Friday impressions of the Saudi Arabia circuit

Formula 1’s inaugural visit to Saudi Arabia has officially concluded its first day of the weekend with Friday’s FP1 and FP2 sessions completed around the spectacularly fast Jeddah Corniche Circuit.

The high-speed, walled circuit of 27 corners sees an average lap speed of around 157 mph, the second highest on the Formula 1 calendar to the ‘Temple of Speed’ Monza.

Even though many of the corners in Jeddah aren’t ‘noticed’ by a contemporary high-downforce Formula 1 car, the majority of the corners that do catch the driver’s and car’s attention are incredibly high speed in nature and in the majority utterly flat out.

The intensity of the track from the driver’s point of view was expected before the F1 circus arrived this week, as simulations and even the official F1 2021 game displayed the circuit’s truly unique characteristics and extremely challenging nature. Onboards and off-board camera angles go some way to showing off how incredible the drivers feel the circuit will be to drive in Qualifying trim.

Unfortunately the abundance of incredibly high speed, blind curves has caused many a pundit and fan to call the safety of the track into question.

The chicane of concern?

The drivers sit so low in the car they can not see past or over the concrete walls on the inside of turns such as Turn 6, 7, 8, 22 and 27.

Turn 22, which leads immediately into Turn 23, has already hosted a plethora of near misses between slow moving traffic and cars on a push lap, alongside two sizeable accidents in F1 and F2.

As George Russell noted on Friday, the inside barrier of the left-hand T22 creates a blind high-speed chicane which happens to lead straight into a narrow section of track underneath the cantilevered building above the middle of the venue.

On the outside of T22 and subsequently the inside of T23 is a tecpro barrier with a curved concrete element at the end entirely perpendicular to the direction of travel – in other words, the wall is right in the firing line if anyone goes even slightly wide of the exit kerb, takes avoiding action of a slow car or loses the rear in T22. You can not not have a small accident there, as Charles Leclerc showed in the session-curtaliling crash at the end of FP2.

Leclerc carried too much speed in and the rear of the car simply couldn’t live with it. The car impacted the safer tecpro barrier right-rear corner first, with Leclerc thankfully getting out of the car unaided.

Leclerc’s incident was frightening to see, but perhaps reassuring that the tecpro barrier deformed in the correct way and allowed the car to dissipate its energy less suddenly

The corner’s position towards the end of the lap also increases the chances of meeting a slow moving car in Qualifying – FP2 saw several instances of backing up between T23 and T27 with high closing speeds within the narrow confines of the track.

From my perspective, the blind nature of this section and several other places, particularly in the first sector, could be removed by pushing the inside wall back a small amount. As long as a raised kerb and grass was installed in its place, the unnecessary danger element would be lessened but the thrill of the circuit still maintained.

The barrier Leclerc found in FP2 though can not be realistically changed because of the building directly behind it.

A surprising track surface

The track surface is a lot higher grip than I expected, particularly in such a hastily prepared brand new facility. Using the 2020 Turkish Grand Prix as a case study, the return to Istanbul Park saw the low-grip newly-laid tarmac surface dominate proceedings in which rain made the grip levels practically non-existent.

A street circuit will usually be slippery – take Monaco whereby the track is cleaned every morning of the race weekend because of the fluids, debris and dust that appear overnight on the bustling Monte Carlo streets – and the fact the Jeddah Corniche track is in the Arabian desert means the the additional problem of sand has to be factored in.

However the FIA did a good job of cleaning up the track surface prior to FP1 and the car’s quickly displaced the thin layer of sand from the racing line. The Porsche Supercup series and Formula 2 also played their part in clearing the track surface of dust and debris.

The Jeddah circuit is situated in less of a sprawling, busy location than Monaco’s.

A high-speed pit entry adds another dimension to Sunday’s race

Overall the circuit is very high in grip and so the minimum apex speeds follow that trend. As a side note, this reduces the projected effectiveness and size of the runoff areas if cars are arriving quicker into certain corners. The three DRS zones also add to the high entry speeds into Turns 1, 22 and 27.

Drivers likened the circuit to Baku, Singapore, Suzuka, Silverstone and even the infamous F3 street circuit in Macau. Elements of all these circuits are present in Jeddah , including a Baku-esque pit lane entry chicane which is to be taken as fast as possible before standing on the brakes to reach the pit limiter.

Suzuka with walls is probably the most accurate description of the sensation the drivers are experiencing through the lap though.

“It’s unbelievably quick,” says Lewis Hamilton.

“It’s insanely fast and once you get into the rhythm it’s a beautiful track.”

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