Lewis Hamilton says he feels “the opposite” to other Formula 1 drivers expressing their satisfaction on safety at the 2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, following last year’s missile attack.
F1 heads back to Jeddah for the second race of the 2023 season this weekend, the first event after the 2022 edition was marred and nearly aborted following the threat of a drivers' strike in the aftermath of a Houthi missile strike on a nearby Aramco oil facility during practice.
The Formula One Management organisation, the FIA and the race promoter have sought to allay fears for competitors and spectators ahead of this year's race.
The stakeholders have been highlighting new additional safety measures, as well as the current informal ceasefire in the Yemen conflict, of which Saudi Arabia is part of a coalition trying to restore the government overthrown by the Houthi rebels group in 2014 in what is widely viewed as a proxy war with Iran, the Middle East region's other dominant power.
Safety was the subject of much discussion during the pre-event press conferences and driver media sessions in Jeddah on Thursday.
In the first part of the former, McLaren driver Lando Norris said he was "happy we're racing here" as "Formula 1 and what we're doing as a sport is a good thing", and he is "not worried about anything".
Williams racer Alex Albon said "there's been a lot of work this year put into trying to make it feel safer for everyone", a view shared by Carlos Sainz.
The Ferrari driver added: "I think they've given enough reassurance and enough explanations to say that we're in safe place right now and as far as my understanding goes, I need to guide myself by that, time will tell.
"But I'm confident that they obviously are not lying to us and they are putting together a safe event."
Alfa Romeo's Valtteri Bottas pointedly refused to say anything on the safety topic, and only wanted to express his feeling that the "track is cool", a stance echoed by AlphaTauri driver Yuki Tsunoda.
In the second part of the official press conference, Kevin Magnussen (Haas), Alpine's Esteban Ocon, Lance Stroll of Aston Martin, Red Bull's Sergio Perez and Hamilton were also asked to offer their opinions on returning to Jeddah after the missile attack.
But it was the Mercedes driver's reply in following the various expressions of confidence in the safety measures outlined by FOM and co from his peers that drew considerable interest.
The exchange in full:
Magnussen: "Yeah, last year was pretty 'special', I would call it. None of us enjoyed it but I think we… it's a different situation now, there's a different political… there's a ceasefire between the two parties that were involved last year and I think that gives some confidence. I think anyway from my part there's not much to do. We go to these places and we just have to deal with it the best we can and get through it."
Ocon: "Obviously we trust FOM and the organisation to keep us safe. Obviously, it was scary what happened last year. None of us wants to ever experience something like that. But, we trust everyone around to put us in a safe situation to race."
Stroll: "Yeah, more or less the same thing. I trust the organisation, I trust Formula 1 – that they're looking after us. I think this race has evolved a lot over the last few years. I think it's changing, I think the country is changing, I think it's evolving. And I'm confident that Formula 1 and the organisation is going to look after us and keep us safe this year."
Perez: "Yeah, I'm happy to be back and as a sport I think we're able to also help a country to evolve and for the people that live here. So, this is something that as a sport we can be proud of. And, on the other hand, we also fully trust the organisations that bring us here to compete in a safe place."
Hamilton: "Not much really to add. All the opposite to everything they said."
When asked to elaborate on his latter comment, Hamilton replied, "well, I didn't elaborate on it, so it's open to interpretation", before adding later "I'm looking forward to getting in the [W14] car, for sure".
He then stressed "that part of my job I'm excited about", implying he is not satisfied with other elements of working in the Jeddah event given its history, as well as Saudi Arabia's poor record on human rights.
This is another subject that is regularly scrutinised regarding this event as Saudi Arabia faces accusations of trying to 'sportwash' its image by hosting major events.
When subsequently asked to specify if it was a political or safety element he was referring to, Hamilton replied: "It's neither – don't want to get into either.
"So, hopefully everyone has a safe weekend and hopefully everyone gets home safe afterwards. That's as much as we can do, right?"
It was finally put to Hamilton if he had ever considered boycotting the Saudi race and the seven-time world champion said he instead preferred to try and use his platform to highlight the issues at stake given if he did not travel to Jeddah "Formula 1 will continue on without me".
He added: "So, what I try to do is just try to learn as much as I can when I'm going to these different places.
"I still feel that, as a sport going to places with human rights issues such as this one, the sport is duty bound to raise awareness and try to leave a positive impact.
"And I feel like it needs to do more. What that is, I don't have all the answers. But I think we always need to do more to raise awareness for things that people are struggling with."
Hamilton's team-mate, George Russell, who is also the only currently competing director of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association, outlined the new safety measure explanations that had been presented to the competitors.
"I think we're all, although I can't speak for the other 19 drivers, but generally, I think we're happy and have no concerns with the changes that have been put in place ahead of this year," said Russell.
"There were a lot of lessons to be learned from what happened 12 months ago, and Formula 1 has really stepped it up.
"And not just in regards of what's happening here in Saudi but for all of the grand prix we go too – there are clearly some safety concerns when you have 400,000 people walking through the doors across a weekend.
"The lessons that have probably been learned, and what F1 has shared with us, I think gives us all a bit more peace of mind and understanding as well.
"There was probably a lack of communication this time 12 months [ago] and the first source of info for us [about the missile attack] was coming from social media and not from the source.
"And that probably added fuel to the fire. So, yeah, I think just globally we're in a much better place now."
Additional reporting by Jonathan Noble