‘Like Suzuka with walls’: Jeddah’s controversial circuit ripe for drama in first Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

The Independent
The Independent

And so to Jeddah. In the north of the city tucked against the Red Sea coast is the home of the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix , dubbed the “fastest street circuit in the world”. The Jeddah Corniche Circuit was completed only last week after an intense eight-month building project, and FIA race director Michael Masi visited to give the track official approval. “The progress that I have seen on each of my visits over recent months has been remarkable,” Masi said. “Jeddah will provide an interesting new challenge for the drivers and teams.”

“Interesting” is one word for it. Mercedes Valtteri Bottas called it “extreme”. Red Bull boss Christian Horner called it “insane” . Dangerous might be another word: drivers have talked this week about the importance of hugging the apex of its many fast corners, but that means skirting perilously close to the wall. “It’s going to be very high speed and not much run-off,” said Damon Hill this week . “It’s high risk, high jeopardy.”

The Saudi Arabian Grand Prix will be the season’s second night race, played out over 6km on the second longest track on the calendar after Spa. It will be incredibly fast too, taking a physical toll on the drivers with average speeds of 250km/hr and a top speed of 322km/hr on the back straight, where cars zip alongside a lagoon past a gleaming new hotel. The circuit itself is reminiscent of another night-time track, Singapore, with low walls and high metal fencing either side of a narrow road lit up by twinkling lights, but it carries the speed of circuits more famous for their relentless adrenaline ride. “It's like Suzuka with walls,” explained Horner this week.

Its architect, Carsten Tilke – the son of famed track designer Hermann – is bullish about his “flowing” circuit’s balance of thrill and threat. “We need to make it challenging, we need to make it thrilling and I think this is what the people want. The FIA check everything, do the safety inspections, the safety simulations, which we also do in house, but at the end the decision lies at their table.

“As this circuit is so narrow and restricted by the sea, buildings, the mosque and so on, we had to really use everything possible in terms of safety devices. Because it’s a very fast track, everything needs to be perfect in terms of safety – not 80% or 90%, but 100%. But for sure, it’s a street circuit, better not to make a mistake.”

The sheer speed should suit Mercedes as Lewis Hamilton attempts to overhaul Max Verstappen ’s narrow championship lead, and the team plan to fit the same engine Hamilton used to dominate Brazil last month. It could suit McLaren too, whose only win this season came via Daniel Ricciardo at the famously quick Monza, though a lack of big breaking zones here may undo some of their advantage.

But as with any new track there is plenty still to be figured out, like just how the tyres will react. “The high speeds with fast corners will obviously play a big part in the way that the tyres behave,” said Pirelli’s Mario Isola. “Jeddah has more corners than any other track on the calendar, and one of them – Turn 13 – also has 12-degree banking, so there are plenty of different elements that will keep the tyres working hard.” F1 eyes will be closely monitoring the F2 race which precedes it this weekend.

Two weeks after visiting Qatar, Jeddah is another controversial destination. Amnesty International called on drivers to speak out and draw attention to Saudi Arabia’s laws against homophobia, and world champion Lewis Hamilton obliged. “Do I feel comfortable here? I wouldn’t say I do,” Hamilton said this week, who will wear his rainbow helmet once more. “But it’s not my choice to be here, the sport has taken the choice to be here. If anyone wants to take time to read what the law is for the LGBT+ community, it is pretty terrifying. There are changes that need to be made.”

While Hamilton continues to take an important stand off the track it is still all to play for on it, up and down the grid. Heading into this penultimate race, with the finale to come in Abu Dhabi next weekend, Verstappen leads Hamilton by eight points while third-place Bottas is ahead of Sergio Perez by 13. Mercedes lead Red Bull by five in the constructors’ championship, McLaren’s Lando Norris has one point over Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc in the fight to be best of the rest, while Alpine vs AlphaTauri could go to the final day in the teams’ race for P5.

Mercedes may be expected to have the edge over Red Bull in Jeddah but on a track of high risk, the slightest mistake will come at the highest cost. “The atmosphere is great, we want these titles,” said Bottas, who will leave Mercedes at the end of the season. “I keep being asked ‘are we are nervous, do we feel pressure’: at least from my side, not at all, I just feel super excited for these final two races.”

This is a leap into uncharted waters for Formula 1, in all sorts of ways. We can expect speed, drama and controversy too in a season full of it, but the rest is unknown; perhaps that air of mystery is fitting for a championship resting on a knife edge.

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