top of page

Why is motorsport in the Middle East often considered controversial?

Written by Ollie Lewis, Edited by Sean McKean


The Middle East is becoming progressively more significant year-by-year on a global scale, with Dubai and Qatar now being considered economic trade hubs of considerable importance. However, with rapid growth comes a tsunami of media attention that doesn’t always place the artificial oases in the best light.


One of the best examples was the recent 2022 World Cup, which took place in Qatar. At times, it seemed that whatever Qatar did was wrong according to the media, which drastically affected ticket sales. This often left a plethora of empty seats at some games. 


So, what has this got to do with F1? Well, we have seen through events like the Qatari and Saudi Arabian GP that the sport and countries hosting are usually in the firing line for both issues directly concerning the sport and other unrelated issues.


However, despite all the controversies, racing in the Middle East is far more financially beneficial to the sport than others – such as the three races in the United States – and the reputation of these events have been unfairly warped towards the negative.


Lusail Stadium, Qatar; Credit - JVVA Fire and Risk

Bahrain

The Bahrain GP was one of the first Middle Eastern countries to host an F1 race in 2004. The track, funded by the Crown Prince of the time, faced difficulties and controversies before it was even finished.


Prior to the 2004 GP, race organisers tried to cancel the event, as they didn’t believe the track would be finished in time. The requests were ultimately declined by Bernie Ecclestone, the CEO of F1 at the time. By the time the race was held, the circuit wasn’t even completed, but it was deemed suitable enough to hold the race.


Bahrain International Circuit; Credits - seatunique.com

Controversies continued through to 2005, which was deemed one of the hottest F1 races of all time where the average air temperature was a staggering 42OC, causing mechanical failures such as hydraulic problems and cars just stalling on the grid.


Moving on-to 2011, where Bahrain was due to host the season opener but the race was cancelled as a result of protests and riots linking to the Arab Spring, which was a series of anti-government protests that occurred in the early 2010s. Though, the Grand Prix would return to action not too long later in 2012.


Bahrain GP 2005; Credit - maxf1.net

The track itself has also been home to some on-track drama, such as Romain Grosjean’s extraordinary fireball wreck in 2020 and Sergio Perez’s maiden victory in the subsequent race on the shortened layout, which ultimately landed him the seat at Red Bull.


Despite these controversies, F1 continues to race in Bahrain and will continue to do so until 2036, as decided in a 2022 contract extension.


Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi was the second country in the Middle East to host a Formula One event, with the first race taking place in 2009. The track was constructed on an artificial island, Yas Island, that took 11 years to complete while also costing a rather pricey $40 billion. Yas Marina is still considered one of the most advanced tracks in the world, although it didn’t break many records. 


Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi; Credit - F1madness.co.za

The track was also the host to what is perhaps the most controversial F1 race of all time: the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. In the race, it was controversial due to the outcome of a championship, fought between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, that was decided by external factors such as the FIA.


Outside of that, there have been minimal motorsport-related controversies in Abu Dhabi with some exceptions being questionable track design initially.



When the track was first tested, Kimi Räikkönen stated that “The first few turns are good but the rest of it is sh*t,” with other drivers like Giancarlo Fisichella complaining about the pit-exit lane, which travelled underneath the circuit stating that it was both difficult and dangerous.


However, since then the circuit has seen major renovations with some of the problematic corners being adjusted, although the challenging pit-exit lane remains.


Saudi Arabia

The Saudi Arabian circuit was first added to the Formula 1 calendar in 2021, where it hosted one of the more memorable races of that season. During qualifying, Verstappen crashed on the final corner of qualifying without finishing what many believe was one of his greatest single laps of all time.


In the actual race, there were still controversial moments such as when Verstappen slowed down to let Hamilton through following an illegal overtake but Hamilton drove into the back of him, unaware of his intention, stating that Verstappen “just brake tested me [Hamilton]!”


Verstappen and Hamilton colliding in Jeddah; Credits - Motor Sport Magazine

The following year, in 2022, the race was nearly cancelled as there was an attack on a nearby oil storage facility operated by ARAMCO. The attack resulted in flames and thick black smoke billowing from the storage, which some drivers claimed they could smell from the track. 


However, this is where the aforementioned misreporting for a good story becomes an issue, like with Qatar. A respectable source from the Saudi Motorsport Company stated that “reports would have you believe that oil was literally flowing across the track, but in reality the refinery was 10 miles away.”


They also stated, in response to Verstappen claiming he could smell smoke from his car, “Of course you might be able to smell smoke in the car, you are on a race track, in the middle of the city, only metres away from other vehicles in an open cockpit.”


Of course, some could suggest that this would be biased, seeing as they work for Saudi Motorsport, but in the context it was said, there was nothing to be gained.


A flaming oil storage facility; Credit - bloomberg.com

After the first two years of racing in Jeddah, it became apparent that the circuit was quite dangerous due to its narrow, blind and sweeping corners as well as its extremely fast nature.


There have been questions raised about the safety of the track following several major accidents, such as the NASCAR-style multi-car pileup that occurred in the 2021 event – bringing out the second red flag of the race – and Mick Schumacher’s spectacular shunt during qualifying of 2022 after he seemingly bottomed out on a raised apex.


Of course, adjustments have been made to the circuit to widen run-off areas and sections of the track to make it safer. There are still changes to be made, however, since turn 22 has seen a few major accidents from drivers like Charles Leclerc and Lance Stroll in 2021 and 2024 respectively.


Aftermath of Mick Schumacher’s 2022 accident; Credit - uk.motor1.com

Even a track that hasn’t been built yet has faced controversy. The proposed circuit at Qiddiyah, the self-proclaimed ‘City of Play,’ features an absurd first corner that sits 20 stories high.


While the circuit must be safe to have been approved by the FIA, it was certainly a discussion point amongst fans of the sport who were, unsurprisingly, concerned for the safety of the drivers.


If Saudi Arabia is able to pull off the construction of the circuit, then it is sure to be one of the most spectacular race tracks on the planet, but it also has potential to be a monumental flop, although the same could be said about any potential megaproject.


20 storey high corner ‘The Blade’ at Qiddiyah; Credit - ESPN

Qatar

Qatar hosted its first F1 event in 2021 to fill a gap on the calendar, but it hosted its first officially scheduled race in 2023. Previously, the track had hosted MotoGP consistently since 2008 with minimal issues.


MotoGP at Lusail Circuit; Credit - motorsportguides.com

One of the first problems that arose during the race weekend was high degree of tire wear that eventually culminated in there being an 18-lap limit on every tire compound. Pirelli blamed the ‘triangle-kerbs’ used at the track to enforce track limits, warning that extended use of the tires could result in sudden blowouts which was seen during the 2021 race.


The 57-lap race effectively became a guaranteed three-stop which, to some extent, resulted in a slightly more entertaining race where drivers were forced to drive on the limits to make the most of the tyres before stopping again.


What was not entertaining was multiple drivers suffering from heatstroke. The FIA had decided to host the race in October, when temperatures can still be blisteringly hot.


Unfortunately, this was no exception for that particular weekend since the drivers ended up racing in 40*C temperatures coupled with high humidity.


This saw drivers like Logan Sargeant retire from heatstroke as well as Esteban Ocon throwing up in his helmet on lap 15 and Lance Stroll complaining of nearly blacking out several times.


This is what led to one of the biggest controversies of the season, with many arguing that the race should never have taken place.


Why would the FIA schedule a race for October in a country that is only a stone's throw away from other Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain or Abu Dhabi which are hosted in the very early and late in the season because it would be too hot otherwise.

What did they think would be different about Qatar? 


As much as we love it or hate it, money makes the world go around. The Middle East is one of the most affluent areas in the world and as long as they can provide sponsorship money to the teams, the FIA and Liberty Media then they’ll still be involved in F1, much like the United States.


Sure, these races have been controversial in the past but on some level most races are likely to be controversial, as they all create unnecessary pollution and they often have an effect on the local area, often for the worse yet they continue for our entertainment. We should not exclude races in one region of the world for things every other country is guilty of. 



Commentaires


bottom of page