F1 is all set for a new venue come 2021 season and while it may seem like an unlikely spot, it could help Saudi Arabia boost its tourism and bring in motorsports' fans from around the world come November of the next year.
This after the country on Friday announced that the Red Sea city of Jiddah will be home to the F1 race, the latest in the region to become home to the marquee and prestigious event of competitive racing. Manama, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi are the other locations in West Asia where F1 has already found homes.
And expect Saudi Arabia to roll out the red carpet, and black tarmac, with the superstars of F1 all set to join A-list celebrities as well as the country's royal family here once the race comes calling. "Motorsports for us is very important. We would like to host these events as long as we can because our local people here in Saudi Arabia like to attend these events and be entertained and meet people from all around the world," Prince Khalid bin Sultan al-Faisal, chairman of the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation, told AP in an interview.
There is no confirmation yet about the duration of the contract but it is expected to bring in a whole lot of revenue in a country that is now looking at a future which has lesser emphasis on its most prized possession - oil.
It is not like motorsports racing has been absent from the country. On the contrary, race events involving a variety of cars is common and, apart from football, racing is keenly followed by the Saudi Arabia's citizens.
There are, however, two concerns which have already begun to be voiced by fans. One is the weather. Temperatures in the city of Jiddah in November are around 30C and track temperatures may be significantly higher than that. This could be a cause of concerns for F1 engineers and drivers as they put their machines to the absolute limit.
The second, perhaps far more significant, is Saudi Arabia's rather dubious track record when it comes to human rights. In the past, several high-profile sportspersons have opted out of making an appearance here citing this reason. Now, some F1 fans have already started questioning why F1 would want to associate itself with a country that is 'infamous' on this front. In his interview to AP, however, Prince Khalid sought to calm down such concerns. "If we wanted to cover anything up, we wouldn't open up our country so people can come and see our country and meet our people and talk freely with them," he said. "Maybe we do some things differently than others in the world, but for us we are improving, we are opening up, we have nothing to hide so there's nothing to wash."
After all is said and done though, F1 in Saudi Arabia could indeed bring about a fresh change in a race calendar that has, at least in 2020, suffered heavily owing to the Covid-19 outbreak. And no, there's won't be any champagne for the winners at Jiddah because alchol is strictly outlawed.