SAUDI Arabia will host a Formula One Grand Prix for the first time next year with a night race on the streets of the country’s second city Jeddah, the sport and organisers announced on Thursday.
The November race — along Jeddah’s corniche facing the Red Sea — will be the third in the Middle East with Bahrain and Abu Dhabi, subject to confirmation of a 2021 calendar that has yet to be published.
Formula One’s current season has been restricted by the COVID-19 pandemic to 17 races in Europe and the Middle East but the sport is hoping for a fuller season in 2021, possibly even a record 23 races.
Saudi Arabia is set to be paired with next year’s season-ending round at Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina, also held under floodlights.
“Saudi Arabia is a country that is rapidly becoming a hub for sports and entertainment with many major events taking place there in recent years and we are very pleased that Formula One will be racing there from next season,” said F1 chairman Chase Carey in a statement.
“The region is hugely important to us and with 70% of the population of Saudi being under 30 we are excited about the potential to reach new fans and bring our existing fans around the world exciting racing from an incredible and historic location.”
The Saudi round is expected to move eventually to Qiddiya, a planned entertainment resort about an hour’s drive from the capital Riyadh, once a permanent circuit has been built and as part of a long-term deal.
Qiddiya is at the heart of an ambitious strategy to open the economy and ease social restrictions.
Prince Khalid Bin Sultan Al Faisal, President of the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation, hailed the race as ground-breaking.
“I firmly believe the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix will be the biggest sports event hosted in our country’s history and has the potential to change lives, perceptions and reach new audiences and communities like never before,” he said.
Saudi Arabia has become increasingly prominent on the motorsports scene, hosting the Dakar Rally in January while two races of the all-electric Formula E series are scheduled for Diriyah in February.
A new Extreme E off-road electric series is due to race in Al Ula in March while tennis, boxing and golf have held high-profile events in the kingdom.
State-owned energy giant Saudi Aramco is a global partner of Formula One and Saudi companies have sponsored teams.
Human rights campaigners have accused Saudi Arabia of ‘sportswashing’, using events to create a positive image, however.
“In the lead-up to the race, we’re saying to F1 drivers, owners and teams — they should brief themselves on the dire human rights situation in the country and be prepared to speak out,” said Amnesty International’s UK head of campaigns Felix Jakens.
Formula One said all partners and host countries committed “to respect human rights in the way their events are hosted and delivered.”
Mercedes’ six times Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton, an outspoken campaigner for equality and racial justice, said last week he needed to find out more about the Saudi situation but sport was “a powerful platform to initiate change”.
Red Bull principal Christian Horner said teams raced wherever the sport decided.
“We trust the commercial rights holder, also the governing body, to have done the necessary research and to make those decisions that are right for the interests of the sport,” he added. – Thomson Reuters Foundation.