The Jeddah Corniche Circuit (Arabic: حلبة كورنيش جدة) is host of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix and has been designed to showcase Formula One’s spectacular speed to the maximum. The second-longest circuit on the calendar, it is also one of the fastest too, with an average speed of nearly 245 km/h (151 mph) around the lap. Precision and bravery are the watchwords for anyone competing on Jeddah's streets.
Located in Jeddah’s stunning Corniche area, approximately 12km north of the city centre, the circuit skirts the Red Sea and encircles a lagoon, and produces spectacular (if somewhat crash prone) racing under floodlights.
Developed with close collaboration between Tilke GmbH & Co. KG and the Formula 1 Motorsport team led by Ross Brawn, the circuit is atypical of many street circuits in that it utilises existing roads as much as possible yet remains fast flowing in character.
Formula One (or more accurately Bernie Ecclestone) spent many a year chasing the dollars of the oil-rich nations of the Middle East, with races established in both Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. It's with some irony then, that F1 in the post-Bernie era should schedule a race in one of the countries with the longest associations with the sport, Saudi Arabia.
As long ago as the late 1970s, the country had involvement through its sponsorship deals (via the Saudia national airline) with the Williams team. More latterly, Saudi Aramco has become a major sponsor of the sport, so perhaps a venture to the Kingdom was inevitable.
A new purpose-built facility in the city of Qiddiya looked to be the favourite to win the race, with the circuit announced in August 2019. The project was conceived by Test and Training International, a motorsports consultancy headed by former Formula One driver Alexander Wurz. The aim is to create a world-class circuit capable of hosting all FIA categories through to Formula One.
That project is still going ahead but instead Formula One has turned its attention to a completely different venture. In November 2020 the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix was confirmed to be taking place in the city of Jeddah, in collaboration with the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation.
A street circuit was the favoured option for the country’s second-largest city, with Formula 1’s in-house Motorsports team asked to investigate the feasibility of various locations around the city. After several days spent pouring over Google Earth, several potential layouts were mocked up to create simulation models ahead of a site visit.
In January 2020 a delegation arrived to recce a number of potential sites, with the Corniche area quickly emerging as the frontrunner. Located 12km north of the city centre, the Corniche is a narrow strip of reclaimed land alongside the Red Sea which features lagoons, open spaces and car parks. It’s wide, sweeping road layout was also ripe for conversion into a unique street circuit.
“The site on the Corniche in Jeddah stood out,” explains Ross Brawn, F1 Managing Director, Motorsport. “It’s on the coast, so we have great panorama but more importantly, we’ve been able to build a really exciting street circuit.”
Design work begins
Tilke GmBH was selected by the race promoter to work with the F1 team to design the finished circuit and its amenities, with the main design being carried out by Carsten Tilke. Various iterations were designed, simulated and tested, prior to establishing the final layout.
Craig Wilson, F1's Head of Vehicle Performance explains: “The biggest challenge was working out how to come up with a track concept within what is quite a narrow strip of land, that still had decent cornering sections with a wide range of corner speeds and not just be a layout of hairpins, tight corners and straights.
"It took a few different concept schemes to begin with but once we assessed the simulation results then it was possible to settle quickly on a concept that we believed would work.”
All parties were keen to avoid the mistakes of some street circuit designs of the past, replete with a proliferation of slow-speed, 90-degree corners (we’re looking at you here, Phoenix!). Instead, the team came up with a fast and flowing design which packs in 27 turns around its 6.175km length.
Construction up to the last minute
Construction of the new circuit was required to be carried out over a very short period, with the start of works little more than eight months before the first scheduled race. A total of 3,000 on-site contractors were used from 50 different countries to ensure the circuit was ready for its F1 debut.
As well as the track itself, all amenities including the garages and paddock area and seven grandstands around the course had to be built, using 37,000 tons of asphalt, 600,000 tons of cement, 30,000 square metres of bricks and 1,400 tons of glass.
While work was taking place down to the wire (and some facilities will only be fully completed by the time of the second race in 2022) the circuit was nonetheless ready on schedule for its debut race.
Fast but furious circuit a challenge for drivers
The circuit that emerged once the cars ventured out the first time was unlike any other street circuit seen before. Fast and furious is probably the best description, as it featured more wide open throttle sections than any other course on the calendar, as the cars wound their way through sinuous bends and long straights along the waterfront. With 27 turns in all, it also packs in more corners than any other Formula One venue, despite its ultra-high average speed.
There was something of a mixed reaction to the track from drivers and pundits; all relishing the challenging nature of the layout but some predicting trouble in the race, due to the proximity of the unyielding walls, particularly at corner apexes. “It’s going to be very high speed and not much run-off,” Damon Hill predicted. “It’s high risk, high jeopardy.”
Designer Carsten Tilke remained upbeat, despite the concerns. “We need to make it challenging, we need to make it thrilling and I think this is what the people want," he said. "The FIA check everything, do the safety inspections, the safety simulations, which we also do in house, but at the end the decision lies at their table.
“As this circuit is so narrow and restricted by the sea, buildings, the mosque and so on, we had to really use everything possible in terms of safety devices. Because it’s a very fast track, everything needs to be perfect in terms of safety – not 80% or 90%, but 100%. But for sure, it’s a street circuit, better not to make a mistake.”
F1 puts on a show - but track dangers clear
The first Saudi Arabian Grand Prix will always likely remembered for the race long tussle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, particularly their acrimonious clash which saw the Mercedes driver smash into the back of the Red Bull on the fastest straight, when Verstappen was apparently driving slowing to let the British driver passed to avoid receiving a penalty from the stewards. The clash ultimately settled the race in Hamilton's favour, with Verstappen clinging on to second place with a badly damaged car.
However, more concerning for the circuit were the two race stoppages which were largely caused by the lack of visibility around the fast corners and the narrow confines of the track, causing several multi-car pile ups. Allied to a heavy crash from Mick Schumacher and a serious collision in the GP2 race, which saw Enzo Fittipaldi slam into the stalled car of Theo Pourchaire at the start, and it wasn't long before drivers voiced their concerns about the track.
Williams driver George Russell (and Grand Prix Drivers Association director) was particularly vocal, telling Autosport after the race that the collision in which he was hit from behind by an unsighted Nikita Mazepin was "pretty inevitable", branding the track unsafe to race on without further modifications.
"It seemed pretty inevitable, you go around a Turn 2 that's fairly wide and open - cars can go side by side - and then it really funnels in and goes pretty narrow pretty fast," he said. "I came around a blind corner, cars were everywhere, I slowed down and then got completely hit from behind. So, a lot to learn I think for motorsport this weekend, because it's an incredibly exhilarating and exciting track to drive but it's lacking a lot from a safety perspective and a racing perspective.
"And there are unnecessary incidents waiting to happen in all of these small kinks that are blind, which are not even corners in an F1 car, but they just offer unnecessary danger."
Track responds to safety concerns
In the aftermath of the race, track boss Martin Whitaker confirmed that changes would be made to the sight lines of a number of the corners, in response to the criticisms levelled by the drivers. The detail of the changes was later confirmed in a February 2022 statement by Saudi Motorsport Company, the race promoter.
"It has already been confirmed that some minor tweaks will be made to the circuit to help improve driver sight lines from the cockpit by improving visibility in several of the circuit's corners including Turns 2, 3, 14 and 21 where the barriers will be moved back between 1.5m and 2m," the statement read.
"Likewise, the barrier on the right-hand side of Turn 27 will be moved back by around 1.5m to widen the track at this point. In all cases except Turn 27, the track limit/edge will remain the same.
"In addition, further modifications will also be made to Turns 4, 16, 22 and 24 after consultation with the drivers who requested a smoother barrier on the apex so that they can potentially brush it as they pass. To accommodate this, SMC is installing a steel plate which will effectively wrap around the concrete barriers given them the smooth surface they require to favour the lines the drivers take around the record-breaking course."
The changes were in place ahead of the race returning at the end of March 2022, though didn't receive universal acclaim. Multiple drivers called for more significant changes following another high speed shunt in qualifying, this time ruling Mick Schumacher out of the race.
Among them was pole winner Sergio Perez, who branded the track as “definitely the most dangerous place on the calendar”, while Red Bull team-mate Max Verstappen called for some of the flat-out curves to be removed, saying: "just design it straight… it’s safer for everyone.” McLaren driver Lando Norris also suggested that some of the kerbs needing revision, particularly the one at Turn 10 which caught out both Schumacher and Formula 2 driver Cem Bolukbasi.
GPDA director George Russell did however welcome the changes and warned that too much revision would see the track lose some of its unique DNA.
“Obviously, the dangers were the lack of visibility last year," he said. “They've done their best to improve that. It has worked slightly. It hasn't solved all the issues. But I think that's just the nature of a street circuit sometimes, and obviously being so fast, it is high risk, high reward.
“The problem is, you sometimes lose the DNA of a street circuit if you go too far. There are small things that can be done to improve. But ultimately, when you go in these speeds, and you just lose it, there is no runoff, and you will end up on the wall.”
Rate This Circuit
The latest images from Jeddah Corniche Circuit.