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Interview

Martin Whitaker: From working with Senna to running the Saudi Arabian GP

The recent Saudi Arabian GP was the third to take place in that country within a 16-month period, reflecting a remarkable achievement for the local organisation from a standing start.

Martin Whitaker, CEO, Saudi Motorsport Company

Autosport Business

Covering industry news and insight into the business of motorsport

The man who heads race promoter Saudi Motorsport Company, and who is largely responsible for the success of the event, is Briton Martin Whitaker.

Prior to becoming involved in the circuit and event operation business, Whitaker's career followed an unusual path that saw him working for bosses as diverse as Bernie Ecclestone, Jean-Marie Balestre, Max Mosley and Ron Dennis.

Along the way, he's experienced the sport from every possible angle, including that of manufacturer and entrant in F1 and the WRC. His CV is one of the busiest of any top executive in motorsport.

From a family background of fruit farming and winemaking in Gloucestershire, Whitaker got his start as a junior reporter for Motoring News. Journalism wasn't his thing, however, and in 1985 he switched to become press officer for the RAC MSA, which saw him involved in the British GP, RAC Rally and events such as the London-Brighton run.

He caught the attention of Bernie Ecclestone and after a brief spell working for F1, at his boss's suggestion, he moved to the FIA, overseeing media matters in the latter stages of the Balestre era. Then, in late 1990, he was recruited as communications boss by McLaren.

"It was amazing working at McLaren in the days when Ayrton Senna and Gerhard Berger were there," he recalls. "Gerhard was the practical joker, and they had this really good relationship.

"We were winning everything, and it was a great team. You could learn a lot from somebody like Ron. That was a really exciting period, and really interesting, because it was also the time when they launched the F1 road car, so it was quite fun to be involved in that. And I got to wear the red trousers!"

In 1991, Whitaker returned to the F1 organisation to look after the TV side for Ecclestone, before going back to the FIA for a second stint, this time working with Mosley.

"You can imagine working for Max was an extraordinary experience," he says. "He was a great person to work for, to be honest."

Martin Whitaker in 1997

Martin Whitaker in 1997

Photo by: Sutton Images

He was thus in charge of FIA communications during the turbulent 1994 season, including the Imola weekend that saw the deaths of Senna and Roland Ratzenberger.

In 1995 he was headhunted by Ford Europe: "I started off as the public affairs director for motorsport, and then I took over as director of motorsport. Up until then, my career was pretty much in communications, so this was a bit of a shift.

"I was at Ford throughout that great era of transforming the rally programme and moving it to M Sport from Boreham. We got Martini involved and we signed Colin McRae, and then in the second year we had Carlos Sainz. The new car was designed and built by Gunther Steiner.

"Meanwhile in F1, we [worked with] Sauber initially. Jacques Nasser was the boss in America, and he instructed Ford Europe to get on and form the Stewart Grand Prix team. We built the team effectively from scratch. Interesting times, and of course we ended up actually being pretty competitive.

"I was also director of Cosworth for a short period, and I was on the F1 Commission as the manufacturers' representative."

In 2003 Whitaker's career took off in another direction when he became involved with event management for the first time, again with Ecclestone's encouragement.

New races were coming in Bahrain and China, and Ecclestone wanted people he knew in the loop. With building work at Shanghai lagging behind, there was a date swap between the new events and Whitaker subsequently focussed on the first Sakhir race, which was fast-tracked for April 2004.

"I was really doing pretty much all of the media work again," he says. "But I became involved in an awful lot more, in terms of promotion and just general organisation."

Indeed after the first race, he was asked by the Bahraini Crown Prince to run the whole track operation. Having agreed to this, he stayed until 2010.

Then he went off on a different course once again , briefly running the V8 Supercar series in Australia. He returned to Bahrain in more of a consultancy role after the social uprising there led to the cancellation of the 2011 F1 race. This time his more diverse agenda included a potential Bahraini bid for the America's Cup as well as looking at other sporting events.

Martin Whitaker

Martin Whitaker

Photo by: Sutton Images

From there it was back to the UK and the Circuit of Wales project. There was a MotoGP deal and talks with Ecclestone to get the British GP, and the facilities were designed by stadium specialists Populous. However, the venue ultimately failed to get the official support that it required, and the project's collapse is clearly Whitaker's greatest regret.

"Unfortunately, the Welsh government just didn't have the vision or the foresight to see how valuable it could be," he says. "Can you imagine what it would have been like having Moto GP and F1 in South Wales? It was a stunning circuit. It was a spectators' paradise, you could see pretty much the whole track from one location."

Whitaker subsequently worked on electric car and alternative fuel projects before he was contacted about plans for a Saudi Arabian GP.

The longer-term ambition of Saudi ASN boss HRH Prince Khalid bin Sultan Al-Abdullah Al-Faisal was to have a race in the new city of Qiddiya, which was several years away from being realised. However, F1 CEO Chase Carey made it clear that the country could have an event immediately.

"Qiddiya came first," says Whitaker. "But at the same time, they had the opportunity to get an F1 race, and it was almost instantaneous. So it was like, 'you can get an F1 race, and you can run in 2021'. And it was 'where can we put it?'.

"Prince Khalid is based in Jeddah, there's a vibrant community on the shores of the Red Sea, and there was an opportunity to build an interesting street circuit. Tilke came and had a look, and I think it snowballed.

"I was invited to help set up the F1 race, and then very quickly ended up giving Prince Khalid support with chairing various construction meetings and things of this nature."

Whitaker had to juggle the requirements of 30 or 40 contractors involved in the project: "Construction didn't really start until May 2021, and the race was on December 5.

"Because the site was so narrow, we had constant problems with people completing something and then needing that area to be left so that things would set. You couldn't interfere with a drain that had been put in, and then somebody else would come along and say 'We've got to put electrics here'.

"There was constant cross-pollination between these companies, which was not an ideal scenario!

"A lot of this is reclaimed land. The idea was to put some tunnels in under the circuit, but we very quickly found that we couldn't do the tunnels because they were just going to leak water.

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB19, Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin AMR23, prepare to lead the field away at the start

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB19, Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin AMR23, prepare to lead the field away at the start

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

"The foundations for the pit and paddock area were a major task. They had to start building on I think August 13, and they started on August 21. So it was a pretty big challenge. But unbelievably, it got done."

The circuit wasn’t formally approved by the FIA’s Michael Masi until the early hours on the eve of Friday practice.

Initially, everything had been run under the umbrella of the local federation, but just before the first event, the Saudi Motorsport Company was formed, with Whitaker as its CEO and Prince Khalid as chairman.

"I think the impact of F1 was making people realise that it was a catalyst for the development of the sport in the country," says Whitaker. "And as a direct result, SMC was born out of that.

"The next logical step was to start a proper employment programme for young Saudis. And so now we have just over 150 people working in our building. The majority of them are under the age of 30, and 40% of those are women, which I think is a success story in itself."

SMC's reach has extended far beyond the F1 race to include the year-round exploitation of the Jeddah circuit plus plans for three future venues – one for MotoGP, one for domestic and track day use and – eventually – the Qiddiya F1 facility.

"We want to grow the sport to present the opportunity for young Saudis to have a career path in the sport," says Whitaker.

"We'll look to start building academies for karting, bikes, off-road and rally, drifting and drag racing. The vision is to have a Saudi champion in a major series. And there's no real reason why we can't do that."

Saudi Arabia already has extensive involvement with Grand Prix racing that extends to a shareholding in McLaren and Aramco's deals with F1 itself and the Aston Martin team. However, the country also wants to use the sport as an inward investment.

"Invest Saudi has something like 7000 companies who are interested in doing business with Saudi Arabia on their books," says Whitaker. "We're not going to talk to all those 7000, but nevertheless we can be a platform for the development of business networking opportunities.

"Invest Saudi is now one of the sponsors of the Grand Prix, and they use it as a platform with which to entertain companies who want to do business in Saudi Arabia."

It hasn't all been straightforward. Amid the debate about human rights and sportswashing, some F1 drivers, notably Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, were uncomfortable about racing in Saudi Arabia. And the missile attack on an oil refinery during the second event in 2022 nearly led to a boycott.

"I think everybody can understand the drivers were concerned," says Whitaker. "We spent a lot of time during the course of last year talking to the teams. Prince Abdulaziz, the minister of sport, came to Austria, and we had individual meetings with all the drivers and the team principals.

"The teams really embraced that and they asked us to follow up on it with a presentation, which we did in Singapore.

"Prince Khalid and I attended the drivers' briefing in Singapore. It was a robust discussion. I think at the end of it Lewis and Sebastian appreciated the fact that the Saudis had taken the trouble to actually come and talk about the issue.

"Often if you can talk about things it helps. It's when you don't talk about things, and you bury your head, that you just make matters worse.

The busy grid at the 2023 Saudi Arabian GP

The busy grid at the 2023 Saudi Arabian GP

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

"So oddly enough I think that attack on the refinery, as bad as it was, probably did help Saudi create better links to people. And clearly, people's views are not going to change overnight. We've always said you can't force things down people's throats.

"However, Stefano Domenicali has made the point about trying to use F1 as a force for good. Let's be honest, human rights are an issue worldwide, it's not specifically Saudi Arabia. That's not an excuse, I'm not condoning it at all. But I think Stefano is right.

"We are racing in this part of the world, we're racing in Qatar, we're racing in Bahrain, we're racing in the UAE. And F1 has chosen to be here. So let's work with the people here and use the sport as an opportunity to affect some better understanding."

The 2023 event, helped by the experience gained at the previous two, ran smoothly in all areas.

"I judge it on the number of times Stefano came into my office last year. He might as well have left his office and come and camped in mine! But I didn't see him this year.

"We did make mistakes, but we learned from them. I'd like to think now that we're in a position where we are able to run a race and with pride say that we are at a level with other races, if not probably a little bit further ahead of some of them."

After moving around so much over the past four decades, Whitaker looks set to stay at SMC for a while, especially with the new challenge of the Qiddiya project on the horizon. He won't be compiling a CV just yet.

"I don't think I've ever had an interview in my life," he smiles. "I think I've just been one of those lucky people that just fall into something.

"Don't forget, I've always had a love for the sport. My hero was Ronnie Peterson, and I loved circuit racing, and I loved rallying. And so it had always been in my blood. So I suppose in a sense I always probably knew I wasn't going to last long pruning apple trees! But yes, I've been incredibly lucky to have had the jobs I've had."

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