F1 drivers discuss safety concerns ahead of Saudi GP

Dutch driver Max Verstappen of Red Bull drives his car during the Formula One Grand Prix in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday, March 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Dutch driver Max Verstappen of Red Bull drives his car during the Formula One Grand Prix in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday, March 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

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Formula One appeared set to compete at the Saudi Grand Prix on Sunday after nearly four hours of meetings over attacks on the kingdom by Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

The 20 drivers on the grid met several times Friday in talks that lasted well past 2 a.m. at the track to discuss security concerns following an attack on an oil depot about 7 miles (11 kilometers) from the F1 circuit.

Houthi rebels have acknowledged the attacks, with Saudi Arabian state television calling it a “hostile operation.” Presence in Saudi Arabia.

Many drivers raised concerns about racing in the region and Saudi Arabia’s human rights records when F1 held its inaugural event at the circuit last December. Now back on track, just over three months later, tensions are running high amid the attacks.

There was no immediate statement from F1 or the FIA, the governing body, but neither did they indicate that Sunday’s race would be cancelled. Talks between drivers, team principals and F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali focused on safety and security conditions.

Friday’s second practice was delayed by 15 minutes due to an earlier drivers’ meeting that included Mohammed Ben Sulayem, the newly elected FIA president.

Race promoter Saudi Motorsport Company said on Friday that the weekend schedule had not been changed and a third practice and qualifying were still scheduled for Saturday. The drivers only left the track a few hours before their return.

“We are aware of the attack on the Aramco distribution station in Jeddah earlier this afternoon and remain in direct contact with the Saudi authorities,” the SMC said in a statement. “The weekend race schedule will continue as planned. The safety of all of our guests continues to be our top priority and we look forward to welcoming fans back for a weekend of top-notch racing and entertainment.”

The attack targeted the Jiddah North Bulk Plant, the same fuel depot that the Houthis had attacked five days earlier. The plant is just southeast of the city’s international airport, a crucial hub for Muslim pilgrims heading to Mecca.

The plant stores diesel, gasoline and jet fuel for use in the kingdom’s second largest city. It accounts for more than a quarter of all Saudi supplies and also supplies crucial fuel to run a regional desalination plant.

The Houthis have twice attacked the North Jiddah plant with cruise missiles. One attack occurred in November 2020. The second attack was on Sunday as part of a broader bombardment by the Houthis.

An Associated Press photojournalist covering Friday’s first practice saw smoke rising in the distance to the east shortly after 5:40 pm local time. As the flames rose, the tops of the bulk plant tanks were clearly visible.

Charles Leclerc, the Ferrari driver who won the season-opening race last week in Bahrain, led both practice sessions. The drivers seemed unaffected by the nearby explosions during first practice, but a series of meetings soon began to determine the fate of the race.

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AP photographer Hassan Ammar contributed from the Jiddah F1 track.

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