Mick Schumacher, Haas, Jeddah Corniche Circuit, 2022

A safer race on and off the track? Five Saudi Arabian GP talking points

2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

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The second round of the season sees Formula 1 head to the Jeddah Corniche Circuit for the third Saudi Arabian Grand Prix over the last 15 months.

Last year’s race saw a thrilling fight for victory between Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc. But the weekend was tainted by some serious accidents and a major security concern that briefly brought the race itself into question.

This year, the prospects of another close battle for the win seems less likely, while the circuit itself has received some key modifications in a bid to improve safety. What kind of a race weekend awaits in Saudi Arabia?

Security matters

Last year’s race weekend in Saudi Arabia was demonstrated how international sport can never be divorced from the realities of geopolitics, no matter how much money is involved.

During the opening Friday practice session, the Jeddah skyline was conspicuously tainted by a rising plume of dark smoke in the distance. Ten kilometres away from the Jeddah Corniche Circuit, a missile had exploded at the North Jeddah Bulk Plant, causing the fire responsible for the smoke. The FIA later confirmed that “Yemeni rebel group Houthi” had “claimed responsibility” for the attack.

Fire at Aramco oil plant after attack, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 2022
An attack near the circuit raised tensions in 2022
The attack brought the security of the race weekend into immediate question. Race organisers assured that the security of drivers, teams, fans and all visitors to the venue was guaranteed for the remainder of the weekend, while Formula 1 CEO Stefano Domenicali and FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem jointly stated they were satisfied that the event would be able to go ahead without further concern. However, drivers were not entirely convinced and an extraordinary meeting of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association was held in the paddock long into the early hours of Saturday morning.

Eventually, the drivers agreed to race. Chairman Alexander Wurz issued a statement on drivers’ behalf, explaining the group had expressed “natural human concerns” over the attack so close to the circuit.

F1 bosses faced huge pressure over missile strike last year
“A large variety of opinions were shared and debated and, having listened not only to the Formula 1 powers but also to the Saudi government ministers who explained how security measures were being elevated to the maximum, the outcome was a resolution that we would practice and qualify today and race tomorrow,” Wurz stated.

Saturday and Sunday both came and went without further security concerns, but it was clear the attack had left many shaken. Lewis Hamilton admitted after the race that he was “so happy the weekend [was] done” and that he was “also just so happy that everyone’s safe, and just looking forward to getting out.”

In the aftermath, Valtteri Bottas disclosed that Formula 1’s leaders had assured drivers they would “reconsider all the events for the future, including this one, to make sure that we go to the right places.”

Twelve months later, the sport returns to Jeddah. Ahead of this year’s event, teams, paddock personnel and the media have received reassurances about arrangements for their safety at the circuit. The political situation has also developed since then. Last April the United Nations brokered a truce between Houthi rebels and the Yemeni government. While the truce expired in October, both sides are reportedly still engage=ing in back-channel talks.

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Red Bull’s race to lose?

It’s hard to imagine a better possible start to Red Bull’s defence of their world championship titles than they enjoyed during the opening round of the 2023 season in Bahrain. From locking out the front row with world champion Max Verstappen ahead of team mate Sergio Perez to cruising to a straightforward victory, over half a minute ahead of the next team, Red Bull held an indisputable car advantage over the first race weekend of the season.

Sergio Perez, Red Bull, Bahrain International Circuit, 2023
Red Bull’s victory in Bahrain was crushing
But despite making the best start to a season any team has enjoyed since McLaren in 1998 – before many on the grid were even born – Red Bull are not getting ahead of themselves by assuming they have begun 2023 with the best car on the grid.

“The problem is we’ve only got one data set which is at this track,” team principal Christian Horner reasoned in Bahrain. “So we’re not taking anything for granted.

“Let’s see Jeddah, Melbourne after that. I think once we’ve got two or three circuits under our belt, we’ll get a much better picture of the strengths and weaknesses of our car and our opposition.” Mercedes are among those hoping Jeddah will suit their cars better.

As a street circuit with many fast corners that quickly flow into each other, Jeddah will show up different strengths and weaknesses with cars compared to the more rear-limited, traction-heavy nature of Bahrain. But it will surely take something very special from their rivals or a very poor weekend from Red Bull to prevent them taking a second successive win to start the 2023 season this weekend.

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More safety changes

The self-styled “world’s fastest street circuit” has earned a heavy degree of criticism since its introduction to the Formula 1 calendar at the end of 2021. Claustrophobic, barrier-lined corners and the second-highest average lap speed of any circuit bar Monza in 2022 make the Jeddah Corniche Circuit one of the more daunting on the calendar.

Barriers at turn 14 have been moved to improve vision
Last year, Jeddah bit hard. Two serious accidents struck over the weekend, first to Formula 2 racer Cem Bolukbasi, then Mick Schumacher suffered a huge crash during qualifying. In both instances, the drivers were taken to hospital for checks.

Those violent accidents took place after the circuit had received minor revisions after its inaugural race weekend to improve sight lines and adjust corners on the circuit in the name of improving safety. But with the benefit of a calendar year between their races for the first time, the track operators have made more extensive modifications to put an end to assuage the concerns of drivers who call it F1’s most dangerous track.

Notably, the walls at turns eight and ten – where Schumacher and Bolukbasi’s accidents occurred last year – have been adjusted to improve sight lines. Similarly, barriers have been moved back extensively at turns 14 and 20 to improve visibility on the racing line. Finally, the sequence of turns 21-23 at the start of the final sector – where Schumacher crashed during the inaugural race in 2021, prompting a red flag – has been tightened to reduce cornering speeds by around 30-50km/h.

The Saudi Motorsport Company’s chief executive Martin Whitaker says the track changes will improve the quality of racing at the venue as well as make it safer.

“It is vital for any circuit to listen and learn from those racing on it and use their feedback to grow and improve at all times,” Whitaker said. “We are confident these changes will lead to even faster, more exciting and, crucially, safe racing.”

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Can Aston Martin confirm second place?

Since the V6 hybrid turbo formula was introduced almost a decade ago, only three times has the top three in the constructors’ championship not been made up of a combination of Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari.

Alonso stormed to the podium last time out
This year, however, could finally see one of the midfield teams finally bridge the gap to join with the front runners. After a promising showing in pre-season testing, Aston Martin proved they were a formidable force by taking the final podium spot behind the Red Bulls with Fernando Alonso, while Lance Stroll secured solid points in sixth despite racing less than two weeks after surgery on his injured hands.

Alonso’s impressive race pace, passing Hamilton’s Mercedes and Carlos Sainz Jnr’s Ferrari on his way to third, suggested that Aston Martin could even have the second-fastest race car on the grid. However, Charles Leclerc’s late-race retirement leaves a question mark over that claim.

If Aston Martin can back up their Bahrain performance in a very different circuit in Saudi Arabia, then Ferrari and Mercedes may have to confront the reality that they have genuine competition from the Silverstone team this season.

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Closer than ever?

When the budget cap and aero testing restrictions were first introduced to Formula 1 in 2021, teams and drivers alike expressed the view that, over time, the field would naturally converge closer together as top teams could no longer simply spend their way to championships – in theory, at least.

Oscar Piastri, McLaren, Bahrain International Circuit, 2023
Seven teams scored points in round one
After the technical regulations remained fairly static between 2022 and this season, Bahrain gave us a first indication that the grid truly is closing up. Just 1.1 seconds separated all 20 cars in Q1 – one of the smallest margins in any opening phase of qualifying since the system was introduced in 2006. And in the race, Williams rose to score a point in tenth with Alexander Albon, despite the team expected to be the slowest of the ten before the weekend.

For many years, Formula 1 has consisted of a leading trio of teams with a gap to the midfield and occasionally a second margin to one or more teams at the very back. While Aston Martin’s seem to have bridged the gap to the front from the midfield, it’s far harder to project what the order truly is beyond the top four. Seven teams scored points in the first race, while all ten had at least one car progress into Q2 in qualifying.

When the field is as close as it appears it is right now, how each car handles each circuit becomes all the more important. That’s why Jeddah holding such different characteristics to Bahrain becomes crucial. If the midfield is closely packed once more, it suggests that an exciting and unpredictable battle awaits for every space in the constructors’ championship this season.

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Are you going to the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix?

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Who do you think will be the team to beat in the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix? Have your say below.

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Author information

Will Wood
Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...

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12 comments on “A safer race on and off the track? Five Saudi Arabian GP talking points”

  1. Security matters – I’m confident everything will be okay.
    Red Bull’s race to lose? – Probably.
    More safety changes – I don’t mind, but with T21-23, only the barriers have been moved rather than the corner angles themselves tightened, or at least this is how I comprehended at the time.
    Can Aston Martin confirm second place? – Maybe.
    Closer than ever? – Hopefully.

  2. Dangerous and just another boringly flat, Featureless car park circuit that adds nothing of any value to the calender.

    When it’s removed from the calender it’s a circuit nobody will miss unlike the many brilliant classics that are been shoved to the sidelines in favour of these horrid car park circuits.

    1. @lynn-m I very much enjoy driving the circuit. Great flow.

      1. @jerejj

        True. Was driving it on my friends sim, and it was probably one of the most fun tracks to race on. Not too technical after sector 1, but getting a great exit through the corners, and getting close to the barriers without crashing at really high speeds was quite exciting.

    2. I’ll miss it, it’s unique and spectacular to watch.

    3. I personally don’t like this track, I find it unnecessarily dangerous.

    4. Good track in a bad place

    5. When it’s removed from the calender it’s a circuit nobody will miss unlike the many brilliant classics that are been shoved to the sidelines in favour of these horrid car park circuits.

      Completely agree with this part. I’m gonna be skipping this GP again this year, I didn’t miss it last season and doubt I will this year. I’d rather focus on the Spas and Monzas on the calendar, tracks with character and history.

  3. Yea,maybe go watch badminton

  4. It’s difficult to understand why Mercedes are feeling optimistic about the race in Jeddah. The track is front limited and consists of both twisty section and straights, meaning that it will be important for the cars to have a precise front end, efficient aerodynamics, and a powerful power unit. Additionally, the car’s ability to attack corners and change directions will be crucial.

    Last year, the RB18 was mighty in Jeddah, despite being overweight and neutral. As the car was developed to suit Verstappen’s driving style, which requires a precise and pointy front end, the RB19 will be even more effective. Ferrari on the other hand, do have a powerful PU albeit not reliable and an efficient car.

    I expect Ferrari to be closer to RBR than Mercedes and with Leclerc’s ability to deliver those extra special tenths in qualifying, Ferrari might challenge RBR for pole but that’s it. In the race they may be able to reduce the gap from 35 seconds to ~15 seconds.

  5. In the aftermath, Valtteri Bottas disclosed that Formula 1’s leaders had assured drivers they would “reconsider all the events for the future, including this one, to make sure that we go to the right places.”

    Well they sure did that… Just make sure the drivers are gagged and one can safely race anywhere!

  6. It’s not a street circuit. It’s a purpose built race track with poor runoff.

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