Formula One’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix returns to the coastal jewel of Jeddah

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Two-time champion Max Verstappen has welcomed changes to improve visibility for drivers on the Jeddah Corniche Circuit. (Supplied)
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Red Bull's Sergio Perez, Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton, Aston Martin's Lance Stroll, Haas' Kevin Magnussen and Alpine's Esteban Ocon during the press conference on March 16, 2023, ahead of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in Jeddah. (REUTERS)
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Two-time champion Max Verstappen has welcomed changes to improve visibility for drivers on the Jeddah Corniche Circuit. (Supplied)
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Haas' Nico Hulkenberg during practice at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit on March 17, 2023. (REUTERS/Ahmed Yosri)
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Haas' Kevin Magnussen in action during practice at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit on March 17, 2023. (REUTERS)Haas' Nico Hulkenberg during practice at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit on March 17, 2023. (REUTERS/Ahmed Yosri)
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Updated 18 March 2023

Formula One’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix returns to the coastal jewel of Jeddah

  • The Kingdom’s third race event, now a fixture in the Formula One calendar, gets underway on March 19
  • Having hosted the Dakar Rally, Diriyah E-Prix, and Extreme E, Saudi Arabia is fast becoming a motorsports hotspot 

JEDDAH: When, in the late hours of Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021, then-reigning Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton took the checkered flag to win the first-ever Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, he set up what would turn out to be, a week later in Abu Dhabi, the greatest-ever finale in the sport’s history.

The seven-time champion’s win under the Jeddah floodlights meant that he had drawn level with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in the drivers’ standings going into the last race of the season in the UAE capital.

What happened at Yas Marina Circuit would go down in legend, Verstappen winning a scarcely believable, and infinitely controversial, race in the final few seconds to claim his first title. It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that that “sliding doors” moment has altered the course of F1 history since.

The first Saudi Arabian Grand Prix had delivered drama, crashes, safety cars aplenty and the Hamilton win that set up that denouement in Abu Dhabi.

The second Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in 2022 had its work cut out to provide such drama. Now the second, instead of the second-last race of the season, it arrived only months after the inaugural race, taking place on March 27.

Champion Verstappen strolled to victory in what would become a procession for the Dutch driver, Ferrari’s early challenge fading to leave Red Bull as the undisputed champions of the drivers’ and constructors’ title.

And so to Sunday, March 19, 2023, and the third Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, now a fixture in the F1 calendar.

Gone is the novelty of the Kingdom hosting one of sport’s showpiece events, now replaced by an undeniable, and deserved, sense of permanence for the fastest street circuit in F1 history, with its track length of 6.174 km and 27 turns. F1 is in Saudi Arabia to stay.

Track changes this year, to improve visibility for the drivers, have been welcomed by the two-time champion Verstappen.

He said: “It’s a really cool street circuit, with quite a lot of grip, so I always enjoy going back there to race.”

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. (Supplied) 

The 25-year-old will be a strong favorite to repeat last year’s success, while the Ferraris of Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz will be hoping for better luck, and decision making, if they are to mount a challenge.

Lurking behind will be Lewis Hamilton and George Russell in their Mercedes, no longer the dominant car that strolled to seven drivers’ titles, and eight constructors’, in a row.

And keep an eye out for Aston Martin, with the grinning, grizzled figure of Fernando Alonso and the rapidly maturing Lance Stroll hoping to make a major leap from mid-field to title challengers.

That Saudi Arabia has become a hub for some of the world’s most high-profile races is no longer news.

Already in 2023, as in recent years, we have seen several global competitions take place in the Kingdom.

The Dakar Rally has successfully been transported to the desert of Saudi Arabia since 2020, while Riyadh first hosted Formula E’s Diriyah E-Prix in 2018, and since 2021 as a nighttime double-header.

Jeddah Corniche Circuit. (Supplied)

Extreme E, another all-electric racing series, has just concluded its season-opening race in AlUla for the third year running.

And then there was Rally Jameel, the first global race dedicated to female drivers only in the Middle East; a reminder that such previously unimagined events are not taking place in a cultural vacuum, but in a fast-evolving society.

But F1 remains the undisputed king of the road, a happening that transcends mere sporting competition.

“Formula 1 has put motorsport on the map in Saudi,” said Reema Juffali, Saudi’s first female racing driver and founder of Theeba Motorsport. “Four years ago, I remember having to explain the difference between F1 and rallying, so it’s great to be sharing the sport I love with everyone at home.”

The middle of the last decade might have seen a waning of interest in the sport as Mercedes and Hamilton won race after race, championship after championship.

Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton before practice at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit on March 17, 2023. (REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed)

But in recent years, F1 has seen an unprecedented resurgence in popularity thanks in huge part to the emergence of a crop of exciting young drivers like Verstappen, Leclerc, Lando Norris, Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon.

But perhaps the biggest, and most unexpected, factor in this new lease of life came from the Netflix series “Formula One: Drive to Survive,” now five seasons in, which has been nothing short of revolutionary in taking the sport to a new audience, especially the previously unconquered US demographic.

Hamilton, speaking to Arab News ahead of the first-ever Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in December 2021, said the show had “changed the sport for good.”

No longer are casual fans focusing on the one or two drivers that dominate each season. Today even viewers with the most cursory interest know the highs and lows of Yuki Tsunoda’s season, the sad departure of Daniel Ricciardo from McLaren and the return of Nico Hulkenburg to F1.

Behind the scenes, Netflix has introduced its viewers to the bitter rivalry between Mercedes and Red Bull team principals Toto Wolff and Christian Horner; the colorful figure of Haas boss Guenther Steiner; and the almost unbearable pressures on Mattia Binotto as he tried to lead an iconic name like Ferrari back to glory.

Alpine's French driver Pierre Gasly (foregound) drives ahead of Aston Martin's Spanish driver Fernando Alonso during the first practice session at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit on March 17, 2023, ahead of the 2023 Saudi Arabia Formula One Grand Prix. (AFP)

And Saudi fans can now even have a team to nail their colors to: Aston Martin Aramco Cognizant F1 Team.

The green of Aston Martin will this season carry the names of two Saudi juggernauts: Aramco and, as of last week, its new official flying partner Saudia.

It is not the first time that Saudia has lent its name to an F1 team.

The Kingdom had been the first Middle East country to be involved in Formula One when its national carrier sponsored Williams Racing from the late 1970s.

“Our association with Williams Racing began in 1978 and ran for almost two decades, during which time we enjoyed many successes,” Khaled Tash, chief marketing officer of Saudia, told Arab News.

Aston Martin's Spanish driver Fernando Alonso sits in his car in the garage during the first practice session at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit on March 17, 2023. (AFP)

“Formula One fans will remember that the Williams Racing team dominated the competition and won nine Constructors' Championships thanks to worldwide talent like Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve.

“Saudia played a vital role in Williams Racing’s victories and our partnership was one of the most successful sponsor-team collaborations in F1 history, paving the way for future partnerships within the motorsports industry.

“We believe that our partnership with Aston Martin Aramco Cognizant Formula One Team provides a further opportunity for us to expand the reach of the sport and bring unforgettable experiences to fans everywhere.”

Such a partnership will inevitably lead to questions of bigger Saudi involvement in F1.

“Our Kingdom’s love story with F1 has even led us to hosting a race, the Jeddah Grand Prix, and who knows, we may one day have our own Saudi F1 team,” Tash added.

It might be early days yet, but it is an intriguing prospect that could materialize in the medium or long term.



“Today, after successfully hosting two races in the previous two years, we have some genuine F1 fans and many who are interested in breaking into the sport,” said Juffali, who herself has competed in F4 and now races in the International GT Open. “One of the most common questions I get asked is: ‘How can I be an F1 driver?’”

There is already talk of a new, permanent racing circuit at Qiddiya, one that would host the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix among other races, and, reportedly, provide unprecedented views for spectators.

With motorsport’s popularity on the rise, the next big target will be to nurture local talent, be it male or female, and produce drivers that can take to the track alongside the world’s best.

“I believe it’s only the beginning for us and, with all the level of investment going into motorsport, it’s only a matter of time before we see a Saudi driver climbing the junior formula ranks,” said Juffali.

Saudi fans of F1, too, will hope it is a matter of when, not if.



Motor racing-Verstappen wins in Spain to continue Red Bull sweep

Updated 04 June 2023

Motor racing-Verstappen wins in Spain to continue Red Bull sweep

LONDON: Max Verstappen won the Spanish Grand Prix from pole position on Sunday to stretch his Formula One championship lead to 53 points and continue Red Bull’s sweep of the season with the team’s seventh success in as many races.
Seven-times world champion Lewis Hamilton was second for Mercedes, but a distant 24.090 seconds behind, with team mate George Russell completing the podium on a cloudy but dry afternoon at Barcelona’s Circuit de Catalunya.
Red Bull’s Sergio Perez, Verstappen’s closest rival in a season that looks sure to crown the dominant Dutch 25-year-old for a third time, finished fourth after fighting back from 11th at the start.
The win was Verstappen’s fifth of the season, third in a row, third in Spain and the double world champion’s 40th in Formula One.
The man who took the first grand prix win of his career at the Spanish circuit in 2016 and also triumphed last year, secured the bonus point for fastest lap to cap a day of domination.
“It’s a big pleasure to drive with a car like this. I think it showed again today,” said Verstappen, who fended off Ferrari’s home hero Carlos Sainz at the start in the only challenge of an otherwise straightforward afternoon.
“I had the harder compound so I knew the start would be a bit tricky. Going around the outside at Turn One is always quite difficult but luckily nothing happened.”
Verstappen was also shown a black and white flag for exceeding track limits late in the race but the risk of a five second penalty was hardly going to trouble someone so far up the road from the rest.
“Well done Max, that was mega. Very well controlled, even though you went over the white lines a few times,” said team boss Christian Horner.
McLaren’s Lando Norris, who started third on the grid, suffered a broken front wing on the first lap after contact with Hamilton and had to pit, plunging down the order and finishing 17th.
The form of the Mercedes drivers, with a re-designed car after a disappointing start to the season, provided a main talking point.
Mercedes moved up to second in the championship on 152 points to runaway Red Bull’s 287 and with Aston Martin dropping to third on 134.
“Mega job guys, mega job,” said Hamilton over the radio. “Thank you so much to everyone back at the factory, continuing to push. This is a real showing for all your hard work. Let’s keep pushing.”
Russell went off into the gravel on his way to the grid, where he lined up 12th, but his car was undamaged and his pace strong.
“It definitely feels better,” he said of the car. “You are just putting in those lap times and comparing it to the guys around you — the Ferraris and Astons — and you are going quicker and quicker.”
Sainz was fifth with the Aston Martins of Lance Stroll and Fernando Alonso sixth and seventh.
Alpine’s Esteban Ocon was eighth, Alfa Romeo’s Guanyu Zhou ninth and Pierre Gasly, who qualified fourth before a six-place grid penalty, took the final point for Renault-owned Alpine.
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, who started from the pitlane after a nightmare in qualifying left him on the back row, finished 11th.

Verstappen takes pole for Spanish Grand Prix

Updated 03 June 2023

Verstappen takes pole for Spanish Grand Prix

  • The championship leader took his fifth pole of a season already dominated by Red Bull to start ahead of Ferrari's Spanish driver Carlos Sainz
  • "Not bad," said Verstappen, with his customary understatement

MONTMELO, Spain: World champion Max Verstappen claimed his maiden pole position for the Spanish Grand Prix after leading qualifying Saturday on the Montmelo circuit outside Barcelona.
The championship leader took his fifth pole of a season already dominated by Red Bull to start ahead of Ferrari’s Spanish driver Carlos Sainz with Britain’s Lando Norris of McLaren in third.
“Not bad,” said Verstappen, with his customary understatement. “It’s very nice to come here and get my first pole. I like the circuit and I have a lot of good memories here.”
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton took fifth place on the grid, ahead of Canadian Lance Stroll of Aston Martin.
Local hero Fernando Alonso could only set the ninth fastest time after damaging his car when going off the track in the second qualifying period.
Frenchman Esteban Ocon of Alpine, who took third place in Monaco last weekend, will start in seventh, ahead of German Nico Huelkenberg of Haas, while Australian Oscar Piastri will complete the top 10 in a McLaren.
Qualifying was contested on a slippery track at the start of the session and it featured several big surprises.
First it was Monaco’s Charles Leclerc who was eliminated in Q1 and he will only start in 19th and penultimate place.
Then Verstappen’s Red Bull team-mate, Mexican Sergio Pérez, who made a mistake and took a lap in the gravel, was taken out in Q2 and will start in 11th, ahead of Briton George Russell, who also disappointed with the other Mercedes.

Max Verstappen wins Monaco Grand Prix to extend F1 championship lead

Updated 28 May 2023

Max Verstappen wins Monaco Grand Prix to extend F1 championship lead

  • Spanish veteran Fernando Alonso was a season’s best second for Aston Martin
  • Heavy rain played havoc with about 20 of the 78 laps left

MONACO: Formula One champion Max Verstappen’s lights-to-flag victory at the Monaco Grand gave the Red Bull driver his fourth victory of the season and a record 39th overall for the team as he extended his championship lead to 39 points over teammate Sergio Perez on Sunday.
Verstappen’s wins have all been with Red Bull since his first on debut for the team at the Spanish GP in 2016 when he became the youngest F1 winner at 18 years old.
Seven years and two world championships later, the Dutchman set a team record for wins as he passed former Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel’s previous tally of 38 victories when he won four straight titles from 2010-13.
“It’s great, I never thought I’d be in this position in my career,” Verstappen said. “It’s better than I could have imagined for sure.”
Spanish veteran Fernando Alonso was a season’s best second for Aston Martin as he collected a fifth podium in six races, albeit 28 seconds behind Verstappen, while Frenchman Esteban Ocon secured third place and a rare podium for Alpine.
Red Bull has won all the races so far.
“It’s super nice to win it in the way we did today with the weather and everything to stay calm and bring it home,” Verstappen said.
For most of the race, he coasted on a dry and narrow track where overtaking is the hardest in F1.
But an incident-free race in Monaco is rare and heavy rain played havoc with about 20 of the 78 laps left. Some drivers had pitted for the wrong medium tires shortly before the downpour and slid around.
“It was incredibly slippery,” Verstappen said.
Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz Jr. glided sideways into the barriers and was lucky not to damage his Ferrari. Kevin Magnussen lost control of his Haas and Lance Stroll retired after damaging his Aston Martin.
Red Bull had wisely put Verstappen on the versatile and more suited to the wet conditions intermediates on Lap 56 and they carried him to his second win in Monaco. The first was in 2021.
Lewis Hamilton finished fourth for Mercedes and picked up a point for fastest lap. His teammate George Russell was fifth, having earlier almost slammed into Perez as visibility worsened. A serious crash was somehow avoided in a hectic few minutes before the rain eased off.
“Braking was extremely fragile,” Alonso said. “I think everyone did an amazing job today to keep the cars on track.”
Alonso is third in the standings and closed the gap on Perez to 12 points. The 41-year-old Alonso’s podium was his 103rd in F1, while Ocon grabbed his third.
“I’m speechless at the moment,” Ocon said. “A little bit on my cloud at the moment.”
Russell was given a five-second penalty for rejoining the track in an unsafe manner but had just enough to keep fifth place ahead of Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc.
Pierre Gasly (Alpine), a seething Sainz, Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri (both McLaren) rounded out the top 10.
On Saturday, Verstappen just edged out Alonso to deny him his first pole for 11 years.
Perez, who won the race last year, started from last after a clumsy crash in qualifying and finished 16th.
The sinewy 3.4-kilometer (2.1-mile) street circuit gives the pole sitter a massive advantage if he makes a clean getaway, which is what Verstappen did as Alonso’s gamble to start on hard tires didn’t work.
“Max drove super well on the medium tires on that first stint,” Alonso said. “We (went) for all or nothing. We started on the hard tire and didn’t have the pace.”
After 26 of the 78 laps Verstappen was 12 seconds clear of Alonso, who even persuaded himself he had a puncture. Twice his team assured him it wasn’t the case.
Eventually Verstappen started losing time and wanted to pit for new tires but his team told him he’d fall behind Alonso if he did that.
At the same time Perez stuck among the back markers was getting tense, almost clipping Stroll and then bumping into the back of Kevin Magnussen’s Haas.
Sainz, meanwhile, was furious that Ferrari — a team with a worrying reputation for still making bad strategy calls — pitted him too early and put on the wrong tire to cover Ocon’s stop and let his team know with an outburst over team radio.
The Spaniard had already endured a difficult day after his front wing clipped Ocon’s Alpine as he tried to overtake. A portion of the wing came off subsequently but Sainz got away with just a warning for the incident.
The sky then darkened and rain started to fall heavily soon after drivers had completed 50 laps.
“I have to drive super slow because my tires are (expletive),” Verstappen lamented on Lap 54, while Alonso pitted a lap later for mediums.
Early on, Sainz’s front wing clipped Ocon’s Alpine as he tried to overtake coming out of the tunnel. A small piece of debris came off but the wing stayed on the car, and Sainz got away with a warning.

Red Bull's Max Verstappen wins the Miami Grand Prix

Updated 08 May 2023

Red Bull's Max Verstappen wins the Miami Grand Prix

  • The victory extends Verstappen's lead at the top of the standings
  • Aston Martin's Spanish veteran Fernando Alonso took third

MIAMI GARDENS: World champion Max Verstappen powered from ninth on the grid to beat Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez and win the Miami Grand Prix on Sunday.
The victory extends Verstappen's lead at the top of the standings and follows his triumph in the inaugural Miami race last year.
The 1-2 for Red Bull is their fourth in five races so far this season as the team utterly dominate the sport leaving their rivals to battle for the third podium position.
Aston Martin's Spanish veteran Fernando Alonso took third for his fourth podium in five races this season as he continues to enjoy his late career revival.
Perez, starting on pole, made the perfect start, racing clear of his rivals but Verstappen, on hard tyres, quickly moved through the field and took just 15 laps to reach second place behind his team-mate.
Perez pitted on lap 20 allowing Verstappen to take the lead but the Dutchman had to give that up when he went into the pits on lap 46, changing to the medium compound tyres and coming out 1.2 seconds behind.
It took just two laps for Verstappen, who won the inaugural Miami Grand Prix a year ago, to take advantage of his fresher tyres with better grip as, after a brief joust, he overtook the Mexican, on 25-lap-old tyres, to take the lead.
Verstappen's 38th win for Red Bull equals the team record set by Sebastian Vettel.
"I took the cars off one by one and then I could stay out really long on the hard tyres and that's where we I think made the difference," said Verstappen.
"For sure winning a race from P9 is always very satisfying," he said.
Mercedes had some consolation at the end of a difficult week with George Russell taking fourth place ahead of Ferrari's Carlos Sainz and team-mate Lewis Hamilton finishing sixth.
Charles Leclerc, who crashed late in qualifying and started seventh on the grid, finished in seventh place with Frenchman Pierre Gasly of Alpine in eighth.

Verstappen quickest, Leclerc crashes in ‘slippery’ Miami Grand Prix practice

Updated 06 May 2023

Verstappen quickest, Leclerc crashes in ‘slippery’ Miami Grand Prix practice

  • Red Bull drivers have dominated the opening four races of the season with Verstappen and teammate Sergio Perez claiming two victories each

MIAMI GARDENS, Florida: World champion Max Verstappen of Red Bull set the fastest time in Friday’s practice for the Miami Grand Prix while Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc suffered a crash into a barrier on a track which several drivers described as “slippery.”
After Mercedes enjoyed a 1-2 effort in the opening session, with George Russell leading the way from Lewis Hamilton, Verstappen — the current championship leader — responded emphatically with an impressive best lap time of 1:27.930.
Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz was 0.385 seconds behind closely followed by his teammate Leclerc, whose session ended early after he went nose first into the barrier at Turn eight.
Leclerc left the track on a moped and showed no signs of any side-effects from the incident, which caused a red flag and five-minute delay, frustrating teams who were putting in some longer runs.
Verstappen’s second practice, on the newly resurfaced Miami track, was accompanied by regular complaints from the driver about his headrest but the discomfort appeared to have little impact on his performance.
“It was a good day. Initially we were getting used to the track with the new tarmac, it was ramping up a lot throughout the day. It’s still quite slippery off line but on the driving line it’s OK,” he said.
“Most importantly today we had good balance in the car so I feel happy. There are still a few things we want to look at overnight, ideally we want to be faster on every corner, which isn’t always possible. We’ll have to see what the weather will do tomorrow, but overall it’s been a positive day,” he said.
The weather forecast for the weekend predicts rain but it is more likely to fall on Sunday rather than for Saturday’s qualifying.
Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez, who is just six points behind him in the standings after his win in Baku last week, was fourth fastest ahead of Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso.
Red Bull drivers have dominated the opening four races of the season with Verstappen and teammate Sergio Perez claiming two victories each.
The lack of over-taking in a largely processional Azerbaijan Grand Prix, combined with the Red Bull cars’ superior speed, has led to fears of a season lacking drama and excitement.
After Russell posted a time of 1:30.125 in the earlier session, with his fellow Briton Hamilton second quickest, 0.212 behind, there was at least some indication that Red Bull might not have it all their own way on Sunday.
But even before the second session, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff was quick to caution against reading too much into their times.
Hamilton finished seventh in the second session while Russell was down in 15th, 1.286 off Verstappen’s pace.
“I’m going to stay optimistic and hopeful that we can get the car in a better place for (Saturday) and maybe be a couple of positions further forward,” said Hamilton.

“We weren’t particularly quick, and it was a struggle out there. The grip is quite low on this new surface. It is slippery, particularly for the rear-end. The track temperature today was very high so there was lots of sliding. (First practice) looked quite good but our pace in (the second practice) was a kick in the guts. We’re trying lots of different things and we’ll keep working on it,” he said.
Last year’s maiden Miami race was met with criticism from drivers about the grip on the track when moving out of the regular driving line and it appears that the newly laid tarmac still has some issues.
“So far, I think the new track surface seems to be better, but we were basically just cleaning the racing line today,” said Alonso.
“It seems when you move away from it, it’s very slippery — so that could make overtaking difficult,” he added.
The first practice also saw a red flag after Haas’ Nico Hulkenberg lost control of his car entering turn three, spinning into the wall and leaving debris on the track from his front end.