Lewis Hamilton and other F1 drivers have given their views on racing in Saudi Arabia as they prepare for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix this weekend.
The Jeddah Corniche Circuit hosted an F1 Grand Prix for the first time in 2021. It ranks only behind Monza as the fastest track in the sport, with drivers recording average speeds of over 150mph across the lap.
Its inaugural race provided a thrilling backdrop to the Drivers’ Championship finale between Hamilton and Max Verstappen. The pair were involved in a number of incidents throughout the Grand Prix. Hamilton eventually won the race ahead of his rival, setting up the title decider in Abu Dhabi which the Dutchman would ultimately win.
This season’s Grand Prix promises to provide more drama. Last season’s race had two red flag periods and two standing starts. In a crash-filled race, five drivers were forced to retire.
The FIA has confirmed that changes and safety modifications have been made to the track to try and avoid a repeat of that chaos. However, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz believe, as per Autosport, that the changes don’t go far enough.
Read: Saudi Arabian Grand Prix: UK start time, how to watch, how much
Why is racing in Saudi Arabia so controversial?
The critical issue surrounding any sport taking place in Saudi Arabia is the country’s human rights record.
Men and women still do not have equal rights. In addition, the country retains the death penalty. It is one of the most prolific executioners in the world.
On March 12, Saudi Arabia executed 81 men in a single day. Amnesty International documentation stated that two men were killed for participating in ‘violent anti-government protests’.
Saudi Arabia has also been accused of ‘sportswashing’ – the act of using sport to improve a country’s reputation. This is an allegation levelled at the hosting of the Saudi Arabian GP, and the Saudi-backed takeover of Newcastle United that took place last year.
What has F1 said about the Grand Prix?
Speaking after the race was announced in November 2020, then-Chairman and CEO of Formula 1, Chase Carey, said: “Saudi Arabia is a country that is rapidly becoming a hub for sports and entertainment, with many major events taking place there in recent years, and we are very pleased that Formula 1 will be racing there from next season.
“The region is hugely important to us, and with 70% of the population of Saudi being under 30, we are excited about the potential to reach new fans and bring our existing fans around the world exciting racing from an incredible and historic location.”
F1 drivers give their views on Saudi Arabia
Before Friday practice got underway, F1 drivers were asked whether they feel comfortable racing in Saudi Arabia, amid its human rights record. It is a question that has often been levelled at figures within the sport since the first race in the country was announced.
Mercedes driver George Russell said: “I think it’s clearly concerning to see what’s going on in some places. I do hope that racing in these countries, that we raise these awareness and have a positive impact.
“You can’t ignore these facts. I just hope with our platform, we are raising the right awareness.”
Alfa Romeo’s Valtteri Bottas, meanwhile, explained: “As drivers, it almost feels like we don’t have a choice. We end up going to places and trust F1. I just hope we have a positive impact.”
McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo stated: “I think by coming here we also have a chance to create some change or have some positive influence as opposed to not coming here. I know F1’s doing a lot. McLaren are also trying to inspire and create opportunities.”
Lewis Hamilton also stressed the need for Saudi Arabia to make changes.
He said: “Ultimately it’s the responsibility of those in power to really make changes, and we’re not really seeing any. So we need to see more.
“There’s not really a lot I can say that’s going to make any difference. It’s obviously mind-blowing to hear the stories. I’ve heard that there’s a letter being sent to me by a 14-year-old that’s on death row. 14! You don’t know what the hell you’re doing in life.”
The Brit also added he would be “open” to meeting with authorities to learn more, as well as to understand why changes are not being made.
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