Formula 1’s new era appears set to open with two events in the Middle East in 2022, with Bahrain looking likely to be followed by neighbor and close ally Saudi Arabia.
Australia has been Formula 1’s favored season-opener since Melbourne’s Albert Park circuit joined the calendar in 1996, but its Grand Prix was canceled in 2020 as the pandemic worsened. Australia was again installed as 2021’s season-opener before the event was first postponed until November and later canceled for a second year due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.
Officials in Australia have previously outlined that they are unlikely to pursue a return to opening the championship in 2022 and prefer an April date at the earliest.
Bahrain, which opened Formula 1 seasons in 2006 and 2010, consequently became the first round of the 2021 season in late March. A three-week gap then followed to round two at Imola, Italy. It is now widely expected that Formula 1’s 2022 campaign, in which the cars will be designed to overhauled technical regulations, will debut in Bahrain in March and potentially be followed by a race in Saudi Arabia a week later.
The island nation of Bahrain, located in the Persian Gulf, is connected to Saudi Arabia via the King Fahd Causeway, and they are political allies in the region. Saudi Arabia will join Formula 1’s calendar for the first time later in 2021, with a race set to take place around the corniche of its second city, Jeddah. Tickets for the event went on sale this week.
The venue is still under construction, ahead of its scheduled first F1 race on December 5, as the penultimate Grand Prix of a 23-race campaign, to be followed by Abu Dhabi, on December 12.
But for 2022, a shift to a date earlier in the season is favored by event organizers, who have signed a lucrative 10-year deal with Formula 1.
“For us as a promoter we prefer to not be in the last races because teams can do really well in the first races and then the other races don’t become so interesting,” said Prince Khalid Bin Sultan Al Faisal, the promoter of the Saudi Arabian event, during a media call on Monday. “We wanted to have a race at the beginning (of the season), but the time that we had to do the work and prepare the track we couldn’t have a race in 2021 in the beginning of the year.
“So the question was, do we have a race at the end of 2021 or have an early race in 2022? And our decision was we wanted a race in 2021. We are now discussing with Formula 1 what is best for us and where to have our race in 2022.”
Jeddah will host Saudi Arabia’s Grand Prix in 2021 and 2022, but from 2023 Saudi Arabia’s race is poised to move to a circuit located at an entertainment, sports and arts hub currently under construction outside of capital Riyadh, known as Qiddiya.
That could be one of two new circuits come 2023, with Russia’s Grand Prix to move from Sochi Autodrom to Igora Drive, close to St. Petersburg. The U.S.’s second Grand Prix, at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, will debut in Q2 of 2022.
“There’s a lot of things that are being built there and designed and the race track is in the middle of Qiddiya,” Prince Khalid added. “The things that I’ve heard is that the track will be ready in 2023, but I’m not sure if the other projects around the track will be ready. This is a decision that we need to make with Formula 1 and our country when is the best time to move the race from Jeddah to Qiddiya, but according to the information I have the track will be ready in 2023.”
While Formula 1’s 2022 schedule begins to take shape there remain doubts over some events in 2021. Australia’s cancelation means there is a lengthy gap between the uncertain Sao Paulo Grand Prix on November 7 and the inaugural Saudi Arabia round on December 5.
Qatar’s Losail International Circuit has been rumored as a potential inclusion; the venue has hosted MotoGP since 2004 but has never yet welcomed Formula 1. Qatar and Saudi Arabia severed political ties in 2017, with borders between the countries closed, but relations were re-established at the start of 2021. There would be no issues, on Saudi Arabia’s side, if Qatar joined as a fourth Middle East round.
“We know we are the biggest economy in the Middle East, we have the highest population, so we have no concerns of a fourth race,” said Prince Khalid. “We welcome Qatar if it is true. I’m sure Qatar can deliver and host a race without any issues, they’ll be hosting the World Cup next year. For us anything that benefits the region is good for us.”
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