The Saudi Arabian Grand Prix is at risk of being cancelled after Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for a missile attack on an oil facility less than 10 miles from the circuit.
The seriousness of the situation was made clear when drivers and team principals were called to see F1’s chief executive, Stefano Domenicali, so they could be updated on the situation and how it is being handled, delaying second practice on Friday.
It is understood Domenicali has informed the teams that the weekend will proceed as planned and that the Saudi authorities have prioritised security for the meeting. However he is going to hold another meeting with principals and drivers later on Friday evening.
After the attack, huge plumes of black smoke rising high into the sky were clearly visible from the circuit. The Houthi rebels, who have been embroiled in war with a Saudi-led coalition for seven years, claimed to have carried it out, with Saudi state media saying the coalition had foiled a string of Houthi drone and rocket attacks. Last Sunday the Houthis attacked another oil facility in Jeddah as part of another wave of strikes.
F1 were sufficiently concerned then that they stated they were monitoring the situation but there will be huge concern now at the proximity, timing and fears of another attack. Key in making any decision will rest on whether teams and personnel feel safe. Should they lose confidence in their security, even that of a single team, then F1 and the FIA would have little choice but to abandon the grand prix.
At the start of the Covid pandemic in 2020 it was the withdrawal of McLaren in Australia after one of their personnel contracted the virus that swiftly led to others following suit and the race was cancelled soon afterwards. There has yet to be any further official statement from F1 or the Saudi authorities.
Before the attack, Lewis Hamilton was unequivocal in demanding F1 does more to instigate reform in Saudi Arabia if the sport continues to race there. With the state accused of sportswashing and having recently executed 81 people in one day, the seven-times champion admitted he was shocked when he received a letter from a teenager sentenced to death for a crime he was alleged to have committed when he was 14.
Saudi Arabia’s human rights record has attracted enormous criticism – including allegations of indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Yemen – and placed F1 once more under the spotlight for assisting in legitimising the activities of the regime.
Hamilton placed the pressure firmly on F1 to make a difference since the drivers have no say on the countries his sport visits. “Ultimately, it is the responsibility of those who are in power to really make the changes and we are not really seeing enough, we need to see more,” he said. “We don’t decide where we go to race in Formula One, but while it is not necessarily our responsibility, we are duty-bound to try and do what we can.”
Hamilton’s unease at racing in Saudi Arabia had not changed from last year’s race when he said he was “not comfortable” with F1 competing in the country. As revealed by the Guardian on Thursday Hamilton was written to earlier this week by the family of Abdullah al-Howaiti, who was sentenced to death for a crime they maintain he did not commit and was a minor when he was alleged to have done so.
Hamilton acknowledged he was aware of the letter and that its subject matter left him reeling. “It’s mind-blowing to hear the stories,” he said. “I’ve heard there is a letter sent to me from a 14-year-old on death row. When you’re 14 you don’t know what the hell you’re doing in life.”
Hamilton has attempted to ensure he is aware of human rights issues and met with representatives from some of the countries involved in an attempt to effect change. The British driver remained committed to doing so but questioned why the authorities in Saudi Arabia and F1 itself were apparently oblivious to the need for reform.
“It is important we try to educate ourselves and with a little bit of difference, we can try to make sure we are doing something,” he said. “I am always open to having a discussion, to learning more and trying to understand exactly why things are happening and why they are not changing. It is 2022 and it is easy to make changes.”
With his Mercedes off the pace of the leaders he is searching for change too on track if the race takes place but is unlikely to enjoy any great steps forward this weekend. With his car suffering from the bouncing due to a downforce stall on straights, Mercedes are still working on an aerodynamic solution.
Hamilton was sixth-tenths off Charles Leclerc’s pole position last week in Bahrain and the team have no quick fix. Mercedes’s chief technical director, Andrew Shovlin, has said it could take two or three more races to solve their problems.
Ferrari and Red Bull were in a class of their own at Bahrain last week with the Scuderia’s Leclerc taking a one-two with Carlos Sainz. Mercedes were flattered by third and fourth, positions inherited after the Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Sergio Pérez retired with a fuel system problem the team said it has now successfully resolved.
The battle between Ferrari and Red Bull is set to be fascinating. They are closely matched on pace, with Ferrari’s new engine proving to be hugely competitive. However Jeddah is a different circuit to Bahrain, where there is a preponderance of slow corners. Jeddah is quick, indeed some drivers have suggested dangerously so, with a combination of close walls and blind corners.
Ferrari were strong in Bahrain through and in acceleration out of the slower corners while Red Bull enjoyed the superior straight-line pace. How they perform in Jeddah will be another indicator of relative strengths and weaknesses.