Following the inaugural race at the Losail Circuit in Qatar, Formula 1 heads next to its most controversial race, the Saudi Arabia Grand Prix in Jeddah. Formula 1 has never raced in Saudi Arabia, and the decision to stage a Grand Prix there comes with significant controversy.
Despite the Kingdom’s politics and policies, the Grand Prix faces a much larger problem; the circuit isn’t complete. With a scant two weeks between the Qatar Grand Prix and the Saudi Arabia Grand Prix, is there enough time to finish the course and facilities?
Eight months to build the world’s fastest street circuit
The promoters of the Jeddah Corniche Circuit and Formula 1 are hopeful that construction can end within a few days. Doubts have swirled for the past few months about the circuit being ready with enough time for the event, but Formula 1’s bosses have been adamant that the show will go on.
The scale and scope of the project are immense, with event promoters revealing that 3,000 on-site contractors from 50 different countries collaborated on the construction.
37,000 tons of asphalt, 600,000 tons of cement, 30,000 square meters of bricks, and 1,400 tons of glass went into the Herman Tilke designed race track. Seven grandstands surround the track, which is fully illuminated to allow nighttime racing.
As quoted by RaceFans.net, the Grand Prix promoters said, “No F1 circuit has ever been constructed in a shorter period [8 months]. More importantly, this achievement was accomplished under the strictest health and safety conditions, with millions of man-hours of work taking place on-site with no serious incidents.”
Naturally, Formula 1 and the event’s promoters are enthusiastic about the race and the prospects of completing everything. The reality is slightly different, with much of the facilities and buildings still unfinished.
The track surface is complete but many buildings and facilities have yet to be finished
Recent photos of the circuit, as reported by Austosport.com, reveal that the track surface is complete. That would allow the cars to race, but much of the circuit’s infrastructure is still under construction and likely won’t be usable when Formula 1 rolls into town.
Incomplete facilities would hamper how many fans can attend the event. It would also hinder media coverage and the ability of the teams and Formula 1 to operate.
Formula 1 race director Michael Masi visited the construction site last week to get an in-person update on progress. Massi is confident the race will go ahead, but a significant amount of work remains.
The problem of racing on the track too soon after construction
Racing cars put a lot of stress on the surface of a race track. The stresses come from the lateral loads when cars brake, turn, and accelerate. It happens to be the opposite of what highways experience, as most stresses on a public road come from vertical loads, like a 50-ton truck driving at a constant speed.
Public roads are also significantly thicker than the pavement on race tracks. That helps with durability. A typical race track surface construction has three layers of specially developed top-secret asphalt only five inches thick.
Under normal circumstances, when the construction timeline is not as tight as in Saudi Arabia, the asphalt can dry and cure with plenty of time before the cars start racing. Curing times depend on several factors but typically take three to six months. Asphalt can tolerate traffic within 72 hours of application but is fragile and can be easily damaged. This is a cause for concern.
The hot, dry environment of Jeddah will help with the drying and curing time of the track surface, but with so little time between paving and when cars are racing, there is a possibility that the race track could come apart in some places.
Modern race track asphalt technology should prevent this, but the failure of the surface could still be a possibility. That could make the track dangerous for the drivers and fans.
There is optimism from Formula 1 but a concession that the circuit could be partially completed
Formula 1’s sporting director, Steve Nielsen, spoke to Motorsport.com about progress at the track. He said, “It’s an ambitious project. It will be a great facility.
“They’re up against it; they are. But they’re literally working 24/7 as they have been for quite a long time now. I saw some more photos this morning, and they’ve made huge progress. But still, a lot to do.
“So it really is going to be down to the wire. But they’ll get it done. Everything we need to put the race on safely we’ll have, I’m confident of that.”
Formula 1 CEO Stefano Domenicali says “the track will be done” but did go on to concede that some parts of the Jeddah venue will not be ready.
The Saudi Arabia Grand Prix looks set to go on, but questions remain about the level of completion on race day.