Saudi Arabian Grand Prix to go ahead 'as planned' despite rebel attack

Saudi Arabian Grand Prix to go ahead 'as planned' despite rebel attack
The Saudi Arabian Grand Prix is set to go ahead despite an attack on an oil facility which set off a fire visible from the street circuit.
4 min read
Drivers reportedly smelt the fire during the opening practise run for the Saudi Grand Prix [Getty]

The Saudi Arabian Formula One Grand Prix will continue "as planned" despite an attack by Yemeni rebels on an oil facility which set off a huge fire visible from Jeddah's street circuit.

Flames ripped through the Aramco oil refinery and drivers even smelt the fire during the opening practice run.

Drivers and team bosses attended a meeting with race organisers and Formula One management in the paddock shortly before the second practice session.

The start of that run was delayed by 15 minutes before F1 boss Stefano Domenicali insisted the race weekend would continue.

"Formula 1 has been in close contact with the relevant authorities following the situation that took place today," said an F1 spokesman.

"The authorities have confirmed that the event can continue as planned and we will remain in close contact with them and all the teams and closely monitor the situation."

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World champion Max Verstappen was one of the first drivers to be aware of the drama unfolding while he guided his Red Bull through the first practice session.

"I smell burning - is it my car?" said the Dutchman on his team radio.

Speaking after Friday's meeting, Haas team boss Gunther Steiner told ServusTV: "We were assured by the government that it is safe to drive here.

"Personally, I feel absolutely safe. Otherwise I wouldn't be here."

Friday's attack was part of a wave of assaults ahead of the seventh anniversary of a Saudi-led coalition's military intervention against the Houthis in Yemen, a country in the grips of a major humanitarian crisis.

The coalition fighting the Iran-backed rebels confirmed the Jeddah oil plant attack.

"They are trying to impact the nerve-centre of the world economy," the coalition said in a statement.

"These attacks have no impact on life in Jeddah," it added.

Meanwhile, on the track, Charles Leclerc topped the final practice times for Ferrari ahead of Verstappen.


- 'Safety main priority' -

The 24-year-old Monegasque driver and early-season leader of the embryonic championship clocked a best lap in one minute and 30.074 to outpace the Dutchman by nearly two-tenths.

Carlos Sainz was third in the second Ferrari and Sergio Perez fourth in his Red Bull with a determined Lewis Hamilton fifth ahead of his new Mercedes team-mate George Russell after a day of bumping and sliding on the high-speed circuit.

After the 15-minute delay, Leclerc, who won the season-opener in Bahrain last week, picked up where he had in opening practice by setting the early pace again.

Both Sainz and Hamilton complained of "porpoising" before the two Red Bulls joined the action, Verstappen going third but more than a second off the leading pace.

Verstappen then clocked the top time, 0.002 ahead of Leclerc as most of the field moved to soft tyres, the Monegasque reclaiming his perch with a lap in 1:30.074, nearly two-tenths quicker.

Shortly after this, Kevin Magnussen reported an engine problem with his Haas and came to a halt at Turn 14.

That brought a brief Virtual Safety Car (VSC) deployment before, on resumption, Leclerc clipped a wall with the left front wheel of his Ferrari.

He trundled back to the pits and out of the session just as the race promoters Saudi Motorsport issued a statement confirming the Grand Prix would go ahead as planned.


- 'Aware of problem' -

"The race weekend schedule will continue as planned. The safety and security of all our guests continues to be our main priority and we look forward to welcoming fans for a weekend of premium racing and entertainment," they said.

Ferrari also issued a statement to confirm that both Leclerc and Sainz had been "kissing the wall" and were out of the session due to damage.

Friday's attack comes as the Saudi authorities continue to face accusations of trying to "sportswash" the country's controversial human rights record.

Drivers say they are "aware of the problems", said McLaren's Daniel Ricciardo.

"But I think by coming here we also have a chance to create change or have a positive influence."

Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton added: "We don't decide where we go, but we're duty-bound to try and do what we can while we are here."