Head for circuit, fighting horrific traffic and terrible driving standards for most of my (generally straight-line) 18km journey from hotel to media parking. The route takes me parallel to the 'corniche', a term repurposed from French – more particularly three roads that hug Mediterranean coastlines near Nice. The French roads are, though, lined by enormous cliffs, with the original term meaning 'road on a ledge'...
Thursdays no longer form part of the official race weekend, but F1 clearly forgot to advise passholders: the paddock is a hive of activity, and not only for set-up crews. Haas and Ferrari host press conferences and the traditional welcome BBQ starts at 18:00.
True, the race forms part of a set with Bahrain and folk have few entertainment alternatives in Saudi, but even after making such allowances, I discern no differences from pre-Covid Thursdays.
What a change a weekend makes: the basic journey takes a third of the time, and with less lunatics about it feels immeasurably safer, although most of the 40 minutes saved over Thursday are lost due to changed traffic routings near circuit, with parking marshals at one stage sending us down the wrong route. Twice.
Biggest change under the revised format: four-off formal driver media sessions held in groups of five on Fridays, rather than 10 sets of two on Thursdays as in 2020/21, and open individual team sessions hosted for print media (only) prior to that. Do I prefer the new format? Whilst it's convenient to have all drivers congregated centrally rather than our traipsing from team to team, we have less direct question time.
Ultimately, though, you, our reader, is the loser.
I'd heard Pierre Gasly had suffered a battery fire in Bahrain, which he confirms – and later substantiated when the FIA reveals the Frenchman has taken a new battery store. Pierre says all safety systems worked as designed, but such fires are cause for concern as they are not as easily extinguishable as fuel fires – and F1 plans to triple hybrid power from 2026.
Lunch: as in Bahrain, the promoter lays on a superb spread, with catering here by a local resort. Salads, seafood, various meat dishes and pastas are on offer, with the dessert table being to die for.
Fed, I head for Red Bull to follow up on the various power unit components changed on Checo Perez's car, as reported here. I also catch up with folk at Mercedes, Alfa Romeo and Pirelli, all of whom are, by now, travel weary.
As FP1 starts, word filters through that a local Aramco fuel depot has been hit by missiles fired by Yemen Houthis. Although smoke and orange glows are visible from the scene 15km away – locals are unperturbed, and I'm told such attacks are not isolated incidents. Indeed, a missile attack was launched during the country's Formula E weekend two years ago and Jeddah's airport was last week closed after similar threats.
Understandably, there is widespread nervousness in the paddock, and clearly, F1 bosses will need to address the security concerns.
A meeting of drivers and team bosses is called – we kept readers abreast with developments throughout, so no need for repetition, but clearly opinions are split: some believe the race should be cancelled; others that an attack on the circuit is highly unlikely. All the while helicopters circle above: cause for concern on one hand, but given they are easy prey, maybe the skies are safe…
FP2 is delayed by 15 minutes due to the meeting. I'd reserved a pit lane
tabard for the session so head there to check up on preparations. While
wandering about I inhale acrid air and reflect on the situation: if the
situation ramps up, will the race be cancelled, will I (and my
colleagues) be able to leave Monday morning after three weeks away, will
F1's freight leave for Melbourne on time?
While ruminating I bump into an F1 source who read my analysis of the 'perfect logistics storm' that could see a Grand Prix (or two) seriously disrupted. He tells me such fears are not restricted to airfreight; that a consignment has been switched from sea to air freight out of Singapore to Melbourne after shipping delays. Watch this space.
Despite the worrying situation a few kilometres away, all crews work diligently through their FP2 routines, and I marvel at F1's single-mindedness – nothing seems to tip the sport off course; thus, the race is likely to go ahead, regardless.
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With media sessions cancelled - albeit not by FIA decree as reported elsewhere - there is little to do but have dinner (spread as above), then wait.
F1 issues a statement that the race will go ahead after security assurances from Saudi authorities; equally, various drivers are said to be agitating for cancellation – team PRs approached for comment deny their drivers are amongst the suspects.
Decide to depart for hotel and wait it out there – it may be weekend, there may be a missile crisis visible from the roads around the circuit, but the traffic is horrendous as the locals return home after a late Friday night out. Ironic, isn't it?
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