F1 news roundup: Race in Saudi Arabia looking likely

In the latest roundup of off-season news, reports link Saudi Arabia to a £50-million sponsorship deal with F1 and future engine regulations are up for discussion.

Saudi Arabia is in the final stages of agreeing a race and sponsorship deal with Formula One, according to a report in the Daily Mail. The newspaper claims F1 has struck a £50 million-per-year deal to make Saudi Arabia's state-owned oil company, Aramco, a global sponsor and that a street race in Jeddah could take place as early as next year before a permanent home for the Saudi Arabia Grand Prix is found from 2022 onwards.

Talk of a race in Saudi Arabia is nothing new and made headlines on a number of occasions in 2019, but Tuesday's report claims the deal is as "good as done". Formula One, which has made no secret of its desire to explore new territories, declined to comment on developments in Saudi Arabia when contacted by ESPN.

The addition of a race in the oil-rich kingdom would likely draw criticism due to the country's poor human rights record and has already been met with accusations of a "sportwash" by Daily Mail headline writers. The same accusation has been levelled at recent sporting events in the kingdom, including the high-profile heavyweight title fight between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr.

A sponsorship deal with Aramco would also expose the sport to criticism on environmental fronts, as the state-owned oil company recently topped a list that ranked the most polluting firms on the planet. The report, published in the Guardian newspaper, claims Aramco and its products have contributed 59.26 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere since 1965, which equates to 4.38 percent of the global total in that period. Such a record appears to be at odds with F1's recently-launched plan to achieve carbon-neutral status by 2030, which includes ways in which it plans to develop synthetic fuels and wean itself off oil-based products.

However, if the race in Saudi Arabia goes ahead, F1 would not be the first motorsport series to stage an event in the kingdom. The all-electric Formula E series has held its last two season openers in Diriyah and the Dakar Rally has found a new home in the country this year.

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F1 considering two-stroke engines

F1 is considering two-stroke engines as a possible development path for its future power units, according to a report in Motorsport Magazine.

After it recently signed off new chassis and aerodynamic regulations for 2021, the sport is already thinking about how engine regulations could evolve in the coming decade. The next generation of F1 power units are due in 2025 or 2026 and, after ruling out a switch to all-electric vehicles, two-stroke combustion is on the table.

Two-stroke engines are commonly found in go-karts and older motorbikes and have the advantage of offering more power from a smaller cubic capacity. However, noisy high-revving exhaust notes and the burning of oil in the combustion process have made them unpopular in modern forms of transport, which largely rely on four-stroke petrol and diesel engines. That could all change if F1 highlights the potential of two-stroke engines in tandem with its shift towards fully-synthetic fuels.

"I'm very keen on it [the next F1 engine] being a two-stroke," F1's chief technical officer Pat Symonds said at the Motorsport Industry Association's energy-efficient motorsport conference. "Much more efficient, great sound from the exhaust and a lot of the problems with the old two strokes are just not relevant any more.

"It's reasonably obvious that if you are going to pump that piston up and down, you might as well get work out of it every time the piston comes down rather than every other time the piston comes down. The opposed piston engine is very much coming back and already in road car form at around 50 per cent efficiency.

"Direct injection, pressure charging, and new ignition systems have all allowed new forms of two-stroke engines to be very efficient and very emission-friendly. I think there's a good future for them."

Leclerc shows respect for Vettel

Charles Leclerc will not hold a grudge against his Ferrari teammate Sebastian Vettel ahead of the 2020 season.

Leclerc and Vettel collided at the Brazilian Grand Prix last year and clashed over team orders at a number of rounds earlier in the season. The incidents led to speculation that the Ferrari teammates had fallen out, but speaking at the Autosport International Show last weekend, Leclerc said that was not the case.

"We are extremely competitive and sometimes on track we might have some frictions," Leclerc told Autosport. "But in the end we are mature enough to know that what happened on track is on track and off it we are different."

He added that he believes Vettel is still the faster of the two teammates in race conditions and that he hopes to continue to learn from the four-time champion in 2020.

Has Williams hit rock bottom?

Former Williams engineer Rob Smedley has warned that things could go from bad to worse for his old team this season. Williams endured its worse season in history in 2019, scoring a single point and spending the majority of the year at the back of the grid, but the decline may not be over.

"There would always be a philosophy that it can't get any worse," Smedley told Reuters. "Having been around the block a few times in motorsport, and Formula One in particular, [I know] the reality is it can get worse than this.

"We talk about how it can't get much worse than 2019, but we said that about 2018. And we said that about 2017. The reality is that 2020 can actually be worse than 2019."

Smedley, who now works directly for Formula One, said he still had "huge affection" for Williams and was rooting for them.

"Now I'm on the outside I can hope, but when I was on the inside I didn't want to just hope," he added. "It's a tragic case. I'm not of the generation that can't remember when Williams won a world championship.

"To see the decline there, it's heartbreaking really as a Formula One fan."