Saudi Motorsport Company CEO Martin Whitaker – Formula 1’s Lawrence of Arabia – who is a perennial player in the sport’s boom in the Middle East, believes that the Gulf could host more Grand Prix races than the four being run in the region this season.
Like many of the early track projects in the region, owners tapped into the established expertise of circuit managers/directors with United Kingdom experience, and Whitaker headed up the building of Bahrain International Circuit into the venue it is today.
Ditto Richard Cregan in Abu Dhabi and Hamish Brown at Dubai Autodrome; the latter a distant dream to host F1, but as the DXB government is essentially always broke that did not happen, while rich and powerful Abu Dhabi – who do not lack for big money and tend to do things better than Dubai does – did with the Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit what we see today.
Since the early 2000s much has evolved in the region, with F1’s governing body now led by Emirati Mohammed Ben Sulayem and, with Saudi and Qatar on the calendar this year, four races in the region are a testament to how the sport has mushroomed in the Arab world
Whitaker offers his reasoning behind more F1 races in the Arabian Gulf
In our interview, it’s clear Whitaker is confident that more than five races in the Gulf is a realistic scenario for F1: “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,” ventured Whitaker.
Indeed Saudi Grand Prix organisers, headed by race driver and petrolhead, Saudi Minister of Sport Abdulaziz Al Faisal are keen to host more than one race in the Kingdom.
While many cry “sportswashing” the concept is not new to international pro sports, let alone F1, which throughout history has visited countries with dubious leadership, pariah states and the like. Some argued that Russia was hardly a beacon of democracy when it was granted a slot on the roster, while half the world would say the same of the USA hosting races.
For F1, chasing the money as always (as do other sports booming in the country) and politics aside, Saudi ambitions are a goldmine ready to be tapped, under the guise of bringing the politically stressed nation up to speed globally, which appears to be the genuine goal of Saudi leadership.
As for the argument that too many F1 races are focussed in too small an area, Whitaker explained: “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.
“Actually, while it might seem close — the distance between Bahrain and Jeddah is about 1,500km further than the distance between Silverstone and Budapest [2,000km] — and there are a lot of races 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,” reasoned Whitaker.
A new F1 circuit in Qiddiya is still the plan for Saudi Arabia
Jeddah is set to host F1 until at least 2026, whereupon he country’s GP is expected to shift to a purpose-built motorsport complex in Qiddiya, just outside of Riyadh. But the substantial investment in the current venue and popularity of the ultra-fast street track means, by then, there will be two impressive venues for Grand Prix racing in the country.
Whitaker provided an update on the venues: “The fact of the matter is that Qiddiya is still very much part of the plan but, they have not started any construction work yet so Jeddah has effectively stepped up to become a more permanent venue.
“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.
“The Qiddiya automotive centre is being designed to lead the world in F1 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,” added Whitaker.