Saudi Arabia has unveiled detailed plans for a new race track that is poised to host Formula 1 from 2023.
The Qiddiyah circuit is part of a new entertainment and sports complex outside the capital Riyadh, designed by ex-F1 driver Alexander Wurz.
Chief executive officer Mike Reininger told BBC Sport the track would be “ready” to host a Grand Prix in 2023.
“We’re building a facility in the hope there will be a deal struck and there is a race here in Saudi,” he said.
Reininger said negotiations were ongoing between Saudi authorities and F1, adding: “The formalisation of a race is not for us at Qiddiyah. It is outside the confines of the project itself. But we are building a facility that will be able to host a really world-class event as one of the signature items we will have on offer here at Qiddiyah as we open in 2023.”
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Reininger said he was “not specifically engaged in (the talks with F1) day to day” and that they were “mostly being driven by the general sports authority and the motorsports federation”.
Insiders say no deal for Saudi Arabia to host a Grand Prix has yet been finalised but it is an effective fait accompli. F1 declined to comment on the prospect.
The Qiddiyah track was unveiled at an event on Friday, where the circuit was demonstrated on a simulator.
Damon Hill, the 1996 F1 world champion, was among the guests, along with ex-F1 drivers David Coulthard and Nico Hulkenberg, current Haas F1 racer Romain Grosjean and former MotoGP rider Loris Capirossi.
The track is FIA Grade One standard, capable of hosting both F1 and MotoGP, and is part of what Reininger described as “a bigger universe of motorsport activities”.
He added: “We are actually building a series of facilities both on-circuit and off-road in one aggregated place which really hasn’t been assembled anywhere else in the world like this. The centrepiece for us is going to be the Grade One circuit.”
Wurz, the 45-year-old former Benetton, McLaren and Williams driver, two-time Le Mans winner and chairman of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, is the track designer and a consultant on the project.
He said: “It’s a privilege of a lifetime to design the motion and mobility zone in Qiddiyah, including the Speedpark track. The project offers us amazing opportunities to design a track, a true racing arena for the drivers and spectators.
“The design offers amazing elevation changes, making use of the stunning natural landscape. Equally, it is made to challenge drivers and engineers alike. And, from our simulation runs, I can assure you it is absolutely thrilling as an on- and off-track experience.”
When will the Saudi Grand Prix be?
It is not impossible that Saudi Arabia could hold its maiden Formula 1 event before 2023, but this would require another new circuit to be constructed as a stop-gap.
Alternatively, the Qiddiyah F1 track could potentially be finished before the sites surrounding it, but even then it would not be ready before 2022.
A report this week suggested Saudi Arabia could enter the F1 calendar as early as next year, but senior insiders say that is unlikely to happen.
One reason for that is there is no track that could host F1 – although it is not impossible that a temporary street track could be constructed for next year – and another that F1 is wary of overloading the calendar in the first year of a sweeping new set of regulations being introduced in 2021.
This year’s F1 schedule already holds a record 22 races and only the Spanish Grand Prix does not have a contract to continue in 2021.
The human rights question
A grand prix in Saudi Arabia would be lucrative for F1 in terms of hosting fees that would be expected to be in the region of $50m a year but would inevitability draw criticism from human rights groups.
Global sports organisations have been accused of being complicit in what is seen as Saudi Arabia’s attempt to ‘sports-wash’ its poor human rights record.
Amnesty International says Saudi Arabia has “an appalling record on LGBT rights, women’s rights, extra-judicial killings, beheadings, the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi, and their involvement in the ongoing conflict in Yemen”.
And human rights groups point out that while women have been allowed to drive for the last 18 months, Saudi female activists are still in jail for promoting the right to do so in the first place.
Saudi Arabia has recently been making efforts to present an image that it is becoming more liberal, and is in the process of trying to open itself up to the wider world and promote itself as a place to do business and go on holiday.
And those who back holding sports events in controversial places often argue that raising the profile of countries in such a way can bring the issues into the spotlight.
F1 holds races in other countries that have been criticised for their human rights records, most notably Russia, China, Azerbaijan, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi, and has always countered criticism by saying it is a non-political organisation.
The Qiddiyah development is part of a project by Saudi Arabia called Vision 2030 aimed at diversifying the country’s economy beyond reliance on the production of fossil fuels.
Reininger described Vision 2030 as “a transformation of the country economically and socially”.
The wider Qiddiyah project effectively creates a new city and will extend over 330 square kilometres, including hotels, a theme park, retail and environmental programmes.