It seems to be a society in which bearded men show off their masculinity by driving with a machismo that would cause even Spanish bull fighters to blanch. The Saudis tailgate, undertake, text at 100 mph and never (ever) use indicators.
Expatica also warned that one should watch out for camels at night, although I cannot say I ever saw one, probably because they have all become road kill. The civic planners of Jeddah have adopted the roundabout for some junctions, but the locals have not yet grasped the concept of priority and assume that this is dictated by the size of your vehicle. The bigger you are, the bigger your priority.
Weirdly, they have also adopted the Brazilian ritorno concept, where in order to turn across a major road one has to go past the junction you want and then hang a uey to go back to turn. This means that after your uey you have to cross four or five lanes with cars barrelling along at daft speeds, the drivers in whichever lane they fancy. They say that safety standards are improving rapidly, but I didn’t see much evidence of this.
However, one has to say that most Saudis are very friendly, although some of the ruling classes seem a little haughty and arrogant, with a sense of entitlement that one often sees in pay-drivers in the motorsport world. Because they have tons of money, they seem to think that this somehow transforms them into masters of the universe.
Perhaps it does…
F1 is in Saudi Arabia for one reason alone. We can pretend otherwise, if we wish to be delusional, but the truth is that we are in Jeddah because the Saudis pay more than other places. A lot more. A shed-load more. F1 doesn’t talk about who pays what, but the biggest paying races each year are in the Middle East and Asia, and Saudi seems to pay the biggest fee these days, although perhaps Qatar has gone beyond that. There is also a major global partnership with Saudi Aramco.
Ultimately, the actual numbers are not important, but one must understand that most of the decisions made are liable to be swayed by the impressive number of noughts on the F1 bank statements.
F1 needs to deny this, of course, because these days everyone wants to ride the band wagon of social awareness, to please the younger generations, who seem to think that companies ought to have a broader purpose, rather than existing solely in pursuit of profit. This is a concept born from the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, which demonstrated that there are drawbacks to the pursuit of profit for its own sake. Today companies are supposed to achieve more if they are seen to be a positive force for good in society.
The inclusion of Saudi Arabia in the FIA Formula 1 World Championship was always a risk, but the powers-that-be believed that the financial returns from such a relationship would outweigh the potential damage of the association with a country which is often portrayed as being authoritarian and ultra-conservative, which has long attracted criticism for its strict interpretation of Sharia law, its excessive use of capital punishment, its poor human rights record and its role in the Yemeni civil war. One must say that there is some evidence that change is happening and the younger people in Saudi are keen to move forwards, but not everyone is broad-minded.
And changing the image of a country is not helped by mass executions or doing away with critics in medieval style. This is why F1 had to consider its position after a drone attack. You can call it a coincidence if you like, but coming a few months after a bomb attack on the Dakar Rally, which some misguided folk have tried to pass off as an exploding compressed air canister, one must ask the question whether it is sensible for the sport to go to such a place.
It is quite hard to describe the Houthi movement in Yemen. The Saudis call them terrorists, the Houthis say the same about the Saudis. In the West, where oil is important (more so since Vlad the Invader decided to send his armies into Ukraine), governments tend to stick their fingers in their ears and go “la-la-la-la” when Yemen is mentioned. This is why the Houthis have been sending missiles and bomb-laden drones into Saudi on a regular basis for the last few years. They want people in Saudi to feel uncomfortable and they want to highlight their arguments.
The British proved with the IRA that the solution is to talk and try to address grievances. Today we walk the streets of London without fear that we will be blown into pieces by explosive devices.
Formula 1 has always risked being a target for terrorism, because of the high profile it enjoys around the world and if you read shareholder information about the sport, you can find this listed as one of the risk factors involved.
“The general risk of a terror attack has increased recently in a number of the countries in which events are held,” the F1 group advises, without naming names. In other words. We are going to dodgier places.
The proximity of the explosion, which was clearly not a coincidence, led to uncomfortable feelings and lots of folk saying: “What if?” Terrorists are (usually) quite clever people, who do what they do because they have a cause they believe in. Their attacks are designed to deliver a message. When they use sophisticated equipment, such a mercury tilt switches, they are telling the authorities what they can do. They do not usually embark on indiscriminate killing, as this usually does more harm than good.
News of the Dakar attack was suppressed by all those concerned, except by the people who were blown up. They were French and the French government decided that if no-one else would take action, it would investigate. So the Parquet National Anti-Terroriste (PNAT) sent a team to Jeddah to examine the events and the machines. No report has yet been published in France, but leaks to the media indicate that the investigation concluded with 100 percent certainty that the explosion had been caused by a bomb. The fact that the report has not been published suggests that the government is now in “la-la-la-la” mode and so the policemen leaked the details to the media.
The Houthis clearly want to attract attention but, at the same time, they want to avoid international outrage and so an attack in the proximity of a big event makes more sense than blowing up the event itself. The goal of both attacks was probably to try to get the events cancelled and thus create a bigger story that would hurt Saudi’s programme of using sport to forge better links with the world. When that did not happen, the Houthis did a clever thing and declared a three-day ceasefire to take advantage of the publicity generated from F1 by the attack. This ensured that the racing teams did not need to worry about further attacks. It was a very neat piece of propaganda. Very few F1 people ran off to the airport, with the notable exception of German TV.
The real question now is whether F1 feels it is worth continuing the relationship, hoping that Saudi Arabia will be able to provide a safe and secure venue for motorsport in a short space of time, or whether it might be better to pause and come back to Saudi when the country has sorted out more of these problems.
Stefano Domenicali has made much of late about the demand that exists for F1 races and so replacing the Saudi race will not be an issue, although perhaps the F1 bank account would have a few fewer noughts.
In any case, the majority of people in the sport think that F1’s expansion has gone far enough and it would now be wiser to expand the audiences at every event, rather than expanding the number of events. There are still too many races which have small crowds, because they don’t need to promote, because the governments pay for the races to happen.
Having too many races creates a lot of problems, both with scheduling and with logistics. As I mentioned last week, F1 is already dancing on the rim of the volcano when it comes to freight and the war is going to cause more trouble as freight-handlers are under pressure. F1 might be wise to do a deal with one company, rather than shopping around, and that way it will become a valued customer, as opposed to an occasional user. I did hear at some point last year that there could be a deal in the pipeline with Qatar Airlines, as part of the agreement to have a Grand Prix in Qatar. Qatar Airlines has an enormous cargo fleet including 83 Boeing 777s, the plane that will become F1’s preferred choice in a world of declining Jumbos. It seems also that the teams now all have freight containers that has been designed for 777 freighters.
The other thing that needs sorting, both from a scheduling and an environmental point of view is the calendar, which often makes no sense at all. F1 is keen to promote a green image and yet here we are this summer with a five-week period which will include the British, Austrian, French and Hungarian GPs in that order. It is incomprehensible because Britain-France and then Austria-Hungary is much more efficient, and when your fleet consists of close to 300 40ft trucks, all pumping out diesel fumes, going backwards and forwards across Europe, it really isn’t very smart.
The big news for me in Jeddah, apart from things going bang, was the plans that will soon be announced for the new Grand Prix of Las Vegas. The first will take place on 24 November 2023, on America’s Thanksgiving holiday weekend. If you look it up, you will find that this is a Saturday, the day after Black Friday, the first day of the Christmas shopping season.
This is not a mistake as the race, which will take place on Saturday night under lights on The Strip in Las Vegas, will hit the US television markets at peak hours – and will be broadcast at a sensible hour on Sunday morning in F1’s traditional markets in Europe, and later on the Sunday in Asia.
The other big innovation is that the race will not have a local promoter, but will be organised by the Formula 1 group itself, working closely with the city of Las Vegas. Thus the race will not pay a race promotion fee, as other events do, but rather will contribute all of its revenues to the F1 coffers.
This has been done before by Bernie Ecclestone, the last time being in Austria, when he worked closely with Paddy McNally to run an event. It was not a great success. The problem with this is that while there is potential for big profits, there is also potential for losses, so there is a risk involved. But with F1’s new popularity, the risks are significantly reduced, as a race in Las Vegas is bound to sell well.
It is worth noting that a circuit design which has been circulating in the United States in recent days, is not at all what the track will look like. The F1 circuit will run down The Strip from Caesars Palace, crossing Flamingo Road and passing the celebrated Bellagio fountains and the Eiffel Tower, until it reaches the Cosmopolitan Casino, where it will go left on to Harmon Avenue. It will then work its way north, through the existing roads and empty land in that area and will end up looping around the soon-to-be-completed MSG Sphere and then run along Sands Avenue, passing The Venetian and rejoining The Strip near Wynn Las Vegas.
Meanwhile, down in Miami, the word is that the folk at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami will create a small lake inside the circuit, in order to ensure that the track does not look like a facility laid out in car parks.
Much work has gone into landscaping the new facility to give it character and the lake, complete with yachts that cannot go anywhere, will help this to happen.
While that might seem bizarre, it is not the first time it is happened in F1, as the lake in Albert Park in Australia features much the same idea, with yachts positioned to appear on camera during the races, to add a little of the Monaco-like glamour.
After the difficult times in Saudi Arabia, F1 returns to Australia in 10 days, the first visit since the Australian GP was cancelled at the start of the pandemic in March 2020.
Melbourne seems to be a complete sell-out and other races are enjoying similar surges in interest. There are also signs that China is beginning to show a bit more interest in the sport. This is usually the case when a country gets an F1 driver and it is why F1 is looking for an American racer at the moment. The Holy Grail, of course, is a woman racer, as that will attract the interest of around half the world population…
Anyway, Guanyu Zhou is already having an impact, although the fact that there will not be a Chinese GP this year will not help matters. Zhou’s impressive debut in Bahrain, which resulted in him scoring a point for 10th place, was a very good start and, although he was promoted by the retirements of the two Red Bulls and Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri, he is only going to improve. And it may not be long before he will be up to speed with team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who managed to finish sixth in Bahrain.
What is interesting is the reaction in China to Zhou’s F1 debut. The race took place late at night in China, but within eight hours of the finish the Chinese social media platform Weibo, has registered 120 million people, reading about his achievement. China is F1’s biggest TV audience these days, with around 73 million viewers every race, so we can expect to see that improve.
Otherwise F1 is quiet enough. Some of the drivers don’t want to go back to Jeddah in the future, but if push comes to shove they will because they have contracts and they don’t want to hand over their cars to reserve drivers. No-one expects the FIA to do anything, particularly now the president is from the UAE, and so the only way things are going to change is if the F1 Group ignores all the noughts and concludes that the race there does them more harm than good. And that is about as likely as Greenland starting a space programme and putting a man on the Moon.