The Saudi Arabian Grand Prix was a controversial addition to the Formula 1 calendar for reasons other than the circuit’s layout.Jeddah Corniche Circuit, it became clear some had concerns over its configuration. Before the race began Sergio Perez called it “very dangerous” and predicted a “big shunt”.
His prophesy came true on Sunday – for himself and others, and not just those in F1. In its effort to create a fast, exciting, challenging layout, had the sport flirted with danger a little too much?
The Jeddah promoter’s moniker of ‘world’s fastest street circuit’ was not just an attractive marketing gimmick – it reflected the unique nature of the circuit’s layout. Whereas typical street circuits including Baku, Monaco and Singapore – as well as those raced in series such as IndyCar and Formula E – weave around city streets, past high-rise buildings and under bridges, Jeddah’s layout was crafted from an entirely blank slate.
Such freedom allowed designers, Tilke Architects, to craft a stretch of asphalt that featured 27 numbered corners as well as average qualifying lap speeds north of 250kph – faster than Silverstone. But unlike a traditional circuit, Jeddah was hemmed in by barriers which drivers were rarely more than a handful of metres away from at any point along its six kilometre length.
Several of them, including Perez, pointed out the strangeness of the decision to place the barriers by choice rather than out of necessity. This was one aspect of the track’s layout drivers indicated they would like to see changed.
Crashes and near-misses
The three days of track action over the race weekend was the first chance to see how the highly anticipated new circuit would look with real drivers in real cars, as opposed to simulations and hypothetical scenarios. As it turned out, an uncomfortable number of heavy accidents did indeed occur over the weekend, with both the grand prix and Formula 2’s three rounds disrupted by multiple red flag stoppages and Safety Car periods.
Formula 1’s most severe accident involved Charles Leclerc, Sergio Perez, George Russell and Nikita Mazepin at the second restart, which saw the latter three retire from the race, but thankfully walk away relatively unscathed. A serious accident at the start of the F2 feature race between Theo Pourchaire and Enzo Fittipaldi led to both drivers being taken to hospital with Fittipaldi suffering a broken heel in the crash.
The 220kph left-hand kink of turn 22 proved the most treacherous section of the circuit over the three days. Leclerc and Mick Schumacher both suffered near-identical crashes into the barriers after losing control of their cars on entry, while F2 drivers Pourchaire and Logan Sargeant both shunted in similar fashion at the corner. The F2 feature race was red-flagged for a second time and abandoned after Olli Caldwell and Guilherme Samaia collided in the corner, although thankfully neither driver experienced particularly heavy impacts.
A series of near-misses also became a major talking point of the weekend. Heavy traffic in practice and qualifying sessions for both series led to alarming scenes of drivers on hot laps flashing past rivals circulating at much lower speeds who were either cruising back to the pits or looking to build space ahead of starting flying laps of their own. Mazepin had to take sudden avoiding action in third practice after rounding turns seven and eight at speed, only to find Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes crawling along the apex when he arrived.
Drivers were near-universal in their praise of the circuit in terms of how exciting it was to drive. But many expressed concerns that they unsighted too often, at high speeds in corners. “I think the first sector, where Mazepin and Hamilton [happened], that’s a bit sketchy,” said McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo.
“It’s a bit of a recipe for disaster,” agreed George Russell. “I think there are some things they need to modify to make these kinks just straights. It is so blind and we have already seen too many incidents waiting to happen.“
Sebastian Vettel perhaps offered the most illuminating view of how drivers saw the track, likening it to ‘Suzuka, but with barriers’.
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Through their extensive regulation – of track configurations, run-off areas, barrier designs, minimum track widths, the quality of facilities and many more elements – the FIA deemed the Jeddah track is safe enough to host the world championship and its junior categories. It was officially granted its FIA grade one certification on the day before practice began.
Despite the extremely compressed time frame within which it was constructed, FIA F1 race director Michael Masi always made it clear no compromises on the safety of its design and construction would occur.
The sport’s commercial rights holder, FOM, which signed a lucrative multi-year deal with promoters Saudi Motorsport Group, professed themselves happy with the track after the grand prix. “A fabulous first event, a fabulous track and a brilliant race,” hailed F1 motorsport director Ross Brawn.
“There were one or two rough edges that will be sorted out for the next race in March 2022,” he added. “Inputs from all stakeholders will be considered and the track and venue will be honed for this next event.”
Although the drivers made some criticisms of the track, they also had good things to say about it. While street circuits and tracks with freshly-laid asphalt tend to offer notoriously low grip levels, drivers were pleasantly surprised with how much purchase the virgin surface offered them from the opening sessions of the weekend. This likely contributed to how relatively infrequently drivers crashed of their own accord. There were single-car crashes, but no more than you might typically see at Monaco, Singapore or Baku.
The crash at the start of the Formula 2 feature race was ugly. No doubt the FIA will study it as painstakingly as they do all serious incidents. But it occured on the pit straight at the start of the race, and similar accidents have happened at other venues. The crash happened when a car near the front of the grid stalled and was hit by one which started near the back: An omnipresent risk in any form of motorsport that includes standing starts.
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The visibility problem
Throughout the weekend, the most obvious hazard facing the drivers was less the circuit itself and more their fellow competitors who were out on it.
The scenes of drivers hurtling past cars that were crawling along off the racing line on the exit of many of the circuit’s quick corners led to race control warning drivers not to slow down unnecessarily between the exit of turn 22 and the long left hand corner-cum-straight of turn 25. Yet, by the time the first qualifying session began, the directive appeared to simply encourage drivers to slow down just before the final corner of turn 27 instead, which led to major traffic jams in Q1.
Mazepin’s near-miss with Hamilton in third practice was undoubtedly frightening, but it was also due in large part to Mercedes failing to give their driver enough of a warning that the Haas was approaching on a fast lap. With only a slim pair of mirrors to guide them, drivers are heavily reliant on information from their engineers to know if drivers are approaching behind them and how rapidly they are approaching, so they can best gauge how they can safely clear out of the way.
This problem is by no means unique to Jeddah. Despite real-time global positioning data being available and drivers contactable through radio at all times, it nonetheless happens with some regularity, and similar incidents have happened at other circuits this year.
The stewards themselves noted the unique challenges posed by Jeddah’s layout, stating that “it is essential that teams communicate effectively and proactively with their drivers,” due to the “nature of this circuit”.
So-called ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ that are supposed to ensure drivers self-regulate ahead of qualifying laps have demonstrably failed to do so on previous occasions this season – most particularly in Bahrain and Austria. As a question of safety across all circuits, maybe it is time for more formal arrangements between competitors to help avoid these kinds of avoidable scrums.
Controlling the racing
The Jeddah track’s high speeds and close confines presented race control with some difficult decisions.
All form of circuit racing rely on the vigilance of race direction to act in the interests of safety in a decisive and rapid manner. While those who make up race control are only human and subject to inconsistencies and mistakes just as any other panel where real people are making the calls, a particular emphasis must be placed on acting in the interests of safety.
Before the race Lando Norris’ expressed uncertainty over whether Jeddah pushed the boundaries of safe track design too far. Asked whether he was sure the track was safe enough he replied: “I don’t know – you’d say yes but something could suddenly happen and everyone’s going to be like ‘I told you so’. It’s tricky.
“If there’s going to be a crash here realistically it’s going to be a big crash especially if it’s in the faster sector of sector one or the chicane where Charles crashed. I don’t know where the line is between having a street circuit and not much run-off and then having a normal circuit. I’m not sure where the line is. For now it’s okay but something could happen and I could be wrong.”
Those fears did not materialise during the F1 race. But the fact two crashes occured which were sufficient to cause red flags should give pause for thought.
One of those, which eliminated three cars, happened after a standing restart. Race starts are always the most dangerous phase of grands prix and drivers had to contend with not one standing start, but three on Sunday. With the field bunched up far more during standing starts than rolling starts, this contributed to the contact between Perez and Leclerc at the second restart that resulted in the biggest crash of the weekend and another race stoppage.
While the standing start format for restarts is consistent with race control’s approach to restarts after red flags throughout the rest of the season, there’s an argument to be made that this method of restarting races – the decision of which is entirely at the race director’s discretion – could be used more selectively, taking into account how much room to manoeuvre is available to drivers should a melee ensue. It is at the race director’s discretion whether to use a standing or rolling restart.
Later in Sunday’s race, a significant piece of debris from one car lay off the racing line for over a minute before a Virtual Safety Car was called to allow its recovery. On a circuit as narrow as Jeddah, any debris left out on the circuit for any amount of time significantly increases the risk of accidents. A Fernando Alonso made his dissatisfaction clear over the radio: “The circuit is in the worst condition of the weekend, we’ve had 100 red flags and now we’re racing at 300kph with the circuit like this.”
F1’s swift return
Clearly, the race left drivers with the impression there is room for improvement in how races can be held safely in Jeddah. But they also had a lot of positive things to say about the challenge the circuit presented.
Masi left Saudi Arabia with the view that only minor changes were needed to the track. “There’s is some fine-tuning that will happen across the board,” said the race director.
“There’s some teething issues, being a brand-new event, brand-new facility on the whole. There’ll be some fine-tuning but nothing in a major way that I can envisage here and now.”
It’s clear several drivers have strong views what that “fine-tuning” should involve, particularly when it comes to the sight lines around Jeddah’s many fast corners. With its next F1 race just over three months away, they will no doubt take a keen interest in which areas are addressed.
2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix
- Analysis: Is Jeddah circuit’s layout fit for F1 or a “recipe for disaster”?
- Hamilton closes on another Schumacher record with first ‘hat-trick’ of 2021
- How Hamilton and Verstappen’s roughest scrap yet played out on the radio
- Brawn defends Masi following criticism of Saudi Arabian GP decisions
- F1 drivers want safety changes to Jeddah’s “Suzuka with walls” layout
37 comments on “Analysis: Is Jeddah circuit’s layout fit for F1 or a “recipe for disaster”?”
8th December 2021, 8:47
Drivers seemed to enjoy driving the track but racing is a whole other business, since there are others competing for same space…
I think it is a a recipe for disaster…
8th December 2021, 8:50
It made the race horrible, i almost shut of and walked away with the second red flag. But with the money involved they wont stop race there until someone gets seriously hurt, which will happen sooner or later.
8th December 2021, 9:00
It is not a track made for TV. It is difficult to follow cars with so many blind corners.
8th December 2021, 16:48
Agreed – I felt I was watching a MarioCart video or at best, Formula E.
10th December 2021, 6:10
Particularly with all the close shots under high zoom. They should’ve used wide lenses everywhere, it felt very claustrophobic.
8th December 2021, 9:10
Hopefully, not a recipe for disaster, but time will tell.
I hope next season’s event (which is only less than four months away) is more straightforward overall.
Tony Mansell (@tonymansell)
8th December 2021, 9:39
We complain about sanitised tracks dont we?. Yes this one looks a bit scary and no one wants to see anyone get hurt. but surely we want jeopardy, and some sand traps to stop this Max/Lewis thing
8th December 2021, 9:57
If the FIA are happy to accept the Jeddah track as safe, then I want them to go back to all the classic corners that have been ruined over the last decade by acres of tarmac run-off and put the gravel traps back. They cannot have it both ways!!
This track is a tragedy waiting to happen with the walls being so close and the fact thats its blind corner leading to blind corner.
8th December 2021, 10:23
I have often thought, why don’t they design a track with an internal loop, so that in situations like this where they a) have a blank piece of paper, b) know that congestion and speed differential is going to be a problem, drivers can exit soon after the lap finishes and then just loop back round to the start of the pits again, bypassing the rest of the lap!
Obviously this wouldn’t be practical in all situations (Monaco for example), and a TD or rule amendment would be necessary but somewhere like this would be ideal
8th December 2021, 12:07
@unklegsif This is interesting, (I think I’ve understood you correctly, apologies if not), this would be a Qualifying / Practice deal thing? Rules might get complicated, it might create more unforeseen issues (F1 speciality), like do teams have to use it? I think cool down laps still serve several purposes, and teams may not want to get to the box as quickly as possible.
It could help with things like getting lapped cars to the back of the pack after red flags, how to construct it and still have a functioning paddock could be an issue. But it’s certainly not the daftest idea I’ve heard. With such a fast blind circuit, taking slow down laps out of the equation would certainly be a good thing and make engineers life easier (imagine if you had a comms breakdown, I don’t how drivers could navigate that track without ending up in a dangerous place not knowing whats coming behind them).
Doesn’t solve the racing thing though, what happened with Perez in the race I’m surprised didn’t happened more often, it’s incredibly difficult for drivers to know their surroundings in what is essentially a tunnel. I know Formula E run between walls all the time, but it’s much lower speeds, and they make contact all the time.
8th December 2021, 12:13
@bernasaurus Agreed, it shouldn’t be a direct loop straight to the pits, because you need some time to cool the car after a qualy lap. But maybe there are some possibilities in layout to cut corners and get out of the way.
8th December 2021, 12:11
@unklegsif It is a really interesting idea. Of course it would require building an extra part of the track that will hardly ever be used, but maybe there are (street?)tracks where this is already possible.
8th December 2021, 12:50
@unklegsif There is even simpler solution existing: have a separate finish line and start line. IndyCar does this. In qualifying finish line is usually located right before the pit entry, so drivers can go straight away to pits without a need to do a cool-down lap.
8th December 2021, 18:54
Yep blame the track, not the drivers who CHOOSE to drive at 50mph on a 200mph blind corner
8th December 2021, 10:37
Just repeating what I have previously posted. The Jeddah circuit is unfit for F1. In going for a design to improve the spectacle, they have produced a circuit that would have raised safety questions in 1970, let alone 2021.
8th December 2021, 10:51
I worry some driver will get airborne at 300kmh an hour and rip their car apart in the catch fencing, ala some of the deadliest Indycar crashes. I wonder if Hamilton thought the same when he saw Verstappen slowing on a sweeping bend, so was more cautious, especially after how Verstappen has been driving lately.
8th December 2021, 11:06
That coming together arose from tactical driving, on both their parts, and associated with getting DRS on the coming straight. A function of this stupid circuit design in large part.
8th December 2021, 16:32
As well as an inherent ‘feature’ of stupid DRS.
8th December 2021, 10:58
This circuit is unfit for any kind of racing. Way too dangerous with so limited visibility.
It puts me in mind of a roundabout I drive often. A very large affair, it used to have wide open entry roads the busiest of which encouraged an adventurous approach to the fast moving traffic on the island, blending at speed so to speak. I’m guessing it must have caused some accidents because chevron barriers were installed such that traffic approaching had zero view of what was coming around the island making it Russian Roulette, an almost guaranteed accident were a driver to try. Enough saw the sense in slowing to almost a halt to prevent even the most lunatic from indulging. Imagine if there was some kind of bizarre game that forced drivers to make this junction at speed every time? That’s a worrying proportion of the Jeddah track in a nutshell.
8th December 2021, 11:09
Massive accident guaranteed, it’s only a matter of time.
8th December 2021, 11:15
Thanks you @willwood for a solid, nuanced article about this topic, it certainly made me put aside my ‘I think someone at FIA gave in to wish for spectacle over safety’ opinion while reading, trying to follow along with the points you made.
In the end I do hope that those tweaks involve some opening of sight lines to help that issue (though I do foresee renewed track-limit worries then ;), and still think that creating a ‘street’ track from scratch on a car park/open area is a bit strange; I personally like the sort of thing the Formula-E Berlin track did a lot better. Yes, different series, much smaller track and speed, but even so, it is a real track.
If one isn’t constrained by the surroundings in building a track, this layout from a driving perspective isn’t bad but really do think the form over function prevailed, and it shows in the lack of thought for safety, only being saved there by the pretty stringent FIA rules for tracks that are in place.
8th December 2021, 11:24
I like the circuit but a lot of it doesn’t need concrete walls, from turn 1 – turn 12 they can remove the walls and add run offs and barriers just like the last sector of Valencia or Russia.
8th December 2021, 12:14
While I absolutely agree with the article it is worth to note that for the Pourchaire / Fittipaldi F2 crash it has nothing to do with the circuit’s characteristics. Pourchaire stalled on the grid and Fittipaldi rear-ended the car, it could have happened anywhere else actually.
8th December 2021, 19:25
I think the concrete walls right up against the track lining the start didn’t help. They left nowhere to go.
10th December 2021, 7:50
The crash had little to do with space on the outside of the track. One car stalled at the start. Other cars were going around it, but kicked up a lot of dust, so visibility got bad . Eventually the other car rear-ended the first car, but I’m sure the driver behind couldn’t see the stationary car in front.
8th December 2021, 13:48
I believe this circuit has potential, but certainly some adjustments are required.
Back in the day (duuuuring the war… LOL) when a new Grand Prix was to be added to the F1 calendar, the circuit would have already run some touring and GT races. Then a “dressed rehearsal” would be inaugurated, either as a non-championship F1 race or F5000 or some such. During this time all the kinks be it procedural or design flaws with the track layout would be addressed and only then would a World Championship GP race be approved.
When a circuit is finished mere days before the race start is scheduled and only passes homologation as the teams are already unpacking and putting their cars together (as if it would ever be failed at that stage with this much money at stake) you are asking for trouble. And trouble is what you’ll get.
8th December 2021, 14:01
Everyone agrees the circuit is problematic. But this is a brand new circuit and event, and thus raises questions about the basic values and governance of the sport. Why is this race here at all? Is KSA a major market for the F1 team brands and sponsors? Does it fulfill a strategy of regional growth to expand the footprint of the sport?
We just saw incredible events put on at Zandvoort, Austin, Mexico City, Brazil with hundreds of thousands of fans, a photogenic backdrop, all the atmosphere you want, in significant commercial markets. We looked at all of that and said, why don’t we make a new track in a no-place no one cares about, where no fans are going to turn up, and we’ll just accept whatever the promotors cobble together at the last moment. It doesn’t make any sense at all. Yes you can say it’s about money. But developing the brand and scale of the sport has much more long term financial importance than collecting a dollop of sovereign wealth on a single day.
8th December 2021, 19:20
8th December 2021, 21:09
Agreed. Strangest to me with Jeddah is why on earth you would build a “street track” when you didn’t have any streets to begin with? It’s a purpose-built race track facility, specifically for F1, trying so hard to be unique that it forgot completely what really matters.
8th December 2021, 17:28
Obviously unnecessarily dangerous I can only assume they insisted on something spectacular to make up for the awful overall setting, I know I’m an old foggy but the setting of a Grand Prix circuit has for me added to the enjoyment, having been lucky enough to be at a few European GPS . We consider ourselves lucky the Valencia race failed, having been there I would say more than lucky, but this place looks juslike a very expensive Scalextric track with fencing. I suppose without the fencing it would be more like a very large go cart venue.
8th December 2021, 18:53
I’d like to see a DTM race here tho.
8th December 2021, 19:19
One weekend. Two drivers in hospital, two red flags in the F1 race. Isn’t that a warning? The most dangerous track seen for years taking F1 back decades and raced at night just to make the whole thing even more terrifying. I actually sighed with relief when the thing ended, can we never go back to the hateful place again.
8th December 2021, 19:37
One of the BEST F1 TRACKS right now. Should be kept and protected.
It’s the anti-thesis of a Tilkedrome, it couldn’t be any better.
Formula 1 best tracks right now:
Tier 1 – awesome:
Interlagos, Jeddah, Albert Park, Imola, Montreal, Baku, Monza, Suzuka, Spa-Francorchamps, Zandvoort
Tier 2 – good:
Silverstone, Red Bull, Sochi, Monaco
Tyre 3 – garbage:
Paul Ricard, Hungaroring, Catalunya, Singapore, CotA, Mexico, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi
8th December 2021, 20:00
Take away the atmosphere, the history and the glamour and look just at the track: Monaco is the worst of all by far. Racing is nigh impossible there.
8th December 2021, 21:02
Wow, taste is different for everyone I guess. For example, I love the layout of CotA, it has a bit of everything in a great combination that requires interesting compromises setting the cars up and can produce both close racing and a bunch of overtaking opportunities. There isn’t one definitely fastest way of racing there, which makes it interesting. It has been let down lately by the bumps that developed over time, but in terms of track design it’s one of the best modern tracks in my eyes. Hungaroring is also fine to me, not great and a bit narrow but certainly not among the worst. It’s one of few twisty maximum downforce tracks and having that variety is what makes the full calendar interesting.
Bad tracks to me are generally the ones with no elevation changes, being completely flat there is only so much you can do with varying the radius of the corners.
8th December 2021, 20:07
Didn’t the race and Verstappen antics show that it was a recipe for disater?
some racing fan
9th December 2021, 6:51
This track is fantastic, but it would be even better if it was a permanent circuit with more run off. As it stands, as good as the track is it is a recipe for disaster. Those walls are just too close.
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