RIYADH: Formula E’s Diriyah E-Prix returns to the Saudi Arabian capital next month for its third Riyadh race weekend in three years.
And while anticipation is already building for lights out on February 26th, it’s another blackout that’s getting race fans even more excited this time around.
That’s because next month’s season-opener in Riyadh will be Formula E’s first ever night race.
The now internationally renowned street racing track round the Diriyah UNESCO World Heritage site will come alive under the floodlights as Saudi Arabia leads the way in adding even more thrill to what is one of the world’s fastest growing sports.
Prince Khalid Bin Sultan Al-Abdullah Al-Faisal, chairman of the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation, added: “The inaugural Diriyah E-Prix was the Kingdom’s first major international event, last year it became the Middle East’s first double-header and in February, it will be the first ever night race for the all-electric ABB FIA Formula E World Championship, we’re really proud of this. Saudi Arabia is on a journey of embracing renewable energy and technology, and Formula E is more than just a race to be the best, it’s a partnership committed to the future of sustainable technology.”
Formula E first burst onto the motorsport scene in 2014, sanctioned by the FIA as its first ever all-electric championship, and hosting 11 races across 10 cities.
It has since continually grown and developed to where it is now: the first single-seater racing series outside of Formula One with world championship status and going into its seventh season.
One of those is Riyadh, where the roads surrounding the ancient site of Diriyah have played host to a race weekend each season since 2018.
So what will fans remember – or local fans new to the sport look to learn – about Diriyah’s race weekends one and two, in 2018 and 2019?
Well first time out back in December 2018 will live long in Formula E history, and not only because it was the Kingdom’s debut race hosting – nor because it was raining!
After years of preparation, months of anticipation and thousands of hours of build, everything came down to one split second. Less than half a second, to be precise.
Portuguese Antonio Felix da Costa, driving for BMW i Andretti Motorsport, edged out reigning champion Frenchman Jean-Eric Verne, of the DS TECHEETAH Formula E team, by just 0.462 seconds to claim Diriyah’s inaugural top spot.
Belgian Jerome D’Ambrosio of Mahindra Racing completed the podium line-up, but for the live sell-out crowd of more than 23,000 people, all 22 drivers who battled their way through 21 turns for 33 laps over 45 minutes will forever be remembered for the debut spectacle they brought to the streets of Saudi Arabia, even if four of them crashed out before the race’s conclusion!
Racing icon and then Venturi team driver Felipe Massa said after the race: “I think it is amazing to see the track they built, the show they are doing, the infrastructure they built here for the first race of the season. It is definitely great to be part of this, and great to be part of this championship.
“This is a country that is just at the beginning, the number of fans will grow each year. By the tenth year I’m sure all the fans will love the drivers and the championship. It is exciting.”
Exciting it was, and even more exciting it became when Season 2019/20 arrived back in Diriyah a year later, but this time with double the action as a new two-race weekend.
The Diriyah Circuit opened the season on the Friday and saw Britain’s Sam Bird storm to the top of the leaderboard after a sublime performance in an eventful race that saw the Envision Virgin Racing driver beat TAG Heuer Porsche's Andre Lotterer and Mercedes Benz EQ driver Stoffel Vandoorne after starting fifth on the grid in what was the two German motoring giants’ first foray into Formula E.
That showing seemed to rub off quite considerably on Bird’s fellow British driver Alex Sims of BMW i Andretti Motorsport on Saturday’s second outing of the weekend. Starting from pole for the second day in a row, Sims managed to do in Race 2 what he failed to 24 hours earlier – hold his lead at the front of the chasing pack. Sims dominating performance in a race littered with crashes – including that of Friday’s champion Bird – and time penalties led to a thoroughly deserving victory, and certainly one he will be seeking to replicate when Formula E returns to Diriyah next month.
When it does return, however, it will feel like a whole new race, with this year’s E-Prix weekend plunged into darkness.
Speaking last year, Alberto Longo, Co-Founder and Chief Championship Officer of Formula E, said: “We are very proud to partner with Saudi to create Formula E’s first ever night race. I am confident the race will be spectacular and lead to a style of competitive action we haven’t seen before.”
The spectacular double header will be held under the glow of low consumption LED technology lighting that uses up to 50 per cent less energy to non-LED lighting. This is a vital aspect to Formula E, with its very inception being focused on reduced carbon emissions – and being the first sport to have net zero carbon since it launched seven years ago.
But as the carbon footprint decreases, the thrill and allure of the Diriyah E-Prix – and wider Formula E – only increases, as proven in the constant development and advancement of the Riyadh race.
Next month’s season-opening return race is simply not to be missed.