The inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix was one for the Netflix lovers. Filled with racing drama across the race weekend, while simultaneously severely lacking in good racing. However before the on-track action even commenced, questions were asked about the decision to hold a Grand Prix in Saudi Arabia.
On Wednesday a range of human rights groups wrote to F1, accusing the sport of being complicit in Saudi Arabia’s sportswashing by competing in the country. They highlighted women’s rights activists who risk imprisonment for their actions, with Human Rights Watch citing “Saudi Arabia’s brutal crackdown on peaceful dissidents”. Amnesty International called on drivers to speak out, drawing attention to the plight of Saudi LGBTQ+ people who live in a country where same-sex relations are illegal and punishable by flogging or imprisonment.
It is hard not to describe the 2021 Grand Prix as an immoral money grab. Formula 1 had an agreement in principle before the start of the season to race in Saudi on a 10 year deal. This in itself was worrying for some, but matters only got worse when the circuit started construction in April, a mere 8 months before the race was to be held.
Putting all the human rights issues to one-side(metaphorically), it was irresponsible and dangerous to agree to race on a track that looked like a dusty school playground in April. Not to mention, this was amid several allegations of human rights violations. Saudi Arabia is another name added to a list of countries with questionable moral standards. A worrying sign of where the sport might be headed.
Now on to the on-track controversies. The circuit itself raised a few safety concerns. With 27 corners and an average speed of 160 mph, the layout was exciting and in certain corners, dangerous. High Speed corners at turns 21 & 22, and turns 3 & 4 were narrow with walls closely surrounding them, and in the case of turn 21, it was a blind corner taken at nearly 170 mph.
Through the 1st practice session, most drivers described the track as ‘very cool’, ‘fast’, and ‘exciting’. Retrospectively we can say it was all that, but to what extent did it compromise the safety element? Scary incidents throughout the weekend, from Fittipaldi & Pourchaires crash in the F2 feature race, multiple lap 1 incidents on the exit of turn 3 leaving cars sideways in the middle of the track in both F1 and F2, to the two high G-Force accidents for Leclerc and Schumacher in turn 22 put even more of a damper on the weekend.
But they are drivers, they are professionals, and they know the risks. Even so I would argue some of the track layout swapped driver safety with frighteningly high closing speeds. What this also did in turn is make marshalling the race significantly riskier and harder. These marshals are not paid workers, they are volunteers. The time spent under 4 Virtual Safety Cars, as marshals ran between walls to clear the track of debris, was a step too far in terms of the amount of caution a marshal has to exercise. All this only made worse by Michael Masi’s (more on him in a bit) decision to not impose a full safety car on several occasions. It is vital to make the circuit safe for the drivers, but even more important to have a track layout that can minimise and accommodate the volunteers working at the race. These principles unfortunately were sacrificed to make the track layout more ‘exciting’.
Turn a blind eye to the morality of the country, put the red flags down to ‘it’s the first time we have raced at this circuit’, and you are still left with the absolute clown show that was Race Control. The previously mentioned decisions to not deploy a full safety car were only the tip of the iceberg (or the front-wing in this case). Starting with the positives, credit to Michael Masi as he prioritised driver safety and Red-Flagged the race after 3 laps under the Safety Car following Schumacher’s shunt, to repair the barriers (much to Hamilton’s discontent). That’s about it for things he dealt with well.
Now on to the second red-flag. Max very clearly with an illegal overtake, and you could hear the guilt on Red Bull’s team radio. Why and how at all was this a negotiation between Jonathan Wheatley, the sporting director of Red Bull, and Michael Masi as to what the punishment should be? A lack of authority and control is what Masi has been accused of several times throughout this season, and the radio negotiation during the red-flag was the epitome of it all. If the decision is to give Max a 5-second time penalty, give him a 5-second time penalty. If the decision is to allow Red Bull to give the places back under red-flag, then make them do that. A public negotiation with Red Bull dictating the conditions under which they would give the places back is certainly not the way to go about it. But the correct conclusion was achieved in the end, Max dropped to P3 behind Lewis, and I hoped that this would have been the end of the Race Control shenanigans.
Now I am not going to legislate how and why Max Verstappen did or did not brake test Lewis Hamilton. But it is with full confidence I can say that the whole situation could be avoided if Race Control had some actual control over the race. Red Bull and Max Verstappen following another illegal move were told to hand the position back to Hamilton. Why was the team, that had to slow down considerably told before the team that had to overtake about this decision. In nearly every situation of similar context, the aggrieved driver is told first that the guilty party in front of them would be handing the place back. This is done so as to avoid the exact situation that occurred at turn 27. Intentional or not, it is very clear that both drivers were extremely confused by the others action, and as the message finally comes through to Hamilton, it is already too late. Poor communication and a lack of conviction, all in the same race was a very bad look for Race Control and Masi.
You can even extrapolate some of the controversial choices made by the drivers back to poor officiating by the Race Director. Lets get this straight, Max Verstappen is not stupid, contrary to popular belief I would even say he isn’t reckless, but he does drive on the verge of the limit. His style of driving and his defensive maneuvers have been allowed to fester and become acceptable under Masi’s reign. Max dealt with several reprimands in his early career, was kicked off several podiums, but he adapted. The moves you saw Verstappen do in 2017 and 2018 are no longer part of his driving style because he was made aware beyond any doubt that they are unacceptable, by Charlie Whiting and the stewards. Since Masi has taken over from Whiting, it has been incident after incident with Max that has gone unpunished.
Just to reference a few of the high profile incidents, Austria 2019, a clear push on Charles Leclerc to take the race lead went unpunished, and the incident in Brazil 2 weeks ago intentional or not, warranted a penalty. If the stewards will continue to allow Max to get away with things deemed illegal by most unbiased eyes, then we have to realistically ask ourselves, why should we expect Max to stop doing them? Not to mention some of the inconsistencies with other drivers as well. Race control has objectively not been the ones in control for several of the key incidents this season, to the point where some of their ‘hands off’ approach at this stage of the title fight might simply be down to them not wanting to be the ones to decide the championship because of a penalty they might have to apply.
With the weekend now over, all drivers and marshals safe, Pourchaire fairly unharmed, Fittpladi fortunately getting away with only a broken heel, and the title challengers level on points, it has been one of the most drama filled F1 weekends in certainly the post spy-gate era. This is all going to make for a very compelling episode of Drive to Survive, which will draw a plethora of new fans over with its 4th season. However, the on-track racing and direction of the weekend certainly won’t leave a good impression on this newer generation of F1 fandom.