Formula One's Uncomfortable Relationship With Saudi Arabia Leaves Uncertain Future

The racing at the weekend was a secondary story
12:55, 29 Mar 2022

The sport of Formula One has put itself in a difficult position. This weekend’s race in Saudi Arabia, the second time in a matter of months F1 has visited the state, very nearly didn’t happen. In truth, it probably shouldn’t have. 

The explosion ten miles outside Jeddah on Friday caused grave concern for the safety of those involved, but Formula One should never have agreed to race in Saudi Arabia in the first place. This is a country that tortures detainess. This is a country in which same-sex relationships are punishable with imprisonment or flogging. This is a state that executed 81 men in a single day on the 11th March this year. 

“Do I feel comfortable here? I wouldn’t say I do,” Lewis Hamilton said. “But it’s not my choice to be here, the sport has taken the choice to be here.”

Sebastien Vettel wore a rainbow face mask in support of the LGBT+ community and Lando Norris spoke of his concerns, but this is a place where sportswashing is already working - covering up a whole host of sins with a major sporting event. Anthony Joshua fought Andy Ruiz in Riyadh in 2019 as they offered the most money and the recent takeover of Newcastle United is set to change the landscape of English football.

It’s easy to see why Formula One was drawn in by Saudi Arabia. A £50m per year deal to host a race there makes the Jeddah Corniche Circuit the most profitable racetrack for the organisers, anywhere in the world. They still have eight races left on their current deal, and despite all of the facts staring them in the face, show no signs of putting this money-spinner at risk. 

Only the drivers can change this. A meeting between them showed great unity in Saudi Arabia but ultimately they continued with the original plan to race. Given what we have seen in the aftermath, we are not sure that they will return. 

Formula One CEO Stefano Domenicali came out fighting with his comments on the weekend. "No one can judge our morality, to be honest. It is a matter of putting in place all the things that have to be considered,” he told Sky Sports. 

"Where is the line? That is the question. Our position, and it will always be, is that we believe that what we're doing will have a very positive impact in all the political situations for the best of our life and at all levels.”

Formula One is certainly not having a positive impact on the political situation in Saudi Arabia, it is simply enabling the state to sportswash. One thing is for sure, no matter how many times the organisers and some fans attempt to separate sport and politics, the two are intrinsically linked.

The bomb that went off in Saudi Arabia certainly brought that reality home to the Formula One bosses, while they have already intervened to cancel the Russian Grand Prix later this year, due to their invasion on Ukraine. With the 2014 Winter Olympics, the 2018 World Cup and annual F1 races, the sporting world was incredibly cosy with Russia and has had to quickly backtrack after Vladimir Putin’s inexplicable act of aggression. 

The only reason Formula One is drawn to these countries is money. For a state with unlimited funds, it's a dream investment. For everybody else, including the drivers, it’s turned into a nightmare. Now the sport faces a reckoning with itself over what takes priority. 

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