The metaphorical political cloud that lingered over the beginning of the 2022 F1 season turned literal on Friday, as cars raced on amidst a backdrop of black smoke emanating from a destroyed oil depot.
Yemen’s Houthi rebels have claimed responsibility for the missile attack, which took place less than 10 miles from the Jeddah Circuit. The billowing black smoke engulfed the sky, and could even be smelt by drivers, who were participating in the first free practice session.
Current World Champion Max Verstappen could be heard asking over team radio, “I can smell burning… is it my car?” Friday’s second free practice session was subsequently delayed by 15 minutes, whilst drivers discussed whether they wished to continue racing long into the night.
The Grand Prix Drivers Association (GDPA) released a statement on Saturday detailing the outcome of that discussion, which is thought to have lasted four hours, and only finished at 2:30am local time.
The statement read, “It has been a difficult day for F1 and a stressful day for us F1 drivers… On seeing the smoke from the incident, it was difficult to remain a fully-focused race driver and erase natural human concerns.”
The GDPA statement then went on to detail the assurances given by F1 and Saudi government ministers before reaching their conclusion. “The outcome (from the talks) was a resolution that we would practise, qualify today and race tomorrow. We therefore hope that the 2022 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix will be remembered as a good race rather than for the incident that took place yesterday.”
This was then followed by a joint statement from F1 and the FIA confirming that “the 2022 FIA F1 Formula 1 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix will continue as scheduled.” It added that “extensive discussions between all stakeholders” had yielded assurances regarding the security of the event.
The build-up to the new F1 season has been shrouded in controversy. Following the cancellation of the Russian Grand Prix, there were further calls for the cancellation of the Bahrain Grand Prix, this weekend’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, and the season finale in the United Arab Emirates. These calls were based on those states’ continued involvement in the Yemeni war.
Saudi Arabia faces allegations of indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Yemen. Against this backdrop, their hosting of an F1 race is seen as legitimising the purported atrocities of the Saudi regime.
It could be seen as falling under the category of “sportswashing”, where nefarious actors, often states, use the hosting of events, such as an F1 race, or as Russia did in 2018 with a World Cup, in cleaning their global image.
In only the second race in Saudi Arabia, you could argue that the regime’s attempts of sportswashing have failed, as the rising cloud of black smoke sullied the Saudi sky and shone the spotlight on the ongoing conflict in the region.
For now, F1 has decided to race on through the crisis, although it remains to be seen whether there will be a change in strategy regarding its race selection process. The latest crisis will inevitably precipitate a discussion about F1’s pick and choose policy regarding its response to state terrorism. Regardless of what happens on-track on Sunday, this race weekend will inevitably be remembered for what happened off it.
After claiming top spot on Friday, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was just edged out of pole position on Saturday as Sergio Perez snatched a first career pole in the final moments with the pair split by just two-hundredths of a second. Carlos Sainz will start Sunday’s Saudi Arabia Grand Prix in third, making it a Ferrari 2-3. The race starts at 7pm Monaco time.
Photo source: Scuderia Ferrari Media Centre