The promoter of the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship opener in Diriyah has denied suggestions that an excessive number of VIPs were granted starting grid access amid tight COVID-19 protocols last weekend.
The Saudi Arabia night races were held with special exemption granted direct from the Royal Court and the sports ministry despite the country being closed to UK, US and French nationals.
Though the event was closed to spectators, there were approximately 1000 partner VIP guests in attendance. They were entertained in Formula E’s hospitality centre known as The Emotion Club.
Many of these partners were granted access to the grid and The Race has been contacted by several teams that were concerned about the number of people that were allowed onto the grid, suggesting this made adequate social distancing and avoiding contact difficult.
TV images of an apparently packed grid were also widely criticised online over the course of the event.
Race promoter Carlo Boutagy was adamant safety was not compromised at all.
“If I remember correctly, I think they reduced the grid ‘butterflies’ [supplementary stickers for grid access],” Boutagy told The Race.
“They reduced it by I can’t recall how much, and everyone was outdoors.
“Everyone was wearing masks and it was fist bumps all the way.”
Among those on the grid was Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who attended the Saturday race after recovering from some surgery earlier in the week.
“We were honoured with his presence and he came on the grid for the opening ceremony, the national anthem and to watch the race,” said Boutagy.
Formula E works with Florian Kainzinger and his team on its COVID protocols and mobile PCR laboratory. That organisation has also been instrumental in working with and getting events up and running for Germany’s Bundesliga football league and the National Basketball Association (NBA) in America.
For the Diriyah races all those granted accredited access to the paddock had to quarantine for 48 hours before then undertaking a PCR test at a Riyadh medical facility.
Formula E did not release any COVID-19 testing data from the weekend, as it had previously during the Berlin E-Prix week last summer.
However, it is understood that at least two members of the paddock had to quarantine after positive results in Saudi Arabia.
The FIA’s Formula E technical delegate Laurent Arnaud was unable to get access to the site of the race after testing positive. This meant that FIA electronics manager Benjamin Caron had to work in isolation at the circuit.
Boutagy said there were “a lot of challenges,” to putting the event on and that his teams “worked very closely with the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Sports” in Saudi.
The Ministry of Health was present on the Diriyah site, and was said to have been “very happy with the system that we had in place and protocols”, according to Boutagy.
He made clear that Formula E had taken action to ensure everyone attending the race was adhering to protocols properly.
“We were very strict,” Boutagy added.
“There were a few people that turned up without the PCR tests, or PCR tests that were a bit outdated, and they weren’t granted entry.”