It had taken months of planning, thousands upon thousands of man-hours to create, lasted three days, raced for 45 minutes and was decided by less than half a second.
Formula E’s debut race in Saudi Arabia, staged in the heart of a UNESCO World Heritage site, has been hailed a success, with drivers praising the track, motorsport fans being treated to a thrilling race made more interesting by unplanned rain, spectators packing the grandstands and tens of thousands enjoying an unprecedented offering of live music, entertainment and culture.
But, as the last day of sporting action wrapped up on the track in closed sessions, the closing of the 2018 ‘Saudia’ Ad Diriyah E Prix was not marked by the waving of the checkered flag for a single event, rather it represented the starting line of a much bigger race into the future for Saudi Arabia, of which this was just the first lap.
In a historic three days for the Kingdom, which saw emotional and inspiring scenes at Saudi’s first unsegregated concerts performed by international artists, it was perhaps fitting that the festival of racing’s final act again pushed the boundaries, not just for the country but also for the sport of Formula E.
The ‘Rookie Test’
An unprecedented number of women competed against male drivers in Formula E’s hotly contested ‘Rookie Test’ for up-and-coming drivers, staged at Ad Diriyah yesterday (Sunday, December 16).
They were not the first women to drive competitively in Saudi; that honour went to three drivers on Saturday who competed in the Jaguar I-PACE eTROPHY with Alice Powell taking the top spot on the podium in the PRO-AM category, beating local racers Ahmed Bin Khanen and Bandar Alesayi of Saudi Racing, who finished second and third.
But, the ‘Rookie Test,’ featuring nine female drivers on the starting grid to take part in the official in-season test for the forthcoming season of the FIA ABB Formula E Championship, marked a step-change for motor sport as well as Saudi Arabia.
The list consisted of a varied group of up-and-coming talent along with well-known faces, including the first Emirati female racing driver, the youngest winner of the British GT Championship, a former Andretti Formula E driver and a member of the FIA’s Women in Motorsport commission.
In the pit lane, the female drivers were ready to take on both the track, described as one of the toughest in Formula E, and the men. British 20-year-old Jamie Chadwick, testing for NIO Formula E, said she hoped we are entering a new era in which women prove themselves in the top open-wheel, single seater racing series.
Amna Al Qubaisi, 18, from the United Arab Emirates became the first Arab woman to test drive for a Formula E team when she piloted an Envision Virgin Racing car on the Ad Diriyah track. “Women testing for Formula E in Saudi Arabia is a big deal, and I am happy to be here. This is my first street race and it’s an amazing track” she said.
After the test session she was confident that the currently all-male Formula E driver line-up could be challenged: “I have seen a lot of quick female drivers, very talented and quite capable of racing at the very front. Hopefully, in the future, we will see a lot of women competing on the same level as men.”
The 2018 ‘Saudia’ Ad Diriyah E Prix
A sell-out crowd of over 23,000 watched the drama unfold on the track as Portuguese Antonio Felix da Costa, with BMW I Andretti Motorsport, edged out reigning champion Frenchman Jean-Eric Verne, of the Formula E team, by 0.462 seconds to claim top spot on the podium.
Belgian Jérôme D’Ambrosio, of Team Mahindra, completed the line-up on the podium finishing third in a day of drama at the stunning track created at the UNESCO World Heritage site. The day began with a morning of uncustomary rain which added a layer of difficulty as drivers were unable to take advantage of practice sessions in the morning.
But the weather failed to stop the action on the track, or the spectators from turning up, for the huge occasion for Saudi Arabia, which is the result of a partnership between Formula E, the General Sports Authority of Saudi Arabia (GSA) and the Saudi Arabian Motor Federation (SAMF), inspired by Vision 2030, which is driving reform in the Kingdom.
And, for those in the grandstands, it was a thrilling race as the 22 drivers battled their way through 21 turns for 33 laps over 45 minutes, including a new ‘Attack Zone’ which added another element of excitement to the fiercely fought contest.
It was a race which saw four drivers crash out but ultimately it was Costa, in his second career win, who lifted the trophy on the podium. The trophy was presented to him by His Royal Highness Prince Abdulaziz Bin Turki AlFaisal Al Saud, Vice-Chair of the Saudi Arabia General Sports Authority. Formula E reigning champion Verne had to settle for second place and received his consolation trophy from His Royal Highness Prince Khalid bin Sultan Al Faisal Al Saud, President of the Saudi Arabian Motor Federation.
The 2018 ‘Saudia’ Ad Diriyah E-Prix was the first year of a 10-year partnership with Formula E, with plans by the General Sports Authority to continue to improve the infrastructure around the Ad Diriyah site.