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Why calls to cancel the Saudi Arabian GP fell on deaf ears

In light of the extensive driver talks that took place in Jeddah on Friday night, RacingNews365.com's Dieter Rencken reflects on whether there was ever really a possibility of the field boycotting the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

Time alone will tell whether Formula 1 on Friday evening made the right call to go ahead with the weekend's Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in Jeddah, but the eventual decision was never in doubt given the extremely high political, commercial and sporting stakes riding on the race. In that order… F1 should not be surprised that it needed to make the call - whether this weekend or at some point in future - for the simple reality of signing up to race in so-called 'hard man' countries is that such activities always will attract controversy. As such, the sport's masters will surely have been well prepared, having previously faced criticism in Azerbaijan, China, Russia and Turkey, and, to lesser degrees, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain. During the Jeddah driver press conferences there had been the usual questions - mainly from British broadsheets and press agencies - about the country's human rights record, but the consensus was that drivers don't have a choice about where to race; that they trust decisions made by F1 and the FIA; that F1 is a force for good. That said, they were effectively cut and paste answers from previous events at venues listed above.

The aftermath of nearby missile attacks

Then it emerged during FP1 that there had been missile attacks on an Aramco depot within sight of the circuit, with billowing smoke and orange skies attesting to the resultant inferno. The news concentrated paddock minds a lot more than, say, criticism of human rights issues in China or political dissent in Bahrain; this was suddenly very close to home and F1 went all nervous. Thus, a meeting of all drivers and team bosses was called between FPs 1 and 2, with the start of the second session delayed by 15 minutes to enable F1 bosses, Saudi officials and an external security consultant to discuss the situation. The teams seemed sufficiently appeased to go ahead with the session. Post-FP2 the temperature changed: during the drivers' briefing the matter was raised again, and clearly there was dissent in the ranks. For three hours the matter raged back and forth until the drivers were again placated. Saliently, nobody bothered to address the support race paddock; indeed, apart from some one-line statements, the media was totally ignored on the grounds of 'security'... yet we are as vulnerable as the rest. Clearly, F1 races as one, but forgets about the rest…

The bigger question is, though, whether F1 drivers should at all have the clout to call for a race to be cancelled: they are, after all, nothing other than contractors – highly paid ones, maybe, but still contractors who are on-site to deliver to the best of their ability. As we all are. Forget all about F1 being a sport – it is a global business operating to strict sporting and technical structures, just as other industries have peculiar strictures. That is the point: F1 is a voracious monster that needs to generate well upwards of $2bn per annum just to keep its 10 teams fed and in business and its shareholders sweet, with a mix of race hosting fees, TV deals, hospitality and licencing providing the wherewithal. Individual team sponsorship is on top of that and not included in F1's $2bn turnover. Three Middle East Grands Prix - one-eighth of the calendar - provide one-quarter of F1's race fee income alone. Add in F1's Aramco corporate sponsorship and the MBC broadcast contract - said to be second only to Sky UK in value - and the region is worth around a sixth of F1's annual income and set to rise when Qatar joins the calendar full time. Thus, F1 never was going to cancel this race unless it absolutely totally had to.

Should drivers have a say in such matters?

The drivers are, of course, entitled to their opinions and principles, but these should be sufficiently strong to guide them throughout their lives – not only when missiles land 20km away, as they have done for many years even when F1 was not around. If they feel strongly about political issues they should stick to those principles and not hoover up eye-watering stipends facilitated by income from Middle East races and sponsors in the region. Equally, it is very well for them to jet off on private flights, but who packs up - a two-day job at the best of times - under circumstances too 'hazardous' for drivers to remain? Never has 'Win as a team and lose as a team' sounded emptier. Then, Sebastian Vettel, who said he would not race in Russia after the Ukraine invasion and sported anti-war slogans on his helmet in Bahrain, has no issues with sporting Aramco livery on car and overalls in return for wads of cash, while Mercedes F1 Team 33.3 per cent shareholder INEOS is committed to a $2bn investment in Saudi. Any wonder Lewis Hamilton, who once said "Cash is King", was rather muted when asked about Saudi's human rights issues? Kuwait Investment Authority owns seven per cent of Mercedes-Benz, and Bahrain's equivalent fund holds around 50 per cent of McLaren. Once Porsche joins F1 as engine supplier - an announcement is expected soon - Qatar's 17 per cent slice of VW Group comes into play. These are not isolated examples, either.

Finally, consider that FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem's family is close to UAE rulers, who are close to Saudi's royal family and that the Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi are aligned in various pan-Gulf pacts. Thus, these states tend to be sympathetic to each other. Slight one and they close ranks, potentially placing billions in F1 income at risk. The bottom line is that, rather predictably, all calls for the Saudi Grand Prix to be cancelled on missile grounds fell on deaf ears: coin trumps conscience every time, and more so in F1 for reasons outlined above. Whether the decision is morally correct is a different matter, but that is not for those F1 drivers who trouser millions from the region to judge – particularly given the foregoing…

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