Saudi Arabia and Formula One a 'perfect fit', says race chief Martin Whitaker

Kingdom ready to host its first race this weekend on the 'incredible' Jeddah street circuit

Saudi Arabia will be hosting its first Formula One race this weekend. Martin Whitaker, chief executive of the Saudi Arabian GP, tells The National the race in Jeddah is a differentiator for F1 and one that aims to "change perspective" about the kingdom.

"It's very special for Formula One to be here," he said. "Saudi Arabia is a global player and for F1, a global championship, it is a very special place for them to race. It adds a new dimension for them. Any new venue is special but Saudi Arabia is completely different as it is such a massive player on a global stage and for F1 to be racing here, it is a perfect fit.

"Millions of people will be watching the race. For F1 to do a long-term agreement with Saudi Arabia is fabulous, it secures the championship for the next 15 years. It's great not just from a business perspective but for television, spectator perspective, and community."

The circuit will host future races in the kingdom including community events, running and cycling, and the development of beach sports.

"The race here is a force for good. It's a great platform not just for business, sport, young people, and community, but also for changing perspectives," Whitaker said. "If the single most important thing this race does is change people's perspective and makes them realise that Saudi is in fact an open country, that people here offer fantastic hospitality, that they're friendly, and the youth which is the majority of the population, is like anywhere else in the world."

Whitaker wants the world to come to Saudi Arabia to see the country for what it is and hopes the F1 race "creates better knowledge and understanding about the country and its people."

Forty per cent of Saudi Arabian GP's staff is women, mostly in managerial roles, and Whitaker said this is an indication of the progressive change in the kingdom. "It speaks volumes of the change that's taking place," he said. "It's great for women and girls who are part of this team - they're fantastic. From our perspective, it's fantastic for the city of Jeddah. The legacy the track will bring to the city will be incredible."

BAHRAIN .23rd April. 2009 .BAHRAIN GRAND PRIX. Martin Whitaker the man in charge of the Bahrain Grand Prix, standing in the paddock area of the circuit.  Stephen Lock  /  The National.  Words: Roland Hughes. FRI/SAT *** Local Caption ***  SL-whitaker-006.jpg

That legacy will extend far beyond race weekend, Whitaker said. The new Saudi Young Stars e-Karting program has helped create awareness about motorsports and its various roles and positions. "Not all of them will want to be racers, but they can be engineers, marshals, nutritionists, and so on," Whitaker said. Many Saudi children have participated in the competition, aimed at six to 12-year-old Saudi drivers. The 20 fastest drivers will compete in a final race during the F1 weekend, on an exclusive karting track in the Fanzone.

Whitaker said F1 racers were excited to participate in the new race in Jeddah. "We did a lot of interviews with them and to see them excited by the track, to participate and engage was genuinely refreshing. They're also ambassadors to the countries they visit. The fact that people are going to see an extraordinary race and circuit. The scale of it is amazing, it's almost mind-blowing. How it's been produced since just May this year. And there's more to come. From leisure building to community spaces. I hope it will change people's perceptions and it's a differentiator for F1."

The 6.175-kilometre Jeddah Corniche Circuit will have 27 corners and is said to be the longest street circuit in the sport. The chief executive said building a "phenomenal street circuit" instead of a racetrack was a logical decision as the country wanted a track on the shores of the Red Sea, "giving it the unique characteristic and nature."

He said the specific challenge is essentially building the facility. "This is an extraordinary track and a brand new location, with no track here beforehand so it's not just about designing the track but obviously building it from scratch in a very short of time. Then on top of that, organising the race as well."

"The urban location was perfect, hence the reason it's a street circuit, using to a degree existing roads, although at the end of the day we aren't using original tarmac, it's completely new and design. The flow of the track does not follow any original roads."

Updated: December 2nd 2021, 9:56 AM