Formula One race in Saudi Arabia to go ahead despite nearby attack by Yemen rebels
Friday's attack targeted oil depot located about 11 kilometres from racetrack
Formula One drivers took to the track in Saudi Arabia as scheduled Saturday after receiving "detailed assurances" of their safety a day after an attack on the kingdom by Yemen's Houthi rebels.
F1 confirmed racing would go ahead with the third practice and qualifying session on Saturday followed by Sunday's race despite the attack on an oil depot located about 11 kilometres from the racetrack. Friday's attack happened during the first practice, and the 20 drivers met in talks that stretched past 2 a.m. to discuss safety concerns.
"Yesterday was a difficult day for Formula One and a stressful day for us Formula One drivers," the Grand Prix Drivers' Association said in a statement Saturday. "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."
Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto said it was "important to listen to drivers" but that the decision to continue was correct.
"It has been a long night but first let's focus on the facts. We know that it's not the first time it's happening in this country and in this area," he said. "Leaving the country would simply not have been the right choice."
Binotto said Ferrari's whole team agreed to stay.
"No one has left and no one has asked to leave," he said.
The other team principals who addressed the media Saturday — Andreas Seidl (McLaren), Guenther Steiner (Haas), Jost Capito (Williams) and Mike Krack (Aston Martin) — also said no drivers or team members had asked to leave. But they all said they would not have been stopped if they had asked to.
"You can't force someone to drive who's uncomfortable," Krack said.
In an earlier statement, F1 and governing body FIA confirmed that "following discussions with all the teams and drivers," the grand prix "will continue as scheduled."
"Following the widely reported incident that took place in Jeddah on Friday, there has been extensive discussion between all stakeholders, the Saudi government authorities and security agencies who have given full and detailed assurances that the event is secure," the statement said.
F1 added that it has been agreed "with all stakeholders to maintain a clear and open dialogue throughout the event and for the future."
The top three drivers speak to the media after qualifying and team principals.
The Houthis acknowledged the attacks on Friday evening and Saudi Arabia state TV called it a "hostile operation." The Jiddah oil depot erupted in flames when attacked during Friday's first practice session. It caused a raging fire that rattled the drivers enough to hold extraordinary talks regarding F1's presence in Saudi Arabia.
Many drivers expressed their concerns about racing in the region and Saudi Arabia's human rights record when F1 ran its inaugural event at the circuit last December. Now back at the track a little over three months later, tensions are heightened amidst the attacks.
Conversations between drivers, team principals and F1 chief executive Stefano Domenicali late into Friday night centred on safety and security conditions.
Friday's second practice was delayed 15 minutes because of an earlier driver meeting that included Mohammed Ben Sulayem, the newly-elected FIA president.
Race promoter Saudi Motorsport Company said earlier Friday that the weekend schedule had not been changed. Drivers were only leaving the track mere hours before they were due to return.
The attack targeted the North Jiddah Bulk Plant, the same fuel depot the Houthis had attacked five days earlier. The plant is just southeast of the city's international airport, a crucial hub for Muslim pilgrims heading to Mecca.
The plant stores diesel, gasoline and jet fuel for use in the kingdom's second-largest city. It accounts for over a quarter of all of Saudi Arabia's supplies and also supplies fuel crucial to running a regional desalination plant.
The Houthis have twice targeted the North Jiddah plant with cruise missiles. One attack came in November 2020. The second attack was Sunday as part of a wider barrage by the Houthis.
An Associated Press photojournalist covering Friday's first practice saw smoke rising in the distance to the east, just after 5:40 p.m. local time and about 20 minutes from the end of first practice. As the flames rose, the tops of the tanks of the bulk plant were clearly visible.
"On seeing the smoke from the incident it was difficult to remain a fully focused race driver and erase natural human concerns," the drivers' association said.
Also, a Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen unleashed a barrage of airstrikes on Yemen's capital and a strategic Red Sea city, officials said Saturday. The overnight airstrikes on Sanaa and Hodeida — both held by the Houthis — followed the attack by rebels on the oil depot in Jiddah.