INTERVIEW: Jeddah Gears Up to Host FORMULA 1 STC SAUDI ARABIAN GRAND PRIX 2023 and Beyond

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia — January 19, 2023. In exactly two months the FORMULA 1 STC SAUDI ARABIAN GRAND PRIX 2023 gets underway at the stunning, ultra-fast Jeddah Corniche Circuit. As the street track prepares to hold its third Formula 1 event, organisers have confirmed the Red Sea venue will continue to host an F1 race for at least the foreseeable future.

While initially built as a temporary facility, the Jeddah Corniche Circuit has undergone a number of permanent modifications in the past year to upgrade the venue to be the home of Formula 1 in Saudi Arabia for at least four more years. Saudi Motorsport Company Chief Executive Officer Martin Whitaker says that work has been done now to increase the longevity of the circuit, make the challenging circuit even more exciting and to ensure a greater spectacle for spectators and the global television audience.

 

“It’s important that we future proof the Jeddah track and for this reason we have again been working with the FIA and Formula 1 to ensure that we have a circuit that will allow us to stage the sport in Jeddah while work begins on the track in Qiddiya,” said Whitaker. “The Qiddiya automotive centre is being designed to lead the world in Formula 1 circuit design and entertainment. A unique and exciting project, Qiddiya will be a location that everyone will want to visit but right now and in the immediate future the focus and eyes of the world will be on Jeddah and the Red Sea coastline in the month of March.”

 

There has been recent speculation about the date of the 2024 race. Organisers have confirmed the date for the 2024 edition of the race will need to be moved in the schedule to avoid a clash with the holy month of Ramadan, which next year will take place between March 10 and April 9, 2024. However, the exact timing of the race will be determined jointly by Formula 1 and the sport’s governing body, the FIA and will be announced later this year.

 

As the world’s fastest street circuit gears up to host the FORMULA 1 STC SAUDI ARABIAN GRAND PRIX 2023, Saudi Motorsport Company’s CEO Martin Whitaker talks about the increasing development of motorsport in the region and the interest from both a fan perspective and also the business community that will make the 2023 edition of the race another success.

 

“What’s crucial to me is there is a heightened awareness in all forms of motorsport. But particularly Formula 1,” says Whitaker. “The FORMULA 1 STC SAUDI ARABIAN GRAND PRIX is the biggest sporting event in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — by a long way. The F1 race has been a catalyst that has led to a wider interest into the sport. We have more visitors to our karting tracks, more people interested in Formula E, Extreme E and Dakar and there is a growing interest from the business sector and automotive manufacturers to invest in Saudi Arabia and the new international and home-grown events that we are planning. Formula 1 is doing a tremendous job in increasing awareness and as a result we are seeing a really healthy response to both ticket sales and corporate hospitality sales.”

 

Q&A

Martin Whitaker

Chief Executive Officer, Saudi Motorsport Company

 

Q. What work has taken place at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit over the past 10 months?

MW: “We have worked closely with Formula 1 and the FIA to make some small changes to the corners, essentially to improve sight-lines for the drivers. When you’re travelling at 200mph and are just a couple of inches from the ground, having visibility for the next section of the racetrack is critical. So at a number of corners we have moved the barriers back — in some cases as far as five to seven metres — to help with that forward visibility. While the drivers enjoy the challenge of this track, we understand there are certain things we can do to give them more confidence.

 

“While the configuration of the track is exactly the same, we have made slight revisions by tightening up the radius of Turns 21, 22 and 23 — the quick left-right before the back straight. The impact of that will reduce the speed into the corner by around 30-50km/h.

 

“We have also changed many of the kerbs, but this is in line with what a number of circuits worldwide are having to do. It’s primarily down to the design of the new Formula 1 cars, as their lower ride height means they don’t ride the kerbs as well as the previous iteration of car. We have therefore changed kerb heights so they are more accommodating to the current F1 design.

 

“The other changes we have made include moving the medical centre to a new location on the outside of Turn 27 which has improved access and we now have a medical helicopter stationed on-site for much of the year to serve the local community. We’re making some exciting changes to the podium that we are working through with Formula 1 and the FIA which is designed to improve the experience for the fans. We are building a new Formula 1 Champions Club suite at the pit entry end of the paddock. At the other end is our new facilities centre. We’ve also been carrying out more remedial work to the paddock, Paddock Club, and the overall facilities.”

 

 

Q. What’s the situation with the hosting of next year’s race? Might the date move to avoid a clash with the holy month of Ramadan?

MW: “This year Ramadan starts three days after our race but next year it moves to the earlier dates of March 10 to April 9, 2024. Obviously, because of the sanctity of Ramadan it would be impossible to host a Grand Prix during that time, but ultimately any decision on the timings of the race next year is in the hands of Formula 1 and the FIA, so we are waiting for clarification from the promoter and governing body with regards to our 2024 date. As usual this will not be announced until much later in the year.”

 

Q. What is your perspective on having more Formula 1 races in the Middle East region?

MW: “You only have to look at either automobile franchises or global consumer brands and they all tend to congregate in the same area on the high street. Yes, there is competition between them, but they are stronger together than they would be if they were all disparate. The analogy with F1 races is the same. Saudi Arabia is part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and it’s beneficial for all of us in the region to have Formula 1 races as it increases awareness and helps develop the sport.

 

“But actually, while it might seem close — the distance between Bahrain and Jeddah is about 1,500km further than the distance between Silverstone and Budapest (2,000Kms) — and there are lot of races (Holland, Belgium, Austria, Italy, Spain, Britain, Monaco, etc) that are held between these two European venues. So the location of the races in the Middle East are not as close as you think.”

 

Q. With regards to cooperation with other countries in the region, have you noticed that translates to an increase international ticket sales?

MW: “Tickets sales for this year’s race have been very good and yes, we have seen that more people from the GCC are coming to Jeddah as interest in the sport continues to develop in the region. While we’re also targeting visitors from the rest of the world, it’s definitely encouraging that more people are coming to our race from the Middle East.

 

“As regards to ticket sales, we have seen an increasing interest which is in line with the growing level of interest in the sport as a whole. This is crucial to me as there is clearly a heightened awareness of the sport and the excitement that it delivers. The FORMULA 1 STC SAUDI ARABIAN GRAND PRIX is the biggest sporting event in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — by a long way. The desire to be a part of Formula 1 is absolutely huge.

 

“The F1 race has been a catalyst that has led to a wider interest in the sport. We have more visitors to our karting tracks, more people are interested in Formula E, Extreme E and Dakar with a massive level of support for e sports as well. We are also now developing a growing desire to host other sporting disciplines such as WRC and the recently announced MoU which will see MotoGP taking place in the future.

 

“In addition to consumer awareness, the business sector is ramping up and the aim is to identify new circuit and off-road events. So Formula 1 is doing a tremendous amount to increase the overall awareness and as a result we are seeing a healthy response to ticket sales and corporate hospitality sales as well.”

 

Q. How much has the motorsport industry grown since the first race in 2021?

MW: “It’s still in its infancy, but Saudi Motorsport Company has an exciting strategy to develop the sport in the Kingdom. For example we have got plans for new karting circuits and motorsport parks around the country. At the moment there are very few motor racing series in the region. This gives us the chance to consider home-grown motorsport categories for both circuit racing and rallying. Our strategy in Saudi is to develop series, particularly for young people, to help find Saudi champions of the future and to create teams and series that employ Saudi people. Creating career paths for young Saudis is our objective. In league with this is a desire shared by the FIA for Saudi to work with local ASNs to encourage greater participation in the Middle East Rally Championship.

 

“We’re increasingly beginning to see global manufacturers talking to us about the advantages of having a base in this part of the world. Alongside this, two new electric manufacturers have begun work here: the Saudi-owned Ceer Motors and American firm Lucid Motors. We’re also seeing more established manufacturers looking at having a base in Saudi. One example is Neom and their partnership with McLaren Electric Racing. All of this links in neatly with Invest Saudi, one of our Formula 1 founding partner sponsors which is helping attract business into the country. Finally, testing at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit is generating considerable interest. The consistency of grip and track temperatures making the circuit an ideal location for testing. Audi’s touring car programme is the latest manufacturer to recognise the benefits. 

 

Q. How much has Jeddah changed in the two years and can you quantify the importance that a Formula 1 race has had on the city and the Kingdom?

MW: “Firstly, it was important the Jeddah Corniche Circuit generated a legacy for the community and there is no doubt it has done that. We now have the extension of the Corniche from the south of Jeddah all the way up to the marina, filled with new restaurants and leisure facilities. Housed on the shores of the Red Sea it’s a dramatic location and we have improved immeasurably the look and feel of the Corniche here. Not only has it been extended, it has addressed certain values that come from the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 initiative and the Quality of Life programme. This is where the restaurants, leisure and the new sports facilities come in. There is a sustainable aspect too, which is the lagoon being completely cleaned out, new grass areas and vegetation planted too.

 

“The circuit itself is being used for more events, including the recent FIA WTCR race weekend, track, and consumer days such as those run for the Ferrari, Porsche and Lamborghini Owners Club, our own Supercar Club and testing such as that with Audi and the recently run Canossa Ferrari activity. We will shortly see our own track day cars available for passenger rides and enhancing customer experience days. Plus the circuit is now open at least twice a week for cycling clubs, walking and Triathlon training. As you can see there is a lot happening and we have not stood still since the track opening in late 2021.

 

Q. What assurances can you give over the safety of the event following last year’s incident?

MW: “Communicating with the teams and the drivers has been of paramount importance during the course of 2022. Safety is of paramount importance to everyone who attends the race – teams, drivers, spectators, guests alike. As a promoter it is our job to ensure that people feel safe while they are at the track and in the city. Underlining this message to the Formula 1 community during the year since the race last March has been a key objective. Discussions with the drivers and team principals has been a primary objective and I would like to think that the strong messages that we and the authorities have communicated have given everyone travelling to Jeddah the assurances that Saudi, like so many of the other races on the F1 calendar, is totally safe and that the hospitality of the Saudi people is foremost in the minds of all visitors.

 

Q. Finally, why do you think the circuit has offered such brilliant races in its first two events?

MW: “There’s absolutely no doubt about it — the drivers love this track and many have voiced this opinion. They love the surface, the grip and the speed. To be honest I’d be worried if they didn’t love it being a fast track. A challenging track is what excites an F1 driver. There are overtaking opportunities around the track and we have seen this in the two events to date. Perhaps more importantly the layout flows really well and this is what the drivers love. We’ve had two fantastic races, the first with Lewis Hamilton beating Max Verstappen in 2021 and then last year that brilliant battle between Verstappen and Charles Leclerc. I’ve no doubt that we’re in for another cracking race this year.”

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