Sport in a crisis area: the smell of smoke from the rocket attack crept up under the helmet of Formula 1 world champion Max Verstappen . “It smells burnt, is that my car?” the Red Bull driver radioed to the pits on Friday during the first practice session for the Grand Prix in Saudi Arabia . But the cause was far more frightening. According to their own statements, Yemeni Houthi rebels had again attacked a plant of the oil company Aramco , which is the main sponsor of the racing series, near the track in Jeddah .
Saudi state television also confirmed a “hostile operation” by Houthi rebels near Jeddah. Just last Sunday, the rebels launched attacks against Saudi Arabia with a missile and drones. An Aramco plant in Jeddah was also hit, and fire broke out at an oil tank.
After urgent consultations, the Formula 1 leadership and the organizers asserted that safety for the remainder of the Grand Prix weekend was guaranteed. The Formula 1 program can take place as planned, confirmed the Saudi Motorsport Company in the evening.
“A very worrying situation for all of us”
Formula 1 boss Stefano Domenicali said that to all drivers and team bosses in a meeting called at short notice. “He assured us that the authorities have investigated the incident and that there are no other safety concerns,” McLaren team boss Andreas Seidl told Sky TV. You have to trust this information. However, Seidl admitted that it was “a very worrying situation for all of us”.
A large number of pilots are said to have expressed serious concerns about safety. As reported by the BBC and Sky UK on Saturday, after hours of discussion until 3 a.m., the drivers were also convinced to continue driving. “Ready and totally focused for tomorrow’s qualifying,” tweeted Red Bull driver Sergio Pérez after the end of the meeting.
The background to the conflict is the war in Yemen that Saudi Arabia is waging against the Houthi rebels. The war has triggered one of the greatest current humanitarian catastrophes . The Saudi energy giant Aramco, which has been targeted by the rebels, is a major financier of Formula 1 and title sponsor of the British racing team Aston Martin , for which Sebastian Vettel drives.
Vettel had to forgo the trip to Jeddah on Friday due to a corona infection. Like at the start in Bahrain , his compatriot Nico Hulkenberg stepped in as a substitute .
Climate activist Neubauer criticizes the venue
However, the sporting preparation for the second race of the season became a minor matter due to the events off the track. Charles Leclerc , who had led Ferrari to a double win the previous week, relegated champion Verstappen to second place in both practice sessions. The two 24-year-olds are again the favorites for qualifying on Saturday (6 p.m., TV: Sky) – at least under normal circumstances.
Saudi Arabia is considered to be quite safe compared to other countries in the region, but there have also been several terrorist attacks there. At the end of 2020, the terrorist militia “Islamic State” claimed responsibility for an attack on a ceremony in Jeddah, in which two people were injured. Strict safety regulations usually apply to major events such as sporting events in the country.
The selection of Saudi Arabia as Formula 1 host had already triggered heavy criticism before the race debuted last December. The kingdom is accused of serious human rights violations. Most recently, the country executed 81 people in one day.