Diriyah E-Prix: The challenges of building a racetrack in Saudi Arabia

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A mammoth construction effort has seen the Diriyah Circuit return. (Supplied)
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Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, left, Chairman of the General Sports Authority, with Carlo Boutagy, the chief executive officer of CBX. (Supplied)
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The Diriyah Circuit grandstand. (Supplied)
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Finishing touches are being put to the Diriyah Circuit. (Supplied)
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Workers have endured rainstorms as they complete the Diriyah Circuit. (Supplied)
Updated 22 November 2019

Diriyah E-Prix: The challenges of building a racetrack in Saudi Arabia

Carlo Boutagy, the chief executive officer of CBX – official promoter of the Diriyah E-Prix – talks about the Herculean tasks that went into the development of the Diriyah Circuit and the Formula E village, as well as the benefits that were from it.

Last year you oversaw the development of the Diriyah Circuit and the Formula E village. It was a race against time where everything had to be ready from scratch in three months and with global standards. How did you feel during development and about the results after?

It was a challenge. How do you build a track in the middle of a UNESCO protected world heritage site? But it was a challenge we welcomed and collectively, the decision makers from CBX, FE, FIA, GSA and SAMF had one goal in mind: to deliver a world class event on December 15 2018. I personally felt a huge responsibility to protect and preserve the site which in turn meant daily collaboration with all stakeholders such as the engineers, infrastructure teams, civil works bodies, telecoms companies etc.

Are the stakeholders you are working with more prepared, does last year’s success make you more confident as a team? Or even more ambitious?

The stakeholders were well prepared last year and delivered an outstanding job. Of course, that means they have been able to return with more knowledge this year. With the benefit of having a race in hand, there are a lot of positives and learnings to take away from last year’s event - but we can’t take anything for granted. Each project needs to be meticulously defined, planned, implemented and executed with the objective of delivering the greatest experience possible for the fans. We also strive to diversify, to keep everything fresh so it’s certainly not a case of just replicating last year’s event. We take enormous pride in growing the event from what it was – a pride which keeps our team focused and dedicated.

The Diriyah Circuit has been hailed by many including drivers as an iconic track, why is that and was that your goal from the start?

From the start our aim was to design and build an iconic track, one that stood out from other circuits that drivers found challenging and spectators found thrilling. Being a UNESCO works heritage site – the backdrop is serene, rich in culture and beauty. We wanted to compliment this on the sporting side by creating an unforgettable track that does justice to the historical landscape we were fortunate enough to have as a location.

The track, built in close collaboration with the FIA and national governing bodies, offers a great deal of opportunities for racing drivers to overtake, unleash power, and fight for top positions. There’s quite a lot of elevation changes which is challenging. From the top of turn 4 all the way down to turn 16, there’s a steep decline. The Sector 1 is really sneaky and rather twisty. By the end of the track, at turn 17, you have a long wide straight where you can fully unleash power, there’s definitely an opportunity to overtake. This then leads into Turn 18, 19 and 20, by the chicane there’s lots of opportunities to overtake too, completely different to any other FE tracks.




Carlo Boutagy, the chief executive officer of CBX. (Supplied)

What has been the biggest challenge you have overcome during your time working on Formula E in Saudi?

Sleepless nights, countless deadlines … the heavens opening with rainfall to disrupt the build at pivotal moments. People may recall that last year it rained on the morning of the actual race – in the middle of the desert, which was unreal. We couldn’t believe it but we survived to tell the tale. In fact, lots of things can happen when organizing an event but when armed with determination, preparation, great teams and experience, a lot can be achieved.

What do you think Formula E’s legacy in Saudi Arabia will be? What personally would you like to see achieved in the years ahead?

Firstly, vision 2030 sets out the focus of the Kingdoms future and FE aligns itself perfectly with that vision. I believe Formula E is more than just an event that entertains, it’s a brand with a higher purpose and an urgency to address the some of the environmental challenges such as car pollution that is believed to be a contributing factor accelerating climate change on our planet. FE creates awareness. FE sends out the message that we can all help to save the planet. It shows that when the racing lights go green, the city has gone green. That’s what Formula E brings to everyone, everywhere in the heart of the cities – innovative technology & sustainable awareness. These two messages, to name a few, fit with the Kingdom’s vision 2030 and I am proud to a part the change.

What would you say to international fans thinking about a Formula E event now that Saudi Arabia has launched tourist visas? How is the experience different from elsewhere in the world?

I would invite them to come and see for themselves how the Kingdom has opened its doors to the international community. It’s amazing to see how much the country has invited people in, I grew up here, but it’s not that commonly known to the outside world what Saudi has to offer. The country is really very beautiful with breathtaking landscapes, we have a great culinary scene and I think through sports there are many entertaining events to experience. The ease at which people can now get a tourist visa has taken any hassle out of the process.

And to Saudi’s who saw the incredible images that were created at last year’s event but didn’t go, why should they come this year?

Why? Because there really is something for everyone for car fanatics, families with children, thrill seekers, foodies, techies. If you like having a good time you should come and check out the event and I guarantee, you’ll be back next year. There are dance acts, kids workshops, ziplines, amphitheater for performances, crazy roaming acts, reaction tests that racers undergo, giant screens, delicious food pop ups, chill out zones, meet and greet were you can get drivers to sign your memorabilia, driving sims, kids driving schools and two entire days of it. It’s worth mentioning the Formula E race weekend is part of a wider Diriyah Season which has a whole host of events to create memorable moments from sporting to incredible fine dining.

We have not spoken about the concerts yet, but how huge do you think these will be?

The concerts are a great asset for the FE event, a perfect way for people to hang out, enjoy the vibe and have fun watching their favorite band after the race. The concerts compliment the race but first and foremost, visitors need to come sit in their grandstand seat as the lights go out on the starting grid and soak up the atmosphere, grit and excitement of 45 min of non-stop action.

Do you think Saudi has now established itself as a world-class host for sports events?

Absolutely, last year here is Diriyah, it was a sell-out, with 60,000 fans from 80 different countries coming to enjoy the hospitality. This year, we are very honored to not only open The ABB FIA Formula E championship with a double header but also to kick start the Diriyah Season, which will host an epic boxing clash, a tennis cup, and an equestrian festival. The Kingdom will also host the Dakar in 2020 and ExtremeE in 2021. I think this firmly establishes Saudi on the map as a world class sporting host.

Saudi Arabia is investing heavily in Formula E. Does the Diriyah E-Prix in any way stand out from any of the other rounds of the season?

As a global racing brand, Formula E competes in many cities across five continents. I have attended all FE races and I can assure you that the Diriyah E-Prix is one of a kind. Location-wise Diriyah is the oldest city in Saudi Arabia where the Kingdom was founded and home and host to Formula E, the fully electric street racing championship. The is where the past meets the future. The marriage of heritage and culture with the technologically advanced, dynamic sporting series creates a unique experience… then there is the developing fanbase here. The Saudi people may be relatively new to the sport, but boy can they make a noise, and they are passionate and eager to come and learn more about the sport. The fact that we have a double header this year demonstrates the fast pace of the growth of the race in Saudi, it’s unusual for Formula E to allow cities to host a double header. This year there is only London and us as its usually a one-day event. It’s also happens to be the most competitive line-up in single seater motor racing ever.

You took everybody’s breath away last year delivering the Diriyah Circuit and hosting an incredible inaugural event. How will this year look to top that?

“A huge compliment. The way I see it, we witnessed a milestone event in Diriyah last year. It was the start of a 10-year deal between Formula E and The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A game changer with many `firsts’ for KSA such as tourist visas opening up the country to foreigners, female racers competing at the track here for the first time and of course the A list international unsegregated music concerts. You said it…it took everybody’s breath away and for me it was nothing short of incredible. I was extremely proud to be a part of the experience which was only made possible by the hard work and dedication of a large team and the immense support we received throughout the project – we certainly set the goal posts high.


Africa Cup switch to winter sends a chill through European leagues

Updated 21 January 2020

Africa Cup switch to winter sends a chill through European leagues

  • High-profile African players playing in England include the Arsenal duo Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang of Gabon and Nicolas Pepe of Cote d’Ivoire

CAIRO: There is little doubt that the switch by the Africa Cup of Nations from summer to winter competition will have a big impact on European competitions, with those at the top of the Premier League perhaps most affected.

The confederation confirmed that from 2021 when Cameroon will play host, the tournament will revert back to being played in January and February.

The tournament was moved to a June-July slot for last year’s edition in Egypt, which meant minimal disruption to the European domestic season. But plenty of Premier League managers will be left with problems this time next year, with several stars likely to leave for up to six weeks, including pre-tournament preparations.

Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp appears to face the biggest headache given that two of his star attacking players, Mohamed Salah from Egypt and Sadio Mane from Senegal, both featured in the African tournament last summer and are almost certain to be involved in the 2021 competition in some capacity.

High-profile African players playing in England include the Arsenal duo Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang of Gabon and Nicolas Pepe of Cote d’Ivoire, while Manchester City will lose Riyad Mahrez should Algeria feature.

Klopp is critical of the decision to move the tournament dates, calling it “a catastrophe.” Salah and Mane’s absence would leave huge gaps in the Liverpool side. There is also Cameroon’s Joel Matip and Guinea’s Naby Keita to worry about. Matip has become solid at the back. Keita, too, would be a loss given his recent resurgence.

The Liverpool manager is upset because last year’s tournament was moved to mid-year to end a long-standing clash between clubs and countries over the release of their players. It was felt that common sense had prevailed when the tournament, which since 1960 had always been held during winter, reverted to summer. African players in western European clubs would no longer find themselves the target of competing claims for their attention every other season, which would benefit the players and their clubs and countries, and lead to fewer squabbles.

But then Cameroon changed its mind about hosting the tournament in summer next year, changing the dates from June and July to between Jan. 6 and Feb. 6. Why? The weather. It’s simply too hot in Cameroon in summer.

Organizers said they had agreed to the change after discussions with player and coach representatives.

But didn’t Cameroon know beforehand that its summers are too hot, too humid and right in the middle of its rainy season? That the country does not enjoy ideal conditions for football in summer could not have taken its organizers by complete surprise.

The situation serves as a vivid reminder of the botch-up of the 2022 Qatar World Cup. The host and FIFA decided that the World Cup, which is forever played in summer, would be moved to winter because of Qatar’s oppressive heat — but that decision came only after Qatar won the bid. That change, again, will mean a head-on clash with international tournaments and club competitions.

A football tournament simply cannot keep changing when it will be held as often as people change their socks. This is especially true for the Africa Cup of Nations, which is played every two years.

A major sports tournament must have fixed times. And, to be sure, its organizers should understand that you can’t please everybody. A championship’s times are bound to clash with some tournament or other. The African tournament, for example, will avoid a clash with FIFA’s revamped 24-team Club World Cup to be played in China in June and July 2021. But it cannot but conflict with European leagues. The important thing is to stay the course. Once a date is picked, it should be stuck to like glue.