An oil depot run by Saudi Aramco in Jeddah went up in flames on Friday, merely 10 miles from the circuit that will hold this weekend’s Formula 1 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. Houthi rebels have claimed responsibility for the attack, the Associated Press reports, which sent smoke billowing during the weekend’s first practice session.
The damage is suspected to have been caused by a missile strike on the plant, merely the latest in a series of attacks on similar facilities in the country in recent weeks. While the North Jeddah depot was struck, Reuters reports that the Ras Tanura and Rabigh refineries on the opposite side of Saudi Arabia, to the east, were hit with drones.
F1 continued its practice activity as the fire raged in the distance around 5:40 p.m. local time (10:40 a.m. ET). Free Practice 2, which was scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. local, also continued with only a short 15 minute delay past the planned start. Prior to that delay, F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali reportedly informed the teams and drivers of how the sport planned to deal with the events, per Motorsport.com:
All the current drivers, plus team principals, were updated on the latest information regarding the attack and what F1 was planning to do in response.
With the meeting running near the start of practice, it was announced before the scheduled 8pm start time that it would be delayed to allow drivers suitable preparation time for running. The delay ran for 15 minutes.
F1 is expected to issue a formal statement later detailing its plan of action in response to the events.
Initially F1's official line to media was that it was “waiting for further information from the authorities on what has happened.” Haas team principal Guenther Steiner told Austrian TV that the government assured F1 that “it is safe to drive here.
“After practice, we’ll have another meeting, Steiner was quoted. “Personally, I feel absolutely safe. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here.”
Earlier on Friday Lewis Hamilton told journalists that he’s still uncomfortable racing in Saudi Arabia. Hamilton said he’d recently received a letter from the family of Abdullah al-Howaiti, a prisoner arrested in 2017 at the age of 14. Al-Howaiti, now 17, had been sentenced to death. Saudi Arabia executed 81 people on March 12, reportedly the country’s largest mass execution in its modern history. Hamilton’s words, courtesy of ESPN:
“I don’t really know what to say. My position is still the same as when I spoke here last year,” Hamilton said when asked his feelings on the race.
“There’s not really a lot that I can say that’s going to make much of a difference. It’s obviously mind-blowing to hear the stories... I’ve heard that there’s a letter sent to me from a 14-year-old that’s on death row... When you are 14 you don’t know what the hell you are doing in life, so it’s...
“But we don’t decide where we go. I think we are duty-bound to try while we are here [to raise awareness], it’s not necessarily our responsibility when we are brought here, but we try and do what we can.
It’s reported that F1 will hold another internal meeting following the end of Friday’s second practice. Hopefully, it will also expand on its current statement at that time. We’ll update this story when more information becomes available.
Update March 25, 2022, 4:21 p.m. ET: Formula 1 confirmed after track activity concluded Friday that it has no plans to change the weekend schedule, but the promoter, Saudi Motorsport Company, said “security [has] been raised” in light of the attack. The sport’s statement, via ESPN:
“Formula One has been in close contact with the relevant authorities following the situation that took place today.
“The authorities have confirmed that the event can continue as planned and we will remain in close contact with them and all the teams and closely monitor the situation.”
The promoter of the race, the Saudi Motorsport Company (SMC), confirmed the attack and said security had been raised to match the threat posed by the events.
“We are aware of the attack on the Aramco distribution station in Jeddah earlier this afternoon,” the SMC statement said. “The race organisers remain in direct contact with the Saudi security authorities, as well as F1 and the FIA to ensure all necessary security and safety measures continue to be implemented to guarantee the safety of all visitors to the Formula One stc Saudi Arabian Grand Prix as well as all drivers, teams and stakeholders.
“The race weekend schedule will continue as planned. The safety and security of all our guests continues to be our main priority and we look forward to welcoming fans for a weekend of premium racing and entertainment.”