JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA - Formula One is closing in on a £50 million-a-year (R935m) deal to stage a grand prix in Saudi Arabia.
Sportsmail understands the inaugural event could be staged as early as next year. An option under consideration is a one-off street race in Jeddah in 2021 while a purpose-built circuit is completed for 2022.
However, the timing might be affected by whether there is immediately space on the calendar after - as we can also reveal is likely - Miami is confirmed as another new venue, almost certainly from 2021.
A source close to the proposed Saudi deal, which will invite accusations of ‘sportswashing’ human rights abuses, said: "It’s as good as done."
Sportsmail has learned that Formula One and Aramco, the desert kingdom’s state-owned oil giant - the richest company in the world, valued at $2 trillion - have already agreed a global sponsorship deal. This affiliation, which has not yet been made public, is likely to result in the event being called the ‘Aramco Saudi Arabian Grand Prix’.
Formula One is a regular caller to the Middle East, having staged more than 20 races in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi. The sport’s involvement in Bahrain became so hot at the peak of the anti-government protests there that the 2011 edition was cancelled.
F1 visits other countries with dubious human rights records, most notably Russia, China and Abu Dhabi. But motor racing’s governing body, the FIA, has sought to bat away criticism by insisting it is a non-political organisation.
Since Saudi Arabia was first mooted as a destination, Formula One’s owners Liberty Media have promised to demand guarantees to protect the sport’s travelling party of teams, sponsors, journalists and fans.
Motor racing is following a trend for sport events being staged in the kingdom, where Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is credited with being the chief reformer. The ‘Clash on the Dunes’ between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jnr was the most high-profile example. Football, golf, tennis, cycling and horseracing are also on the schedule.
Not every sports star, though, has accepted the petrodollars on offer, with Rory McIlroy turning down his invitation to compete in the European Tour’s Saudi International this month.
This cultivation of sport is part of Vision 2030 - a state attempt to branch out from reliance on oil revenues. Central to the project is a 130 square-mile ‘entertainment city’ in Qiddiya, south-west of the capital Riyadh. Logic suggests that F1 will be based at this site from 2022, among the high-end theme parks, safari areas and more relaxed Western-style rules. However, Riyadh remains an alternative under discussion.
The race is being earmarked for an early-season slot. The searing summer heat precludes a race between May and September.
A spokesman for the Bahrain International Circuit, who run the Gulf country’s grand prix in late March, said: "Since our first race in 2004, our goal has been to grow the fanbase for motorsport in the region. We would, therefore, welcome initiatives which can support that growth and believe that a future race in Saudi Arabia would be complementary."
As for Miami, Formula One bosses are increasingly confident that local objections will be overcome and that they can deliver on their long-stated pledge to stage a second race in the US, alongside the grand prix in Austin, Texas.
No races will be axed to make way for Saudi Arabia and Miami, potentially extending the number of rounds to a record 24, though some current destinations may be lost if they do not renew their contracts. Formula One declined to comment last night.