Martin Whitaker, CEO of the Saudi Motorsport Company has revealed that the Jeddah Corniche circuit is to be "tweaked" ahead of its second event.
Though the inaugural Saudi Grand Prix took place in December, this year's event is scheduled for 27 March, making it the second race of the year, just three months after cars first took to the Jeddah track..
It was Lewis Hamilton's win in Saudi that saw the title rivals head into the season finale level on points, thereby setting up the ultimate showdown.
Indeed, had it not been for the debacle of the final stages of the Abu Dhabi race, the inaugural Saudi Grand Prix, which featured one safety car period, two red flags, and four virtual safety car periods, might well have gone down in history as one of the most controversial races of all time.
While Zandvoort basks in the "positive economic and social impact" of its race, so too the Saudis are delighted with their first experience of F1.
"It was a tremendous success and a memorable occasion, particularly with regards to the global reach and visibility of the race around the world," says Martin Whitaker, CEO of the Saudi Motorsport Company. "Prior to the Abu Dhabi finale, and the dramatic conclusion to the championship, it was one of the most-watched Formula 1 races of all time.
"The whole weekend was fantastic," he adds, "and it did a brilliant job of portraying Saudi Arabia to the world. I think a lot of people didn't appreciate the enormity and the reach of Formula 1 until Jeddah actually hosted its first-ever Grand Prix.
"The scale of the event and its impact was far larger than anything we dared to expect. That was borne out by the attendances figures as well. We had packed grandstands on race day with the F1 Paddock Club and premium hospitality sold out across all three days. Through a combination of grandstand tickets, general admission, Paddock Club and premium hospitality, we had close to 140,000 spectators visiting the track in total. It was a phenomenal event for us and a terrific showcase for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Makkah Province and the city of Jeddah."
Asked if the circuit proved popular with the drivers, Whitaker replies: "There's no doubt about it, the drivers loved the track. From the moment they left the pits on Friday afternoon it was clear they relished the challenge of this venue.
"I think Valtteri Bottas summed it up best when he described it as "hardcore" adding that the high-speed nature of the circuit gave him an adrenaline rush! There are a lot of street courses that have tight and slow 90-degree bends, but the fast speeds of Jeddah and flowing corners enabled the drivers to really attack the circuit. In the race there was also plenty of overtaking and drama with just the one particular corner catching a couple of the drivers out.
"(However), the length of time between the two races has enabled us to reflect on some aspects that did and didn't work," he admits. "And we have been striving to improve on some areas for our second event.
"Firstly, there are going to be one or two slight changes to the track. These tweaks are directly related to a drivers' sightline from the cockpit. It's minimal work, but it will help improve forward visibility in a couple of corners.
"Secondly, we will make some small modifications to the barriers that will favour the lines the drivers take around the course.
"There are a couple of areas that we are working on to enhance the experience for the fans who return to the track in March (also)," he reveals. "We are planning on shifting some of the angles of the grandstands to improve visibility and at the same time we plan to increase the size and develop the Fanzones, which proved to be extremely popular.
"We had to get the whole facility ready in a short space of time, but now with this small gap to our second race we are better placed to understand our limitations. Because of our location, we can't change too much because the track is positioned on a narrow strip of land next to the sea, but we are certainly looking at the circuit's entrance and exit.
"Due to the confines of the track's location traffic management was an issue and there were characteristics of the road system that created unnecessary delays. There are lessons we have learnt, and we have the time now to get these aspects resolved to make sure everyone who returns will have an equally good, if not better, experience.
"One of the main areas of building work has been to expand the Corniche in Jeddah by approximately 3.5km," he adds, "so that it now extends all the way up to the new Marina. The Corniche is a focal point for the community and both local residents and tourists can now enjoy a greater waterfront walkway, cycle lanes, new restaurants and hotels. The whole area is continuing to be landscaped to create a beautiful environment for people to relax or to enjoy their leisure time with sports such as basketball, beach soccer and volleyball or outdoor gyms. The extended Corniche is delivering something new for the community, which is also at the heart of our sustainability mission.
"Not only are we one of the first circuits and promoters to have an imbedded sustainability team, but we are also in the process of creating a case study for Formula 1 so they can promote what we have been doing. It isn't just about reducing plastic use, we have managed bigger projects such as the regeneration of the lagoon, which was an area of land in Jeddah falling into disrepair. Our environmentally-friendly work mirrors the Saudi Vision 2030 policy of the Kingdom and fits in with the activations of local companies, such as Aramco and Petromin."
Asked why the second event comes so soon after the inaugural Grand Prix, Whitaker replies: "We had always agreed that the race would be at the beginning of the season, and it makes good sense from a logistical point of view to be in Bahrain one week and in Saudi Arabia the next.
"The desire to stage the first race in 2021, meant that it wasn't physically possible to have it any earlier than December due to the time required to build the track but going forward the race will be scheduled in March each year.
"In addition, we announced in November the launch of the Saudi Motorsport Company (SMC) that will sit underneath the Ministry of Sport and will be the organising and promotional arm of the ASN, the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation (SAMF). Not only will SMC promote the Grand Prix, but other motorsport events in the country such as the Dakar Rally and Extreme E. Plus it will run other races and motorsport events, promotional and community events, track days and other projects in and around the Jeddah Corniche Circuit. For example, in February we will have nearly 70 cars on track as part of a Ferrari Owners Club meeting. It's important for us to maximise the use of the track so that it is of benefit to the local community in Jeddah.
"The most important thing is that the long-term future of a race in Saudi Arabia is secure," he concludes. "The construction of Qiddiya near Riyadh is on-going, but the focus is very much on Jeddah at the moment and about maximising the opportunities on this fantastic circuit. There are very few like the one we have on the Corniche, which is challenging, dynamic, long, and super-fast and in such a stunning location. Jeddah continues to be a dynamic shop window for the country, not only from a sporting perspective but for the business community too.
"We plan to build awareness that F1 is a great platform, not only for Saudi companies to showcase their businesses but to welcome global corporations to the country too. Formula 1 presents a great opportunity to do business and also offers a backdrop for people to enjoy networking in a more relaxed atmosphere."