Riyadh: In December 2018, the motorsport public witnessed the birth of Formula E in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with the opening race of the 2018/2019 ABB FIA Championship season. This year, they are back for a doubleheader season opener in what promises to be the most competitive season in this sport’s young history.
Arab News sat down with Samer Issa-El-Khoury, who raced against time to oversee the construction of the Diriyah Circuit. An engineer by trade, he is the Managing Partner of CBX, a sports promotion company with exclusive rights for Formula E in the Middle East.
Q. What changes were made to the circuit this year in order to enhance the driver and fan experience?
A. I have been following and attending every Formula E race around the planet in order to bring the best features and improvement to the Diriyah E-prix. From checking the pit structure in New York to the track asphalt in Berlin, hospitality structure in Zurich and fan user experience in Hong Kong, we wanted to incorporate the finest elements in order to make this race a truly memorable doubleheader opening for the 2019/2020 ABB season.
We made a change to the pit entry and created a bigger run-off area at turn 21 to improve competition as well as safety in line with FIA recommendations. We wanted to give more chances to the drivers for late breaking, as this is one of the most challenging circuits with a total of 21 turns. Some of these turns are downhill while others are uphill. It’s a winding track and the drivers absolutely love such snake turns because it challenges both the car and the driver. Only the best can survive on a track such as this one and only the best can win.
Q. What makes the Diriyah E-Prix stand out from other circuits, in terms of track engineering and design? And how will this translate in the two rounds?
A. The beautiful scenery, with Diriyah being not just a UNESCO world heritage site but also the birthplace of Saudi Arabia. There is massive significance in this. What is unique as well is the architecture and design of the Swiss-made and engineered Royal Cube structure which is installed to cater for the VVIP guests, underneath which the cars race. From an engineering point of view, it is something we are very proud of. What is interesting as well is that the Royal Cube was put up in just ten days and features two floors with a beautiful terrace on the third floor overlooking both the track and the UNESCO world heritage site.
Having a Formula E race in Diriyah, which not only represents the future of motorsports but also emphasizes sustainability and clean energy, is 100 per cent in line with Saudi Arabia’s plan and Vision 2030 to be at the forefront of sustainable energy and carbon neutrality. This is a significant message to the world because the Vision’s success will most definitely have global reverberations.
We coordinated very closely with all stakeholders such as Diriyah Gate Development Authority, the General Sports Authority, Saudi Arabian Motor Federation, Formula E and the Diriyah Season office. We served as an important link between all parties involved and we did so proudly because we believe in Diriyah, in Saudi Arabia, and we believe in sports as a core element of the livelihood of any society.
Q. This is a massive undertaking. How long did it take to construct and how many people are involved this time around, compared to last year? How did local and international construction crew and experts work hand in hand to put this together?
A. Last year it took us 90 days to build the entire track. This year, we only had four weeks to modify the track and build the whole venue. That’s less than half the time we previously had. We also built all structures in record time. Building such a track normally requires much longer, yet we’ve completed the entire venue in four weeks this year.
For the 2018 race we had over 3,000 people. This time around we have around 1500 people involved in the operation, all of whom of world-class calibre from world class sports events backgrounds such as the Olympics and Formula One. We have an international team working hand in hand with local Saudi talent and there is a big knowledge transfer. Given there is a ten-year deal to host an E-Prix in Saudi Arabia, we started increasing the volume of local involvement this year and decreasing reliance on international expertise as event-management, talent and suppliers in Saudi Arabia are incredible, specifically so in motorsports.
For example, last year it took us one month to build the pit structure, this year it took us twenty days. This showcases the learning curve of the local team after only one season in, so imagine over the next ten years how exponential the learning curve will be. 90% of the suppliers used during last year’s E-Prix were from abroad, this year we have 80% local suppliers, which represents a huge shift. Formula E and the Diriyah E-Prix encouraged the suppliers to come and set up shop in the country, which is great for the local economy. Hosting the race in Diriyah is creating so many local job opportunities.
Q. Tens of thousands are attending the race and millions will tune in to watch and expectations are elevated, what should they expect?
A. There were doubts last year’s whether E-Prix would be a success or not and whether the drivers and their teams would be happy. Following last year’s success, Formula E along with the General Sports Authotiy decided to do a doubleheader in Saudi Arabia! We therefore have two days of full racing. This shows the level of excitement from the drivers, the teams and the fans. As for the general motorsport public around the world, I cannot properly stress how high the level of enthusiasm is. They will be fortunate enough to see a champion on Friday and on Saturday.
- Diriyah E-Prix 2019: The thrilling electric race returns with a double-header race weekend – 2 Races on Friday and Saturday, November 22nd & 23rd