Sport has an incredible ability to distract. It’s escapism at its finest, and a Formula 1 race is just one of the many different events that can help take your mind off what is going on in the rest of the world.
When it comes to Jeddah last weekend, Sunday night’s race actually had that exact effect on what had been going on both inside and outside of the track just a few days before. But it shouldn’t be allowed to completely erase the memory of why this race weekend threatened to become one of the most important in recent history.
The sight of all 20 drivers waiting it out in the F1 hospitality building after more than four hours of talks, discussions and meetings was a truly remarkable one. It had been noteworthy enough when they were all marching down to the same location just before FP2, instead of getting in their cars. That led to a 15-minute delay to that session, but it was nothing compared to what would follow.
Originally planning on meeting at 22:00 local time, some drivers were a little late as a result of debriefs overrunning, but that meant there were a few who had gone straight from the car, to the debrief to the meeting and were still in race suits. At the time it didn’t seem such a major point, but by 02:00 the next morning it was more notable.
F1’s bosses came and went. High-ranking government officials came and went. The FIA president came and went. Team principals came and went. But the drivers stayed, and they stayed together.
They didn’t all share the exact same conviction in terms of whether or not to race, and relatively quickly appeared to agree that it would be the wrong move to boycott if security around the circuit was of an acceptable level – which the race eventually would show it was – but there still remained one wider point that kept being missed by F1’s bosses.
Why is the sport racing in a place that is at war with a faction of a neighboring country, just two weeks after it was so strong in its stance of ‘No War’ in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Why is it having to say that it’s normal to have attacks such as the one on the Aramco oil depot in Saudi, and therefore F1 should just get on board with it?
Believe me, that was one such point made by Toto Wolff.
“We just need to understand that this is culturally very different to how we see our western cultures,” Wolff said on Saturday night. “For us, is it acceptable to race 10 miles away from a drone rocket that is going into a petrol tank? Certainly not. But for here, within their culture, these things happen here.
“I don’t want to say that I’m not racing, because I am generally someone that wants to give people the chance to better themselves. Does Saudi Arabia and some of the other Middle Eastern countries share the same values and culture as we do in Europe? They don’t. Are they where we want them to be? No.
“Can we by coming here put the spotlight into this place by racing here in Formula 1, by making those things visible and therefore making it a better place? I still think so. I’d rather come here and make the spotlight shine on the region so it needs to be a better place rather than say I’m not going there and I don’t want to hear anything of it.”
I understand Wolff’s point that the sport could help improve matters in places by bringing attention and focus, but this week it appeared to do the very opposite of that. The attack’s timing ensured it got far more coverage than a similar – less successful – one on the same site five days earlier when we were racing in Bahrain, and the response from Saudi Arabia was to launch a fresh military operation in Yemen.
As one colleague pointed out, it was more like our presence had ignited a war, not helped end one.
There was a truce called by the Yemeni Houthis on Saturday, but Saudi Arabia didn’t respond at the time. Regardless, the fact I’m typing those words tells you all you need to know about the volatility in the country, and how ridiculous it is that the – true – justification that only infrastructure is targeted, while there’s also strong missile defenses around the track, were key reasons the race could continue.
A line has been crossed, and it’s far more than a case of a moral decision about whether the sport should be taking money from somewhere with the human rights record that Saudi Arabia has. The smoke rising near the track on Friday was the slap in the face F1 needed to make it realize it was racing in what is effectively a war zone, and it has allowed money to push it to the point that it was doing so.
Before it was that “real”, it all seemed that bit more tolerable. Atrocities and hostilities were out of sight so out of mind, but not anymore.
What actually proved to be a thrilling race between Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc for victory on Sunday night once again pushed those thoughts and images out of mind just for a few hours at least, as the pair went wheel-to-wheel on numerous occasions in a sporting battle that was still to be won until the final corner of the race.
It’s a track that provoked debate for its safety regardless of its location, but ultimately provided an excellent on-track spectacle. But that spectacle can be delivered in countless locations around the world, ones that aren’t in war zones.
F1 can’t let the excitement provided when we finally went racing wash way the image and feeling that came 48 hours before. Could it race in Saudi again in future? Of course, but the first condition for its return should be that the country is not at war.
That would be having a true positive impact, and would provide progress for those in the region that just might make it possible to trust the sport can make a difference to more than just its bank balance.