Saudi Arabia appears set to host the opening race of the 2024 Formula 1 season, a change from previous plans for it to be held in Australia.
The news came in a statement from the Victorian state government announcing a two-year contract extension for the Australian Grand Prix until 2037.
The statement said Melbourne’s Albert Park track will host the opening race at least four times during the term of the contract, but that Saudi Arabia will do so in 2024 “out of respect for Ramadan”.
Bahrain, which borders Saudi Arabia, has become the default season opener since the pandemic disrupted the shape of the calendar in 2020. It held its race on March 20 this year.
But Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, is due to start on March 11, 2024, up from April 2 this year.
As a result, F1 had planned to move the start of the season to Melbourne, which had been the usual pre-Covid opening event.
F1 was unable to confirm that Saudi Arabia would start the 2024 season.
He said in a statement: “Formula 1 has not released any details on future calendars. The 2024 calendar will be confirmed in the usual way later in the year.”
However, BBC Sport have been informed that, while F1 chairman Stefano Domenicali is still working on plans for the first part of the 2024 season, the Saudi event at the Jeddah street circuit is set to be the opening race.
No explanation for the change from the original plan to hold it in Australia was provided.
It is also unclear why, if it is possible to organize a grand prix in the Middle East to start the season before Ramadan in 2024, it would be in Saudi Arabia and not in Bahrain.
There will be speculation that Saudi Arabia – which is already paying one of the biggest accommodation fees for its event – has paid extra to secure the prestige of hosting the first race. But a source close to the situation insisted that was not the case.
Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia rejected F1’s proposal to hold a ‘sprint’ event in 2023 because organizers balked at the extra money involved.