A cloud of smoke rises from a burning oil depot in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday, March 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar) F1

F1 Drivers’ assured safety in Saudi Arabia

A cloud of smoke rises from a burning oil depot in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday, March 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar) F1Formula 1 is back in Saudi Arabia this weekend, one year after a missile strike hit an oil depot near the track during race week.

And while the drivers expressed confidence in their safety ahead of Sunday’s race, seven-time F1 Champion Lewis Hamilton again broached the subject of human rights issues in the kingdom.

Drivers have been given assurances by F1 that increased safety measures will prevent the race from being impacted like last year, when Houthi rebels from Yemen hit a depot only 11 kilometers (seven miles) away during the first practice session. The attack led to hours of talks between drivers, organizers and stakeholders but the race went ahead.

The missile strike came two weeks after 81 people were put to death in Saudi Arabia in a mass execution — the largest in the kingdom’s modern history. According to Reprieve, a non-profit organization defending people facing human rights abuses, a further 16 executions were then carried out.

Saudi Arabia is one of several countries accused of “sportswashing,” using high-profile sporting events to distract from human rights abuses. Others include Bahrain, which held the season-opening F1 race two weeks ago, and Qatar, which hosted soccer’s World Cup last year and also has an F1 race.

Formula 1 Drivers were asked about returning to Jeddah given last year’s missile strike

“We trust FOM (Formula One Management) and the organization to keep us safe,” French driver Esteban Ocon said. “Obviously, it was scary what happened last year and none of us wants to ever experience something like that.”

Aston Martin driver Lance Stroll echoed that, saying he was “confident that Formula 1 and the organization is going to look after us,” while Red Bull rival Sergio Perez said he trusts “the organizations that bring us here to compete in a safe place.”

They spoke Thursday at a scheduled pre-race news conference. But when it came to Hamilton’s turn to speak, he said his view was “all the opposite to everything they said.”

The Mercedes driver was then asked if he’s happy to race in Saudi Arabia.

“It’s open to interpretation,” Hamilton said. “Hopefully everyone has a safe weekend and hopefully everyone gets home safe afterwards.”

Pressed again, Hamilton was asked whether he considered not racing in Saudi Arabia because of human rights concerns.

“Well, the thing is, if I’m not here, Formula 1 will continue without me. When I’m going to these different places, I still feel that as a sport go(ing) into places with human rights issues, such as this one, I feel that the sport is duty bound to raise awareness,” Hamilton said. “I feel like it needs to do more. What that is, I don’t have all the answers, but I think we always need to try and do more to raise awareness.”

The family of Abdullah al-Howaiti, who is facing the death penalty after being arrested in 2017 when he was 14, wrote to Hamilton this week thanking him for speaking about their son during last year’s race.

“You publicly brought attention to Abdullah’s case, and we are immensely grateful to you for using your for platform to shine a light on the injustice he faces,” the family wrote in the letter, which Reprieve shared with The Associated Press. “We cannot put into words how much it meant to our family to know that Abdullah is not forgotten.”

Cullen’s departure

Hamilton parted ways Friday with long-term performance coach Angela Cullen after seven years working together.

Hamilton announced the split on his Instagram page.

“I am a stronger athlete and a better person because of her,” Hamilton wrote. “Thank you for everything Ang, I can’t wait to see what the future has in store for you.”

Just like two weeks ago at the Bahrain GP, Hamilton was cleared by stewards to take part in the two practice sessions on Friday after a jewelry inspection.

Hamilton clashed with governing body FIA last year over a jewelry ban and received an exception for his nose stud.

Verstappen ahead

After winning the Bahrain Grand Prix, two-time defending World Champion Max Verstappen topped both practice sessions for Red Bull.

The Dutchman, who arrived a day late because of a stomach bug, led P2 from Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso and his Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez under floodlights.

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was ninth and Hamilton 11th.

Earlier, Verstappen led P1 from Perez and Alonso — the same 1-2-3 from the Bahrain race — and Alonso’s teammate, Lance Stroll, was fourth. George Russell placed fifth for Mercedes ahead of Hamilton.

P3 is on Saturday ahead of evening qualifying.

Ferrari questions

Ferrari is already fielding questions about the car’s reliability after Charles Leclerc retired near the end of the Bahrain GP because of engine failure when he was in third place.

Leclerc will start Sunday’s race with a 10-place grid penalty after Ferrari used a third electronics control unit on the car’s engine.

Last year, engine reliability problems forced Leclerc to retire when leading the Azerbaijan GP and the Spanish GP.

Ferrari teammate Carlos Sainz Jr. finished fourth at the Bahrain GP and was 48 seconds behind race winner Max Verstappen’s Red Bull car.

“We are the first ones that are not happy,” Sainz said. “We’ve faced issues with race pace and reliability that we honestly didn’t expect to face.”

Ferrari changed the power units on both cars Friday as a further precaution. Kimi Raikkonen won Ferrari’s last drivers’ title in 2007. (Reporting by Jerome Pugmire)