Q&A with Martin Whitaker, CEO of Saudi Arabian Grand Prix
Minimal changes to Jeddah track for second race
In exactly two months the Jeddah Corniche Circuit will once again roar into life as the world’s most exciting sport descends on the Red Sea coastline for the FORMULA 1 STC SAUDI ARABIAN GRAND PRIX 2022. After the huge success of the country’s debut F1 race last season, the port city of Jeddah will play host to the second round of the FIA Formula 1 World Championship on March 25th-27th, 2022.
Following on from the dramatic event last December, the sport’s longest and fastest street circuit will again test the world’s best drivers to the limit, as they take to the 27-turn floodlit course at speeds averaging over 252km/h.
Arch-rivals Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton will recommence their battle for supremacy on track, but will they still be at the front of the field? This year every team will arrive in Jeddah with new cars, built to revised technical regulations designed to make the racing more spectacular.
As Saudi Arabia gears up to host its second Formula 1 race, Chief Executive Officer of the Saudi Motorsport Company – the Race Promoter - Martin Whitaker spoke about the success of the inaugural round and the changes in store for this year.
“The FORMULA 1 stc SAUDI ARABIAN GRAND PRIX 2021 was a tremendous success and both the scale of the event and its impact was far larger than we dared to expect,” said Whitaker. “It was a phenomenal race and a terrific showcase for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
In total, just under 140,000 spectators visited the Jeddah Corniche Circuit across the three-day event and with the excitement of the FIA Formula 1 Drivers’ World Championship on the line, it was one of the most-watched races on TV in the history of the sport.
Despite its success, small revisions will be made to the circuit to enrich both the spectator experience for visiting fans and to amend the quality of the track for the drivers. Sightlines will be improved from the perspective of the cockpit, while revisions will be made to grandstand angles, Fanzones and traffic management.
“Every single person who attended the race thought it was amazing,” says Whitaker. “Yes, it was our first F1 event so there were always going to be teething troubles, but don’t forget the whole facility had been constructed in less than eight months, so it was a phenomenal achievement by the team and all the contractors.
“But with a little bit of time before our second race, we are working flat-out behind the scenes to ensure the experience for all our fans will be even bigger and better than before.”
Be sure to keep the weekend of 25th -27th March clear in your diary to enjoy the spectacle of the FORMULA 1 STC SAUDI ARABIAN GRAND PRIX 2022.
How much of a success was the FORMULA 1 STC SAUDI ARABIAN GRAND PRIX 2021?
“It was a tremendous success and a memorable occasion, particularly with regards to the global reach and visibility of the race around the world. Prior to the Abu Dhabi finale, and the dramatic conclusion to the Championship, it was one of the most-watched Formula 1 races of all time. The whole weekend was fantastic, and it did a brilliant job of portraying Saudi Arabia to the world. I think a lot of people didn’t appreciate the enormity and the reach of Formula 1 until Jeddah actually hosted its first-ever Grand Prix.
“The scale of the event and its impact was far larger than anything we dared to expect. That was borne out by the attendances figures as well. We had packed grandstands on race day with the F1 Paddock Club and premium hospitality sold out across all three days. Through a combination of grandstand tickets, general admission, Paddock Club and premium hospitality, we had close to 140,000 spectators visiting the track in total. It was a phenomenal event for us and a terrific showcase for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Makkah Province and the city of Jeddah.”
What was the reaction to the event from both the local community and visiting fans?
“Every single person who attended the race thought it was amazing. Yes, it was our first F1 event so there were always going to be teething troubles, but don’t forget the whole facility had been constructed in less than eight months, so it was a phenomenal achievement.
“It was a celebration for the city of Jeddah and the Makkah Province. The fact the racetrack was laid out on the spectacular Corniche, with the Red Sea as a backdrop, brilliantly showcased this port city to the world. Fans loved our opening and closing ceremonies, the pyrotechnics, air displays and live concerts and we plan to make the experience bigger and better this year.
“Many visitors didn’t know what to expect, because they had never been to the Kingdom before, but the most important thing for me is that they were enriched by their experience and said how much they were looking forward to coming back for our second race in March.”
As the longest and fastest street circuit on the F1 calendar, would you say the 27-turn Jeddah Corniche Circuit was an immediate hit with the drivers?
“There’s no doubt about it, the drivers loved the track. From the moment they left the pits on Friday afternoon it was clear they relished the challenge of this venue. I think Valtteri Bottas summed it up best when he described it as “hardcore” adding that the high-speed nature of the circuit gave him an adrenaline rush! There are a lot of street courses that have tight and slow 90-degree bends, but the fast speeds of Jeddah and flowing corners enabled the drivers to really attack the circuit. In the race there was also plenty of overtaking and drama with just the one particular corner catching a couple of the drivers out.”
What lessons have you learnt from the first race? Will there be any amendments to the circuit for the 2022 edition?
“Yes, the length of time between the two races has enabled us to reflect on some aspects that did and didn’t work. And we have been striving to improve on some areas for our second event. Firstly, there are going to be one or two slight changes to the track. These tweaks are directly related to a drivers’ sightline from the cockpit. It’s minimal work, but it will help improve forward visibility in a couple of corners. Secondly, we will make some small modifications to the barriers that will favour the lines the drivers take around the course.
What about from a spectator perspective?
“There are a couple of areas that we are working on to enhance the experience for the fans who return to the track in March. We are planning on shifting some of the angles of the grandstands to improve visibility and at the same time we plan to increase the size and develop the Fanzones, which proved to be extremely popular.
“We had to get the whole facility ready in a short space of time, but now with this small gap to our second race we are better placed to understand our limitations. Because of our location, we can’t change too much because the track is positioned on a narrow strip of land next to the sea, but we are certainly looking at the circuit’s entrance and exit.
“Due to the confines of the track’s location traffic management was an issue and there were characteristics of the road system that created unnecessary delays. There are lessons we have learnt, and we have the time now to get these aspects resolved to make sure everyone who returns will have an equally good, if not better, experience.”
Why is the second Grand Prix in Saudi Arabia only a couple of months after the first race and what are the plans with utilising the circuit when it isn’t hosting Formula 1?
“We had always agreed that the race would be at the beginning of the season, and it makes good sense from a logistical point of view to be in Bahrain one week and in Saudi Arabia the next. The desire to stage the first race in 2021, meant that it wasn’t physically possible to have it any earlier than December due to the time required to build the track but going forward the race will be scheduled in March each year.
“In addition, we announced in November the launch of the Saudi Motorsport Company (SMC) that will sit underneath the Ministry of Sport and will be the organising and promotional arm of the ASN, the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation (SAMF). Not only will SMC promote the Grand Prix, but other motorsport events in the country such as the Dakar Rally and Extreme E. Plus it will run other races and motorsport events, promotional and community events, track days and other projects in and around the Jeddah Corniche Circuit. For example, in February we will have nearly 70 cars on track as part of a Ferrari Owners Club meeting. It’s important for us to maximise the use of the track so that it is of benefit to the local community in Jeddah.”
What other developments will have occurred at the venue ahead of the 2022 race?
“One of the main areas of building work has been to expand the Corniche in Jeddah by approximately 3.5km, so that it now extends all the way up to the new Marina. The Corniche is a focal point for the community and both local residents and tourists can now enjoy a greater waterfront walkway, cycle lanes, new restaurants and hotels. The whole area is continuing to be landscaped to create a beautiful environment for people to relax or to enjoy their leisure time with sports such as basketball, beach soccer and volleyball or outdoor gyms. The extended Corniche is delivering something new for the community, which is also at the heart of our sustainability mission.
“Not only are we one of the first circuits and promoters to have an imbedded sustainability team, but we are also in the process of creating a case study for Formula 1 so they can promote what we have been doing. It isn’t just about reducing plastic use, we have managed bigger projects such as the regeneration of the lagoon, which was an area of land in Jeddah falling into disrepair. Our environmentally-friendly work mirrors the Saudi Vision 2030 policy of the Kingdom and fits in with the activations of local companies, such as Aramco and Petromin.”
What are the plans for the future of the Grand Prix in Saudi Arabia?
“The most important thing is that the long-term future of a race in Saudi Arabia is secure. The construction of Qiddiya near Riyadh is on-going, but the focus is very much on Jeddah at the moment and about maximising the opportunities on this fantastic circuit. There are very few like the one we have on the Corniche, which is challenging, dynamic, long, and super-fast and in such a stunning location. Jeddah continues to be a dynamic shop window for the country, not only from a sporting perspective but for the business community too.
“We plan to build awareness that F1 is a great platform, not only for Saudi companies to showcase their businesses but to welcome global corporations to the country too. Formula 1 presents a great opportunity to do business and also offers a backdrop for people to enjoy networking in a more relaxed atmosphere.”