When a missile attack less than seven miles away is only the second- or third-biggest problem with the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, maybe it’s time for Formula 1 to move on.
The sport’s executives will announce on Wednesday that Las Vegas will host an F1 race in November 2023, joining a very busy schedule. Scrapping the Saudi Arabian GP would help. But walking away from a reported $650 million over 10 years isn’t an easy decision.
After two races on the Jeddah Corniche Circuit, there certainly is a case for moving on rather than coming back. There are no indications that Formula 1 is ready for such a drastic move.
Formula 1 driver Mick Schumacher survived a wicked crash
The second phase of qualifying at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix came to a halt Saturday following a ferocious wreck by Mick Schumacher after this car clipped a curb on the right edge of the track while exiting Turn 10.
Schumacher’s Haas then veered into the inside concrete wall and largely disintegrated, with the force of the hit ripping the right-side tires off the chassis, while continuing up the track along the barrier. Safety workers helped Schumacher out of the protective shell.
The son of Formula 1 legend Michael Schumacher took brief treatment at the track. Later, doctors at a nearby hospital checked him out and released the driver. He sat out the race the following day as much to rest as to spare the team from preparing the backup car, which they will need on April 10 at the Australian Grand Prix.
Alarmingly, Alpine Renault driver Esteban Ocon nearly experienced the same fate at the same spot on the track. Fortunately, the Frenchman was able to keep the car off the wall, saving it from further damage.
“I think one more degree and I would have been gone (into the wall),” Ocon said, according to Motorsport.com. “I would have had exactly the same thing that happened to Mick.”
Saudi Arabia’s track is new and difficult
Large portions of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix circuit, barely finished in time for the first Formula 1 race late last fall, have a foreboding feel because of concrete barriers close to the 3.7-mile track. Changes this spring included moving barriers on four of the 27 corners. Adjustments on the final turn made it wider by nearly five feet.
The work didn’t stop Sergio Perez from labeling Jeddah Corniche Circuit “definitely the most dangerous place on the calendar.” Mick Schumacher’s qualifying crash over the weekend triggered additional concerns, including calls by Ferrari drivers Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz to prioritize safety.
“Having that huge accident when you can maybe, hopefully push the walls a bit further out gives us a bit more space to slow down the car if we lose it,” Sainz said, according to Autosport.com. “It’s a discussion that we need to have because it’s probably a bit on the limit.”
Formula 1 has other issues to address
As was demonstrated by the attack on a nearby oil facility during race week, the Saudi Arabian government cannot guarantee safety. Now that the Formula 1 race is over, with Max Verstappen scoring a victory after a late pass, drivers have left the country and can speak more freely about how close they came to withdrawing from the second race of the season because of the attack.
Beyond that, however, Saudi Arabia faces increasing international attention over human rights issues, particularly the treatment of women and minority groups. Critics accuse the government of using major racing and golf events as “sportswashing,” the use of sporting events to enhance its image around the world. Drivers are aware of the increasing pressure to shun Saudi Arabia, but they don’t make schedule decisions.
“It’s not like Formula 1 chooses that on the map,” former F1 champion Sebastian Vettel said, according to PlanetF1.com. “It’s more that countries are approaching Formula 1, and it’s part of the business model that venues are putting a lot of money into it.
“Do you dare to do something about it when you are there? On the other hand, there are certain values we must stand up for because they outweigh financial interests.”
The people running the sport haven’t reached that point yet.