Major accidents throughout the entirety of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix weekend has led to calls from several F1 drivers for the Jeddah Corniche circuit to have elements of it re-thought in time for its next Grand Prix.
Extremely high speed in nature, the brand new Jeddah circuit is one for the brave and only the bravest will extract the maximum. To get the most from your lap time in qualifying, and your pace in the race, you have to drive right on the limit of adhesion, with concrete walls staring aggressively back at you.
In comparison to the average F1 track, there are a lot more places around the Jeddah circuit where a small step over the limit can have potentially horrific consequences – not just for one driver, but other innocent parties.
Admittedly one or two of the more major incidents we saw across the weekend were less attributable to the Hermann Tilke-designed circuit, more to circumstances which can arise at most other tracks.
Take the terrifying accident at the start of the heavily delayed Formula 2 feature race involving Theo Pourchaire and Enzo Fittipaldi. ART driver Pourchaire stalled as the lights went out, leading to an unsighted Fittipaldi slamming into the back of Pourchaire and coming to a frighteningly quick stop.
The closing speed between the two cars was seriously high as Pourchaire was stuck in P3 and Fittipaldi had set off from P17.
Both drivers were conscious and extricated from the cars before being transferred to the King Fahad Armed Forced hospital in Jeddah. They have since posted on social media that they are OK, but Fittipaldi is suffering from a fractured heel and several cuts and bruises.
This particular incident is of course less of a fault of the circuit, more the ever-problematic F2 clutch systems.
On Friday in Formula 1’s second practice session, Charles Leclerc lost the rear of his Ferrari into Turn 22 and impacted the tecpro barriers with the rear-right corner. The fact Leclerc was unharmed can only be a positive on the safety of that particular run-off and barrier combination.
Nevertheless that corner is still frighteningly fast and would go on to claim another victim in an identical accident for the Haas of Mick Schumacher on Lap 10.
An early critic of the track, Red Bull’s Sergio Perez, would get caught up in a melee in the narrowest part of the circuit.
“I’m just very happy nothing big happened. I think safety has to take priority.”
The eventual red flag to allow repair trucks to tend to the barrier Schumacher impacted led to the first restart of the race from a standing start. Soon after lights out, Perez and Leclerc tangled through Turn 3, rotating Perez 270 degrees and instigating a huge domino effect for the drivers behind unable to squeeze past.
Russell took what he thought was the cautious option and slowed to pick his way through the carnage, but Nikita Mazepin was left with nowhere to go and slammed into the back of the Williams.
“It seemed pretty inevitable. You go around Turn 2 that’s fairly wide and open, cars can go side by side, and then it really funnels in and goes pretty narrow pretty fast,” says Grand Prix Drivers’ Association Director George Russell, who replaced Romain Grosjean at the start of the year
“I came around a blind corner, cars were everywhere, I slowed down and then got completely hit from behind.”
Both Russell and Mazepin retired on the spot, meaning that only 15 laps into the race Haas have racked up a costly repair bill on both cars just to compete in one last race in their VF-21.
Had Perez been turned around coming out of the Turn 3-4 complex at Silverstone after a restart, those behind, like Russell, would have ample tarmac and grass runoff to get away from the incident and avoid having to slow so significantly. The cars behind would spread and likely get away scot free.
The blind nature of the Turn 3 kink in Jeddah meant Mazepin was clearly unsighted and the concrete walls not only led to the initial Perez and Leclerc squeeze but also meant Mazepin or Russell couldn’t take any form of avoiding action.
They are the factors of racing on street circuits though, however it’s the unnecessary risks in some areas which a number of the drivers are imploring F1 to reconsider – most of which stem from the blindness of several flat out curves – Turns 3, 8, 18, 19 and 20.
The latter kinks make up the ‘straight’ before Turn 22 and this is a key area the drivers believe is a big risk for no reward.
“Definitely a rethink is needed and if we do come back here next year, which I guess we are, I think there are some things that they need to modify to make these kinks just straights because it’s so blind,” stated George Russell.
“We’ve already seen too many incidents waiting to happen… They’ve got the resource to do it here, so there shouldn’t be any limitations, safety must come first.”
Will there be changes?
I’d like to think there’ll be changes made to the track, even if it’s not to the layout seen on a track map, but small changes to improve the line of sight around the fast kinks.
The circuit is effectively constructed on a blank sheet of paper, so having the concrete walls as the edge of the track at the apex wasn’t necessary. It’s normal on city street circuits (which tend to be slower in nature) because of obstacles like kerbs, pavements, trees and buildings.
In a lot of places here, the walls could be moved back and a kerb installed, to give better vision through the bend.
Unfortunately these changes are unlikely to happen. If it’s easy to move a few walls back by a few inches then that could potentially happen, but layout changes are very unlikely.
That is because the next time F1 visits is seemingly just over three months away, with the 2022 calendar set to include Saudi Arabia in late March as the second race of the season after Bahrain. Therefore the turnaround between now and then isn’t enormous.
However it could also be the very last time F1 actually visits the Jeddah Corniche circuit, as another brand new facility is planned for as early as 2023. The Qiddiya mega project which is set to involve the construction of a spectacular theme park, water park, festival site and 34 corner figure-of-eight race track will be the permanent home for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.
Jeddah is therefore a temporary camp for F1’s venture into Saudi Arabia, but going into the 2022 race with nothing but hope for a safe event would be the wrong thing to do.