Saudi Arabia confirmed last week it will debut on the Formula One calendar next year, with the Saudi Arabia Grand Prix taking place in November.
To be held as a street race in Jeddah, it is expected to fall as the penultimate stop of the 2021 season, before the campaign closes with its traditional finale in Abu Dhabi. It is the third grand prix to take place in the Gulf after the UAE capital and Bahrain.
The Saudi Arabia Grand Prix is said to mark the first year of a long-term partnership between F1 and the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation (SAMF). Part of the kingdom's Vision 2030 programme, it is anticipated that it will remain in Jeddah while a new track at Qiddiyah is completed. That is scheduled for 2023.
The National caught up with Prince Khalid Bin Sultan Al Faisal, president of the SAMF, to talk about the agreement with Formula One and what hosting a grand prix means for the kingdom. While not giving specifics on the deal, Prince Khalid said: "I can tell you it's a very long relationship and will last year for many, many decades."
Why decide on bringing Formula One to Saudi Arabia?
“For us, it’s a no-brainer. We are big fans of motorsports in general. We like rallies, we like circuit racing, GT racing, single-seaters, and we’re big fans of Formula One. And we’ve been involved since the late 1970s by sponsoring the Williams teams. We have the relationship with Formula One.
"The population of Saudi Arabia, most are them are young in age and we like entertainment, we like sport, so this is the best event both in racing and entertainment, with all the side activities and supporting events. So we have a big appetite for events and racing and, for us, it’s important to deliver something as big and exciting and thrilling as Formula One to our people of Saudi Arabia.
"In the past we used to watch the races on TV and some of us - the hardcore enthusiasts - travelled outside of Saudi Arabia to attend a grand prix. So we brought one of the most popular sports in Saudi Arabia to the Saudi people and we’d like also to take the opportunity by hosting Formula One to bring people to Saudi Arabia and see our lovely city and lovely shore here in Jeddah, especially where the grand prix will take place.
"We’re very excited. We’ve been talking a lot for the past couple of years and finally now we’re going to host a Formula One race. This is a big thing for us in Saudi.”
The race will fall in November, right at the business end of the season. What was the thinking behind that date and the site in Jeddah?
“It’s a street race and we wanted to make sure we are ready to host. The plan for some time was us to host the race in Al Qiddiyah in 2023, but as is our ambition, we can’t wait three years from now - it’s too long for us.
"We wanted to bring Formula One sooner, before 2023, so the Formula One [Group] came here, evaluated a couple of locations and were impressed with Jeddah - especially the corniche and the infrastructure we have here. And it’s located on the Red Sea, so it’s a new area.
"Everything they wanted: the population is here - it’s the second biggest city - we have the port, a new airport, so all the infrastructure we need. And we wanted to showcase something different because most of our events were in Riyadh, so it’s nice to show a different part of Saudi.
"People love to come to Jeddah. We chose November because the weather is good; it’s going to be a night race so this is the best time for us. And it’s also close to Abu Dhabi so it’s going to be easy for the teams in terms of logistics.”
Apart from the street circuit, what will separate the Saudi grand prix from the other two in the region: Bahrain and Abu Dhabi?
“The theme that we’re going to come up with in terms of how can we make the experience more exciting. We’re closer to Africa so I’m sure we’ll attract people from Egypt and other places. The landscape of the Red Sea is really beautiful. I’m sure all the people will come here for Formula One and after they finish he race they will enjoy going to different parts of Saudi Arabia exploring, fishing, diving, enjoying our lovely shores. The weather is not really cold in November, so it’s good for water sports.”
Saudi already has a large portfolio of high-profile international sports events. Where does Formula One fit inside the Vision 2030 initiative?
“It fits very well. Part of the vision is opening up our country and delivering also on improving the quality of the life of our people, to give them what they need. We like entertainment, we like sports. How can you go bigger than Formula One? We started with Formula E, Dakar Rally and now Formula One. For us, it’s the cherry on the top.”
What would represent success for you come the end of the inaugural event?
“First is it is to be an exciting race. I hope nobody will secure the championship before that, so it’s going to still give an excitement and a thrill for who will win in terms of the teams. Also, for us, most importantly is that this pandemic situation to be over, because we want to share our race with everyone. That’s why I really hope this Covid situation ends before our grand prix.”
Did the pandemic ever come into consideration when planning to push through on the deal with Formula One?
“This pandemic, this Covid situation, affected the whole world. The problem is we don’t know how long it will last. We need to live with it. We can’t delay things, we can’t close everything. Life needs to go back to normal, but obviously not like before.
"Our country’s taking very strict measures with the social distancing and how they treated the situation. So we’re doing well. The cases are very low in Saudi Arabia now, and our race is still a year ahead so hopefully things will be better globally. But even if this thing continues we have a very long commitment to Formula One. We’ll deal with it, but we’re not worried. And hopefully people will be able to fly into Saudi Arabia and enjoy our lovely race.”
Given such a challenging year, what does it say about the kingdom that you can commit to such a financial undertaking as the deal with Formula One?
“Saudi Arabia is a well-established country, and we know we’ve been in worse situations. We had a big war in the 1990s; we had an oil crisis. But we managed to come through it and, especially now with Vision 2030, where a lot of things have changed, we don’t rely a lot any more on oil prices.
"Our economy is very big, so we are not concerned at all. The government gave us all that we needed to host and organise this event to a very high standard. The only thing we want to do is to share what we’re doing with people, give them the opportunity to come and see us. We have no worries that we can’t deliver on time for whatever reason. As I said, we are a big country - we have a lot of resources. That’s the least of concerns now.”