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F1 drivers had to be convinced to stay in Saudi Arabia after Friday’s explosion

Lewis Hamilton and his fellow drivers all wanted to sit out today’s controversial Saudi Arabia Grand Prix — and only agreed not to after persuasion from F1 bosses and their own team principals. One source described the pressure as tantamount to ‘bullying’.

The Mail on Sunday understands that at 1.20am local time yesterday morning, more than three hours into meetings stretching across four and a half hours in the Jeddah paddock, the entire grid was unanimous in beating a retreat after the bombing by Yemen’s Houthi rebels of an oil refinery 12 miles east of the Red Sea city on Friday at about 5.30pm.

Seven-time world champion Hamilton, an ardent critic of Saudi’s human rights record, was a prominent advocate for shunning the 50-lap race along the Corniche’s high-speed circuit.

Lewis Hamilton and his fellow drivers had to be persuaded to compete this weekend

Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz was another, with some insiders indicating the Spaniard was the most strident among the 20 voices of opposition inside Unit One, the hospitality area at the head of the paddock used by the sport’s commercial rights holders ‘Formula One’.

Four other drivers were strongly against the race going ahead: Red Bull’s Sergio Perez, Alpha Tauri’s Pierre Gasly, Haas’ Kevin Magnussen and, notably, Alpine’s veteran double world champion Fernando Alonso, a powerful presence among the lavishly paid brethren. The 40-year-old Spaniard gesticulated flamboyantly as he made his point.

Hamilton, who is said to have kept his calm, could also be seen through the windows from the bulb-lit paddock occasionally tapping his hands on the table where he and Gasly sat for part of the discussion.

But, according to team sources, pressure was then applied to jolt the reluctant drivers into competing, resulting in every one of them taking part in practice and qualifying yesterday and in the race today.

Carlos Sainz was also not keen for the race weekend to continue after Friday's incident

Carlos Sainz was also not keen for the race weekend to continue after Friday’s incident

‘There are three things I heard from the meetings,’ said one contact. ‘“Threatened”, “bullied” – and “if you don’t change your minds, there will be repercussions”.’

A Formula One spokesman emphatically denied the accusation, saying: ‘Any suggestion anyone was forced into this decision is wrong. Everyone met and discussed together and the collective decision was to proceed based on the advice we were all given.’

Stefano Domenicali, the sport’s chief executive, who rejoined the drivers for more than an hour between 11.55pm and 1.05am on Friday night into Saturday morning, refused to take questions yesterday from print journalists for the second consecutive day.

He could have said that the Houthis target oil and energy infrastructure and that intelligence reports support the notion that his sport is safe from attack, if that is indeed the case. Or that terrorists should not be allowed to dictate terms.

But not a word from the Italian before a shared broadcast interview late last night, despite his being in the paddock all day. Gone 11.30pm here, the footage finally came out and he stuck to his line that F1 can act as a force for good and added that every relevant agency had been consulted.

Fernando Alonso appeared to be angered by the decision to continue racing this weekend

Fernando Alonso appeared to be angered by the decision to continue racing this weekend

As for the new FIA president, Muhammed Ben Sulayem, the Emirati declined all interview requests. His comments were restricted to a brief in-person statement on Friday evening, in which he concluded his take on the volatile situation with the words: ‘Let’s go racing!’

Many in the paddock felt there was a lack of leadership and certainly a lack of communication with anyone other than team principals and drivers. The 1,800 or so members of the paddock — mechanics, engineers, catering staff, journalists and broadcasters, all of whom are at as much risk from an errant missile as the sport’s high-rollers — were given no direct details. Nothing like the treatment the drivers received, anyway. Shame on Formula One for that.

Another source, meanwhile, claimed that Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll told his fellow drivers that senior executives at Aramco — the $2-trillion Saudi oil company whose facility was bombed — sent their families home from the paddock on Friday in armour-plated cars rather than risk being at the track. Asked if Stroll did indeed make those alleged remarks, an Aston Martin spokesman said: ‘We are informed that that is not the case.’

Ah, much of the events of the last few days have been distorted by smoke and mirrors.

The drivers were pulled out of their usual Friday night press conferences at the last minute. This was after the teams agreed in a Zoom call, which included the FIA and Formula One, that it would be unfair to make the sport’s richest stars, several of whom are young and unworldly, first responders to the crisis. That was fair enough. It was not their responsibility to act as young Henry Kissingers.

Stefano Domenicali refused to speak to print journalists on Friday and Saturday

Stefano Domenicali refused to speak to print journalists on Friday and Saturday

Domenicali had yet to speak by then. He did so reluctantly and fleetingly at 10.40pm on Friday after the conclusion of the early stages of a second crisis meeting (which rolled into the four-and-a-half hour marathon that ended at 2.30am). He declared at that stage the race would go ahead.

A first, quick summit had already occurred at 8pm, which pushed back second practice by 15 minutes. Domenicali, usually open and a conciliator by nature, did not want to speak to the press at all at this stage, merely saying: ‘We’re safe,’ as he crossed the paddock at speed. This reticence created an impression of obfuscation.

Following his statement that the race would be on, events started to unravel in a way he did not expect, as the drivers were locked in their talks.

I am told that the team principals, who were summoned to speak to the drivers at 1.20am, made an ultimately persuasive case. They reiterated the promises of security Domenicali and the Saudis had outlined, and according to a well-placed source this swayed the drivers’ minds. The bosses were doubtless keen not to let the race fee of £50million — and £750,000 as part of a 15-year contract — go to waste. The teams are paid a 70 per cent share of the total, after all, and this is one of the most lucrative deals in Formula One history, eclipsed only by Qatar’s petrodollars.

The drivers were also assuaged by an undertaking to consult them once the weekend is over about this and other controversial venues on the calendar. It is understood that Hamilton and Gasly were still uneasy about ploughing ahead today, but agreed to abide by the majority verdict. Yesterday, at noon here, Formula One and the FIA issued a statement saying they had received ‘detailed assurances’ from Saudi officials that the ‘event is secure’.

There was talk of calling off yesterday’s team principals press conference — so much for the transparency of F1’s new age —but it went ahead after reflection, with Ferrari’s Mattia Binotto admitting of the drivers’ outlook: ‘I don’t think we said they are 100 per cent happy and fully relaxed.

‘Certainly they are still concerned but they have listened to the assurances we gave them and they understand the importance to stay here, and try to race.’