Saudis reassure nervous F1 drivers after attacks

Grand Prix to go ahead on Sunday in Jeddah amid heightened security

Smoke and flames rise from a Saudi Aramco oil facility in the coastal city of Jeddah, following a Yemeni rebel attack late Friday. The attack took place not far from the Jeddah Corniche Circuit where the Saudi Grand Prix is scheduled to take place on Sunday evening. (AFP Photo)

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia pledged maximum security to reassure rattled Formula One drivers as the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix was set to go ahead on Sunday despite an attack on an oil facility nearby by Houthi rebels from Yemen.

The drivers expressed their concerns over the attack, which sent black smoke billowing over the area and was part of a wave of drone and missile assaults that triggered retaliatory air strikes on rebel strongholds.

The Iran-backed Houthi rebels fired on 16 targets across Saudi Arabia as they marked seven years since the Saudi-led coalition intervened in support of the government in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country.

The conflict, viewed by many as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has killed hundreds of thousands of people directly or indirectly and displaced millions, creating what the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Drivers including seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton have also expressed human rights concerns about racing in Saudi Arabia, where 81 people were executed in a single day earlier this month.

After hours of talks with the drivers, team principals and Saudi officials on Friday, Formula One and motor sports’ governing body the FIA said they had received “assurances” that the race in Jeddah can be held safely.

“Saudi government authorities and security agencies … have given full and detailed assurances that the event is secure,” a joint statement said.

“It has been agreed with all stakeholders to maintain a clear and open dialogue throughout the event and for the future.”

Regular media interviews were cancelled on Friday during the talks over the race’s future. But the Grand Prix Drivers Association said it was a “difficult day for Formula One and a stressful day for us Formula One drivers”.

“Perhaps it is hard to comprehend if you have never driven an F1 car on this fast and challenging Jeddah track, but on seeing the smoke from the incident it was difficult to remain a fully focused race driver and erase natural human concerns,” it said in a statement.

During “long discussions”, Saudi government ministers “explained how security measures were elevated to the maximum” to allow the race to go ahead, it added.

The attacks on targets including oil facilities, an electrical station and a water plant came as oil prices soar on supply fears following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s biggest crude exporters, has rebuffed calls to pump more oil in a bid to stabilise markets, sticking instead to the steady increases agreed by the Opec+ oil alliance.

The US, Britain and France were among the countries to condemn Friday’s attacks, the latest in a series of similar assaults by the Houthis.

The Saudi-led coalition hit back with air strikes on Sanaa, Yemen’s rebel-held capital, and the port city of Hodeidah, official Saudi media said. Rebel reports of casualties could not immediately be confirmed.