Formula 1 is enjoying a scintillating start to its 2022 season.
With a resurgent Ferrari flying out front with Charles Leclerc, a lacklustre Mercedes reigned in for the first time in almost a decade, and a shaken up midfield running order, the beginning of a new era in the top tier of motorsport could hardly want for more fascinating storylines.
Furthermore, the quality of racing between drivers has already improved significantly, thanks to revamped designs which allow cars to follow one another more closely and overtake more easily. The action is breathless, fans are delighted, and the series will reap the financial rewards.
The Saudi Arabian Grand Prix on Sunday evening was a thrilling continuation of the early season competition — Leclerc and Verstappen duked it out in a tense, tactical tussle which persisted right up until the finish line and the sparkling of the fireworks.
This was only the second time F1 has raced in Saudi Arabia, after first doing so in an even more bombastic inaugural event last December. But for so many reasons, Formula 1 should not return here again.
First and foremost, the Jeddah Corniche Circuit which hosts the Saudi race is simply too unsafe, and racing here is asking for big trouble. This is the fastest street circuit in the history of the F1 calendar, and gives drivers an immense challenge as they slide through tight high-speed corners at sharp angles between tight concrete walls. It is admittedly a superb spectacle, and very rewarding for drivers who able to avoid its pitfalls, but the evidence so far shows the rate of huge accidents is very high indeed.
In just two race weekends at Jeddah, a series of horrendous crashes have occurred in which cars have been torn apart and drivers left needing medical attention. Mick Schumacher was thankfully left unscathed after his Haas car was thrown into the wall by one of the circuit’s inexplicably hard kerbs during qualifying on Saturday, while Formula 2 driver Cem Bolukbasi missed the feature race after a crash of his own.
In December, F2 driver Enzo Fittipaldi suffered a fractured heel along with cuts and bruises after slamming into a stalled car on the grid just after the start, unsighted and unable to move aside because of how tight the circuit is. There have been more serious incidents in those two weekend in Saudi Arabia than you would often see in an entire season of racing.
Drivers put themselves at risk every time they enter a racing car, of course — the sheer speed at which they travel is inherently perilous. But the Jeddah track purposefully ramps that danger up in its design, in order to increase the speed and excitement to levels which could well see somebody suffer a very serious injury, or worse, in future.
On Friday night, drivers were locked in a four-hour debate at the circuit as they discussed whether to boycott the race on safety grounds. This time the problem wasn’t the track layout, but the bombing of an Aramco oil facility ten kilometres away from the circuit by Houthi rebels in Yemen.
After assurances from state officials that bombs would not reach the racetrack, the drivers relented and agreed to race, though the likes of Valtteri Bottas and George Russell said that F1 needs to consider its long-term future in the country.
A Saudi-led coalition, which backs the government in Yemen, has been bombing the country routinely since 2014. The UN says the war has caused the greatest humanitarian crisis on Earth, with 24.1 million people in Yemen requiring aid. 337,000 deaths are estimated to have been caused by the conflict, and over 10,000 children have been killed or wounded by fighting.
In promoting Saudi Arabia and helping it launder its image on the international stage, Formula 1 takes the side of the coalition forces which have caused those deaths and injuries, whether it would like to think so or not.
Saudi Arabia has a 15-year contract with F1, but the series set a precedent earlier this year by cancelling the Russian Grand Prix after Vladimir Putin’s bloody invasion of Ukraine when public opinion was so vehemently against the conflict, and could surely do the same again here if it really wanted to severe ties with a regime with as much blood on its hands as Saudi Arabia’s.
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, with no democratic elections and which oppresses its own people in various forms. Earlier this year it executed 81 of its citizens on a single day, and currently has a 17-year-old child on death row for a crime he was alleged to have committed at 14. If the country continues at its current pace, it will execute over 500 of its own people in 2022 alone.
The state uses ‘an array of discriminatory practices and policies that disempower women and leave them vulnerable to abuse,’ according to the deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, while same-sex sexual activity is illegal and LGBTQ+ people can be punished with public whippings, life imprisonment and deportation.
Drivers including McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo, team principals including Mercedes’ Toto Wolff, and even F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali all argued over the course of the weekend that Formula 1’s presence in countries like Saudi Arabia allows the light to be shone on human rights offences and help bring about change.
Domenicali even said that F1 is directly helping Saudi Arabia to take progressive steps forward. ‘We are not blind, but this country is taking massive steps forward,’ he told Sky Sports F1. ‘A few years ago women couldn’t drive, now they’re here on the grid. They are changing many laws and we are playing a very important role in the modernisation country.’
What Domenicali ignores is that Saudi Arabia is not aiming to because a Western-style liberal democracy, just needing Formula 1’s help to make it happen. The country is instead trying to safeguard its long-term financial future by using sport to portray an image of itself on the global stage as an entertainment paradise at the centre of international culture, increasing its popularity and tourism interest, while hiding its conflicts and oppression.
But the argument that the lives of women, gay people, or political dissidents in Saudi Arabia are going to be improved directly because Formula 1 cars are turning up once a year is simply incorrect and whether those who spout that line truly believe it is hard to ascertain.
Perhaps a few months ago F1 could have washed its hands of Saudi Arabia’s issues easily enough, but the way in which Russia has been rendered a sporting and cultural pariah by organisations including F1 means that fans around the world know full well that F1 could rescind its agreement with Saudi Arabia and survive just fine economically in the process. The question is whether it cares enough to do so.
In truth, an argument could be made against pretty much every country which currently hosts a race on the Formula 1 calendar from doing so. Every nation is in one form or another is blighted by abuse, corruption, wrongdoing and malpractice, whether it be domestically or in an international sense. But Saudi Arabia’s nefarious acts are on a much more industrial scale than every other F1 venue.
According to human rights organisation Amnesty International in 2021, “Among those harassed, arbitrarily detained, prosecuted and/or jailed [in Saudi Arabia] were government critics, women’s rights activists, human rights defenders, relatives of activists, and journalists. Virtually all known Saudi Arabian human rights defenders inside the country were detained or imprisoned.
‘Courts resorted extensively to the death penalty and people were executed for a wide range of crimes,’ its summary of Saudi Arabia continues. ‘Migrant workers were even more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation because of the pandemic, and thousands were arbitrarily detained in dire conditions, leading to an unknown number of deaths.’
Various drivers and team principals have said that F1 needs to have a discussion about its long-term future in Saudi Arabia, with the oil facility bombing in particular causing drivers to reflect on their own safety as well the human rights abuses they have faced questions about from media.
But drivers and teams don’t decide where they race in F1 — ultimately, the ball is now in the court of those in charge at the very top level.
If Formula 1 continues to race in Saudi Arabia in the end, it demonstrates to the world that lining its stakeholders’ pockets is more important than the safety of its drivers and personnel, the human rights of people in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and international social justice.
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