The Saudia Ad Diriyah E Prix: a street-racing circuit in the heart of a protected UNESCO city

When the lights go green in Ad Diriyah, Saudi Arabia on December 15, Formula E drivers will begin their high-speed sprint to the finish line on a brand-new track in front of a roaring crowd.

But what the thousands of spectators won’t see is the big challenge faced by those creating the electric street racing circuit in the heart of a protected UNESCO city that is hundreds of years old.

Samer Issa-El-Khoury, Managing Partner at global motorsport promoter and organizer CBX, is the man responsible for delivering the venue and preserving Ad Diriyah.

Issa-El-Khoury recalled his first impressions when plans were laid to build the track in Ad Diriyah, a UNESCO heritage site. “When they told us that we are coming to look for a racetrack in Ad Diriyah, I said ‘it’s impossible’. We were talking about a world heritage site, the oldest city in Saudi Arabia, where the kingdom was founded.”

“Once we decided, with Formula E and GSA, to bring the race to Saudi Arabia, we were looking for an appropriate location to have a track that fits the sport’s specifications. These were mainly the width of the roads and the length of the track to meet the criteria for safety laid down by the sport’s world governing body, the FIA,” he added.

A big team from Formula E, GSA, CBX and SAMF scouted several locations around Ad Diriyah and finally came up with the best location in which to do the civil work required to widen streets adjacent to a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“We did not touch on the restricted UNESCO area,” Issa-El-Khoury explains, “but we had streets that were the old city boundaries, where you can see the old stone walls, and we made sure they were protected and preserved. I felt a personal responsibility for this.”

Constructions started in September, giving the teams three months to do what usually requires six to eight. That meant having thousands of machines and up to 3,000 people on site for the construction throughout the last three months.

Issa-El-Khoury elaborated on this, saying: “The track was the most obvious aspect of course, but also we had to prepare a 300,000m² car park, we had to prepare the E Village, which is almost 180,000m² when usually the E Village is 20,000m². We want to give the whole population of Saudi Arabia something huge. This is a big event coming here and we wanted the supporting E Village to be as big.”

“We also had to find the space to put the paddock, the Emotion Club, the Royal Box and the grandstands in a city that is hundreds of years old and [where] the space is very limited.”

Despite these technical challenges, the track had unique features. “When we unveiled the circuit layout the response worldwide was incredible, really positive,” explains Issa-El-Khoury. “People are excited to see the cars going through 21 turns each lap. What is very challenging for the drivers is that some of the turns are ascending and some of them are descending, so not only do you have a slope, but you have a slope and a corner – one second you are going down, the next going up.”

This will show the drivers’ prowess and technical ability to cope with those turns because it is so easy to make a mistake, to lose speed if you take it a little bit wrong.

“Also, at the end of turn 17, the cars will have one of the longest straights, with the new ‘Attack Zone’ that has been introduced. I think it’s going to be as interesting to see how this ‘Attack Zone’ will happen, and whatever they gain on that, they might lose it on the turns.

“All this makes the 2018 Saudia Ad Diriyah E-Prix more of a drivers’ race than a car or teams’ race.”