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Formula 1 season opens in Saudi Arabia despite threat of driver boycott

March 28, 2022 at 2:00 pm

Pilots compete during the F1 Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia at 6.1 kilometers long Corniche Track, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on 27 March 2022. [Ayman Yaqoob – Anadolu Agency]

The Formula 1 season opened over the weekend with the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, but not without a major controversy as drivers threatened to boycott the race. Unease and dissent over the decision to go ahead with the race despite Friday’s bombing ten miles from the circuit has once again pit commercial demands against ethical and safety concerns.

Britain’s Sir Lewis Hamilton was amongst the drivers to express their serious misgivings about racing in the Kingdom. The seven-time world champion was said to have been strongly in favour of cancelling the race.

“I am just looking forward to getting out,” said Hamilton, visibly relieved that no major incident had taken place. “I am so happy the 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 four-hour meeting on Friday night averted a driver boycott of the race. Although the drivers were persuaded to race despite their concerns, serious questions are still hanging over the future of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

Read: Accused of ‘sports-washing’, are the Saudis now ‘games-washing’?

“We had a lot of guarantees that of course it would be safe but after this weekend all the drivers together, we will speak with F1 and the team bosses to see what is happening for the future,” said Max Verstappen, who won the race. The Belgian-Dutch driver confirmed that the matter was not closed and that his fellow drivers would once more demand answers from F1 over the contract with the Saudi authorities, said to be worth $900 million.

The race went ahead despite a series of attacks only ten miles from the circuit at an Aramco facility. Yemen’s Houthi movement claimed responsibility and pledged to carry out further attacks “to break the siege.”

Prior to last year’s race in the Gulf Kingdom, Hamilton expressed discontent over the decision to add the Saudi GP to the F1 season. “Do I feel comfortable here? I wouldn’t say I do,” Hamilton admitted during a press conference prior to the race. “But it’s not my choice to be here. The sport has taken the choice to be here.”

It has become common to describe F1 as “Cash is King”, and this was trending on social media over the weekend. The simple message emphasises the persistence of the sporting world in brushing aside ethical and safety concerns for monetary gains in what has become known as the “sportswashing” of tainted money.