I Found Out Just How Far I’d Go to Get Back to a Race Weekend

Severe restrictions, quarantine, solitude, rationing water in a Saudi Arabia hotel room? Yeah.

Hello from Saudi Arabia! I’m on the fifth and last day of quarantine during an international motorsport assignment. Even with special permission from the Ministry of Sport (normal quarantine is 14 days), I can’t leave my Riyadh hotel room or go anywhere else in the city other than the racetrack—and even then I have to abide by strict time windows. Needless to say, I’m surprised to realize what lengths I’m willing to go to cover a race. It’s literally anything

You might be wryly prepping a comment like “what are you going to do in Saudi Arabia, anyway?” I don’t know; falafel and coffee with my friends, eat desserts until I go into diabetic shock, check out the strange mix of aging Toyota Camrys and newer Korean cars here? Perhaps see if they’ve sorted out the whole “municipal waste collection” problem that’s been visibly obvious the last three times I’ve been here? It’d be incredibly flippant, as a western journalist allowed to speak freely, if I wasted the trip here from the U.K. by sitting in a hotel room, yet that’s exactly what I’m doing.

Home sweet home…, Hazel Southwell

I don’t go on press trips. When I do fly myself to races, I do just that and it’s my prerogative to make it make sense as a job. On its part, Formula E (the series I mostly cover) lets me get on with it—even in Saudi Arabia, it’s never asked me where I am or what I’m doing in previous years, but this year it’s much different.

The closest thing I’ve had to the thrill of nosing around a foreign city has been from the window in the back of my private-hire car on my way to my multiple COVID-19 tests. No taxis, no outdoors. Not even the hotel lobby. Room, private shuttle, track, track, shuttle, room. That’s all. A couple of days ago I even started running out of water and food (I’ve unfortunately ended up in a hotel without room service), and things felt bleak. But I’d do it again.

It makes sense, really. The U.K. has a horrific COVID-19 infection rate and we’re being quarantined not for our own good, but for the good of the Saudi population. About one year ago, March 2, 2020, my profession came to a halt. I touched down at Stansted Airport near London after staying out all night in a bar in Prague exchanging travel stories with some Russian guy I’d just met, one last adventure on my way back from Marrakech. I knew the world was closing and things were coming to an end.

The calendar falling apart felt like watching life on Netflix, and then like that bit in Twilight where Bella just sits on a chair waiting for Edward to come back for a year. It’s been the same for everyone. With no trackside journalists for Formula E’s Berlin finale, the job I’d loved so much slipped deeper into a folkloric dream, reality-dredging memories like those moments just after waking up when you think you’ll remember it all. 

It’s fair to say, most of us will do anything to go back—and now I know I will. I’d even do twice this much because now that I’m back at the track, it’s already all slipped away into nothing.

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