By Sunday night in Jeddah, it all felt like a normal race weekend again. A thrilling battle for victory on the track had grabbed the headlines and we were talking about racing, DRS, yellow flags and familiar topics.
But at 2am on Saturday morning I was pretty convinced there wasn’t going to be a race to talk about at all. I’ve never seen the drivers so united and had massive respect for the way they were pulling together – despite an obvious variety in the strength of their views – to show their dissent at the way the race in Saudi Arabia was being handled.
From talking to a few of them, I’m pretty sure a big motivator was the fact Formula 1 and the FIA simply told them the latest security information and then declared the race would continue, despite obvious reservations. Getting their voices heard was central to the four-hour stand that saw many forgo dinner and endure a later night than planned ahead of a race weekend they were still likely to complete.
“Drivers appeared tired of having to pay lip service without having agreed to it in the first place”
A few sources then said the outcome of the meeting was a relatively simple one: Get the race finished and get out, never to return.
In reality, that’s going to be a hard thing to achieve.
Saudi Arabia puts a huge amount of money into F1’s coffers, and the commercial rights holder has always had control over what the race calendar looks like. Teams and drivers sign up to the championship, and teams do have a chance to give feedback before the calendar goes to the World Motor Sport Council for ratification, but their say is limited.
The drivers’ say is even more so. They don’t get any real input into where they go racing, but are regularly called upon as the key spokespeople of the sport, asked to give their opinions on different questionable locations and usually attempting to look for the positives even if they wouldn’t choose to race there if they had any input into the matter.
Getting some input is going to be crucial to the real fallout of last weekend’s race. Without it, their stand will have meant nothing, because nothing has changed.
Formula 1 has made very clear that it intends to return to Saudi Arabia next year and continue with the lucrative long-term race contract that is due to see another two races – at least – at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit before moving to another bespoke motorsports facility in Qiddiyah. The investment being made in F1 by the country is enormous.
So the drivers are going to need to show the same level of unity as they did on Friday night in Jeddah to be able to have any sort of influence on future calendars.
By doing so, it would force F1 to take their concerns seriously, because with strength in numbers would give them the potential to boycott a race they were particularly unhappy about. It genuinely felt like that was on the cards on Friday night and the sport’s bosses must have been concerned, hence the regular visits to the drivers by Stefano Domenicali, Ross Brawn and the team principals.
Their first act of unity needs to be in demanding a place on one of F1’s many groups that would allow them to provide direct input into calendars, rather than demanding change in the calendar itself.
Let’s be honest, it would likely cause more headaches than provide solutions if the drivers had to try and agree on where F1 races all of the time, but if they were involved earlier in the process and received more information about race venues (or at least the logic behind each deal), they’re likely to be more understanding. Plus, a situation like last weekend is less likely to arise, at least in terms of the drivers needing to take a stand.
The Saudi Arabian GP was thrown into doubt after a missile attack near to the circuit – the drivers explain why they ultimately decided to race
From a position where they’re involved at an earlier stage rather than just told where they’re racing, the drivers can also set out some ground rules, or minimum requirements to be comfortable racing in a specific country or region.
One source at the weekend suggested the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association (GPDA) would be coming up with a number of bullet points to deliver to F1 that outlines situations they want to avoid, and what should and shouldn’t be considered acceptable when it comes to racing somewhere.
It’s not just about Saudi Arabia, and the drivers are smart enough to acknowledge that. Another part of Friday’s stance appeared to be fuelled by other reservations about the country’s human rights record, with the missile attack a catalyst but not the whole reason for their discomfort. But there are a number of races all across the world that can lead to difficult questions being asked because of where the funding comes from, or the political and humanitarian situations.
F1 keeps claiming it can be a force for positive change, but there needs to be absolute proof of that in some of the more controversial places it races, rather than just lip service paid while pocketing the money.
In Jeddah, the drivers appeared tired of having to pay that lip service themselves without having agreed to it in the first place. But time is a great healer and after an exciting race that threatened to change the narrative, there’s a risk their position weakens now they have left and are not needing to worry about a return for at least 12 months.
The GPDA needs to capitalise on the feelings that bonded the drivers together on Friday night in the coming weeks, and secure a seat at the table to make its collective voice heard more effectively. If it fails to do so, nothing’s going to change.