Formula 1 CEO Stefano Domenicali has reiterated his belief that the pinnacle of motorsport can act as a catalyst for change in Saudi Arabia after missile strikes jeopardised the event on Friday.
F1 headed to Saudi Arabia this weekend in the midst of incremental tensions between themselves and Yemen after their war began in 2015 following the ousting of Yemen president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi by Houthi militants in 2014.
During the first practice session of the weekend, the Houthis launched a missile attack on an Aramco oil refinery, of which the Jeddah Corniche Circuit is within close proximity.
Sir Lewis Hamilton said before the inaugural race in the country in December that he did not feel “comfortable” being there, and this view has not changed after the execution of 81 people in one day by the state.
However, Domenicali has emphasised that the sport can help Saudi Arabia improve its human rights record and integrate itself within the modern world.
“We are not blind but we don’t have to forget one thing, this country, also through Formula 1, we believe [it] is doing massive step forward,” he said, as quoted by MotorsportWeek.com.
“You cannot pretend to change a culture that is a millennium [old] in a blink of an eye, the resources they are moving in place to move forward… you see here women couldn’t drive a couple of years ago.
“They are achieving it, they are changing a lot of laws to make sure this is happening.
“Of course there is tension, things to improve, we don’t want to be political on that, but I believe we are playing a very important role in the modernisation of this country, we are focusing on making sure this is at the centre of our agenda.”
The drivers convened for a near-five-hour meeting after the second practice session on Friday night to deliberate over their options for the remainder of the weekend, but ultimately joined the team principals, who were “unanimous” in their decision to continue racing having been given reassurances by the authorities that it is safe to do so.
Domenicali does not believe that there was ever the possibility of a boycott from the drivers, affirming that the sport stands united against violence.
“I think the word boycott is not the right word, we are not here to be in two categories, we are one family of Formula 1,” he explained.
“Drivers are concerned and it is just a matter of discussing, explaining, things that have to be explained in a proper way.”
The Grand Prix Drivers’ Association [GPDA] released a statement on Saturday morning confirming their compliance with the team principals’ decision to race, and their appreciation of the additional safety measures put in place at the circuit.
“Yesterday was a very difficult day for Formula One and a stressful day for us Formula One drivers,” read the statement.
“Perhaps it is hard to comprehend if you have never driven an F1 car on this fast and challenging Jeddah track, but on seeing the smoke from the incident it was difficult to remain a fully focused racing driver and erase natural human concerns.
“Consequently, we went into long discussions between ourselves, with our team principals, and with the most senior people who run our sport.
“A large variety of opinions were shared and debated and, having listened not only to the Formula 1 powers but also to the Saudi government ministers who explained how security measures were being elevated to the maximum, the outcome was a resolution that we would practise and qualify today and race tomorrow.
“We therefore hope that the 2022 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix will be remembered as a good race rather than for the incident that took place yesterday.”
Sergio Perez took a dramatic pole position in qualifying in Jeddah, and the former Ferrari boss is pleased to see the thrill of racing prevail in the face of adversity.
“You have seen the GPDA release, our position, to make sure it is pretty clear. [The] good news today, I have seen all the drivers focusing on an incredible day of qualifying.”