Saudi Arabia provides thrills on track and disquiet off it

2. Saudi
Red Bull's Dutch driver Max Verstappen celebrates on the podium after winning the 2022 Saudi Arabia Formula One Grand Prix at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit on March 27, 2022. (Photo: AFP)
JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Max Verstappen may have led Charles Leclerc across the line to confirm the identity of Formula One's 'new era' protagonists, but Sunday’s thrilling Saudi Arabian Grand Prix posed plenty of questions for the future.اضافة اعلان

The world champion's victory by half a second in a cat-and-mouse duel with his fellow-24-year-old tyro to finish a close contest between the Red Bull and Ferrari teams kept fans and spectators enthralled.

It left a few doubting their credentials as this year's main title contenders. However, it was unable to hide a brooding unrest in the pit lane and paddock after a weekend of high-speed crashes, safety, and security concerns following Friday's nearby missile attack and an uneasy disquiet over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.

If the close racing, frequent overtaking, and swapping of positions signaled the second 'ground effect' era in F1 was delivering the sought-after entertainment levels on track, it also supplied surprises.

The loss of competitiveness of Mercedes, after eight consecutive championship-winning seasons, undermined seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton's hopes at the floodlit Jeddah Street Track and may wreck his bid for a record eighth driver's title.

The 37-year-old Briton, who finished 10th, was one of many drivers who spoke in favor of a boycott during four hours of late-night talks on Friday following the missile attack.

He remained despondent on Sunday night, admitting: "I am so happy this weekend is done”.

"I am so happy that everyone is safe. I am just looking forward to getting out. I just want to go home…."

'A lot of guarantees'

The missile strike at an oil plant within sight of the circuit intensified feelings on human rights — most recently brought into focus by the Saudi state's execution of 81 men on March 12.

While many drivers were reluctant to voice their views, Hamilton spoke with careful precision about a need to highlight the issues raised in the paddock about 'sports-washing' and the perils of racing in Jeddah.

F1 management and team bosses, mindful of the commercial aspects of a race worth a reported $900 million over 10 years, argued that 'the show goes on' and cited local security guarantees.

Verstappen made clear the story was not over when he spoke after his first win of the season following a late retirement in Bahrain’s season-opener.

"We had a lot of guarantees that it would be safe, but after this weekend all the drivers together will speak with F1 and the team bosses to see what happens in the future."

The prompt cancellation of the Russian Grand Prix following Russia's invasion of Ukraine showed that F1 can take action and drew attention to the issues surrounding not only Saudi Arabia's role in the seven-year war in Yemen, but also the inclusion of Bahrain on the race calendar.

Other events will be examined carefully.

For the sport, having reinvented itself this year as a high-speed high-tech global media entertainment, there is a need to clarify its position as more race promoters jostle to join the feast in a bloated calendar.

More questions are expected at round three in Melbourne next month when Mercedes will hope to have found an answer to their performance problems in a bid to catch Ferrari and Red Bull before it is too late.

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