“This is the best place I’ve ever seen since the first Dakar. All these mixed, different places – incredible. Tomorrow, I think could be even more beautiful, but maybe that’s impossible.”
That was the take of French photographer Éric Vargiolu as he breathed in the vast expanse of desert the pilots would be venturing across midway through the opening week of the first ever Dakar Saudi Arabia back in January of last year.
Dakar 2020 was the iconic rally raid’s debut hosting on Middle Eastern soil, and broke new ground for not only its organizers, the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), but for motorsports in Saudi Arabia.
A year on, and as the Kingdom gears-up to turn lights out on the new ABB FIA Formula E World Championship season this weekend – Riyadh’s third hosting of a race weekend – it is fair to say that what lies on the horizon for motorsport in Saudi Arabia has itself truly never looked so good.
In 2021, Saudi Arabia play host to a golden trifecta of international motorsport mega-events: Formula E, the Dakar Rally, and – breaking even more ground for the Kingdom in December – Formula 1.
These are enormous sporting spectacles, backed generously by the Kingdom with the goal of inspiring the next generation and growing sport even greater in Saudi Arabia.
Organized by the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation (SAMF) in line with the ambitions of Vision 2030, all three global events – says SAMF chairman Prince Khalid Bin Sultan Al-Abdullah Al-Faisal – have made it to the Kingdom thanks to an almost universal passion for motorsports across Saudi Arabia.
Prince Khalid said: “Saudis love racing, and as a nation Saudi Arabia has a very proud motorsports and racing heritage – from the desert rallies we’ve been famed for worldwide to our own drivers competing at the very top level. It’s a passion for millions of Saudis, and the world respects that.
“That has proven key to our ability to attract these global mega-events to Saudi Arabia – and at length, too. This is the third race in a ten-year agreement with Formula E. We also have ten years of Dakar Saudi and now of Formula 1, too, because international governing bodies buy into the love our people have for elite level racing, amongst many other sports.
“Added to that, our desire to be innovative and to have a fresh approach puts us in the driving seat for these types of events too – something that will be on show this weekend with Formula E’s first ever night races here on the streets of Ad Diriyah, which we are enormously excited about.
“The ride is already well underway but if you haven’t already, then strap yourselves in, as the next ten years and beyond promise to be the best Saudi Arabian motorsports have ever seen!”
The Kingdom has a long and proud history of home-grown motorsports events, with the Saudi Desert Rally Championship growing year-upon-year, as well as a host of Baja rallies taking place annually.
However, the arrival of Formula E, Dakar Saudi and the Saudi Arabian F1 Grand Prix later this year – all on ten-year deals with the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation – has elevated Saudi Arabia’s status to the top-table of global motorsports.
And the Kingdom is not done yet.
Extreme E – the new, FIA-sanctioned international off-road racing series using electric SUVs – launches its maiden season with its first ever race in Al Ula in April, where drivers will fly through one of the most breathtaking landscapes anywhere on earth, and in turn bringing the Kingdom’s packed 2021 calendar up to no less than four world-class events.
Back on more solid ground, and the Kingdom’s investment in motorsport continues with the development of the Kingdom’s own dedicated Formula 1 track as part of the $8billion Qiddiya project – a move that would take the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix from the streets of Jeddah to the outskirts of Riyadh in years to come.
Fair to say, it is all massively exciting – and its latest showpiece is this weekend: the 2021 Formula E Diriyah E-Prix.
Due to coronavirus restrictions, fans are unable to attend Friday and Saturday’s season-opening races. However, all the action will be broadcast live on KSA Sports, making it unmissable for motorsport fanatics or anyone new to the sport.
Whatever two drivers do come out on top over the weekend will bask in the glory of victory in a Saudi Arabia that is now, without question, firmly established as an international motorsports’ hub.
And akin to when those drivers themselves are behind the wheel, it is a nation whose commitment to racing you cannot take your eyes off for a second, and whose next turn promises something even more thrilling than the last.