A rocket hits about 20 kilometers from the race track in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia – but Formula 1 is still going full throttle. Business as usual, so to speak.
In the evening, Formula 1 boss Stefano Domenicali (56) and FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem (69) announced that the race weekend would continue. The security authorities had given the all-clear. The rebels in Yemen are not heading for civilian targets. And anyway, the missile defense system works wonderfully. Concerns about security are therefore misplaced.
The reason for the surprising U-turn – after the pilots seemed more united in their opinion than ever before: Officially, the Saudi authorities have explained their state-of-the-art technology to the fastest drivers in the world and assured them: No further rockets or drones can get through the defense shield through.
But in the early morning other information also leaked through the paddock fence. The BBC was the first to report that other factors also played a role in the pilots’ change of heart. Accordingly, there could be certain problems for the Formula 1 entourage when leaving Saudi Arabia if the race is not held. Some speak of a gentle warning from the kingdom’s authoritarian regime, others of discreet blackmail. One thing is certain: the rumor leaves a lot of room for interpretation.
However, it fits: There is a precedent from 2019. At that time, around 200 members of the professional wrestling series WWE were held at the airport for more than six hours because there were discussions with the Saudi organizers about money and a TV broadcast that was too short gave.
In any case, a statement by the drivers’ association GPDA spoke volumes. There was talk of a “stressful day” for the Formula 1 drivers. In other words, the gladiators of Formula 1, who race past the walls of the Jeddah Circuit at more than 300 km/h, were uncomfortable with the images of a burning facility belonging to the Saudi oil multinational Aramco.
But it is also clear: Even if the GP can be held without further incidents, the topic must not simply be shelved. A ten-year contract brings the Formula 1 makers more than 60 million dollars every year. But both Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and the rocket hit in Jeddah on Friday have fundamentally changed the Formula 1 world.
All contracts with Russia have rightly already been cut. But can one continue to drive in Saudi Arabia in a country where massive human rights violations are still taking place – and which has been fighting a war of aggression in Yemen since 2015, which has led to one of the largest humanitarian catastrophes in the world?
Lewis Hamilton speaks to his fellow drivers when he says: “I would like to say that it feels good to come here. But it doesn’t, given the human rights violations.”
After all, other team bosses are already calling for a debate about the future of the race in Jeddah. “I think the discussion should have been held in advance,” admits Williams team boss Jost Capito. “Now it takes place after the race weekend, not during it.” Mick Schumacher’s Haas team boss Günther Steiner also says: “Now is not the moment to discuss whether it’s right or wrong that we’re here at all. That’s coming, and we’re going to talk about it.”
This is urgently needed, because the argument that sport can contribute to democratization, which is so often put forward, is no longer tenable, at least at the moment and especially in the case of Saudi Arabia. Even more: The damage to the image of Formula 1 can hardly be offset by the financial gain.