The Formula 1 circus returns to Saudi Arabia this weekend, a year after a fuel depot near the circuit exploded during Grand Prix week.
While the drivers expressed confidence about their safety ahead of Sunday’s event, seven-time F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton spoke about human rights issues in the kingdom.
The drivers have received assurances from F1 that additional security measures have been put in place to prevent the event from being disrupted like last year. Houthi rebels in Yemen then fired a missile at a fuel depot just 11 kilometers from the circuit during the first test session. This incident had led to numerous discussions between the pilots, the organizers and the investors, but the program for the weekend was never changed.
The attack took place two weeks after 81 people were executed in Saudi Arabia — the largest group execution in the kingdom’s modern history. According to Reprieve, a collection of non-profit human rights organizations, 16 other executions took place.
Saudi Arabia is one of many countries accused of hosting world-class sporting events to project a positive image, while violating human rights. Others include Bahrain, which hosted the first Grand Prix of the season two weeks ago, and Qatar, which hosted the FIFA World Cup last year and will also host an F1 race.
The pilots were asked about their return to Jeddah after last year’s attack.
“We have confidence in the management of F1 and the organizers to ensure our safety,” said French driver Esteban Ocon. Yes, what happened last year is worrying and none of us want to go through something like that. »
Quebecer Lance Stroll echoed Ocon’s comments, saying he was “confident that F1 and the organizers will take care of us”. For his part, Sergio Perez said he was convinced that “the organizers invite us here for a safe race”.
They spoke on Thursday, at a press conference before the start of the track sessions. When it was Hamilton’s turn, he claimed that his opinion “is the opposite of everything that has been said.”
The Mercedes driver was then asked if he was happy to race in Saudi Arabia.
“It’s open to interpretation,” Hamilton said. I hope everyone is safe this weekend and that we can all go home safe. »
Reignited on the subject, Hamilton was asked if he had considered skipping the Grand Prix this weekend due to human rights concerns.
The family of Abdullah al-Howaiti, who faces the death penalty after he was arrested in 2017 aged 14, wrote to Hamilton this week to thank him for speaking out about their son during the Grand Price last year.
“You have publicly brought attention to Abdullah’s case and we are incredibly grateful to you for using your platform to shine a spotlight on the injustice he faces,” the family wrote in the letter Reprieve shared with The Associated Press. There are no words to express how much it touched our family to know that Abdullah was not forgotten. »
Max Verstappen flew through the first practice session on Friday. The Dutchman edged out Perez, his teammate at Red Bull.
Third two weeks ago in the first GP of the season, Fernando Alonso has once again settled behind the Red Bulls. The other Aston Martin, that of Stroll, finished in fourth position.