There are many things that may come to mind when you think about Israel and its capital, Jerusalem. History, religion, security, conflict, peace... you might even think of the country's burgeoning high-tech sector or its aerospace industry. But racing? Hardly. Until recently, motor racing wasn't even legal in Israel. But Jerusalem's mayor Nir Barkat – a man who enjoys racing for more than just political office – set out to change that last year when he brought F1 cars to Israel for the first time in the country's long history.
Until recently, motor racing wasn't even legal in Israel.
The first Jerusalem Formula Roadshow was a big success, bringing former grand prix pilot Giancarlo Fisichella along with the Ferrari demonstration team, a Lotus Le Mans prototype, Audi DTM touring car and a smattering of other machinery to run along the streets that were once laid out for chariots and camels. Lining those ancient streets to catch a glimpse of the action were a solid quarter-million spectators from all of the city's diverse communities: Religious and secular, Jews, Muslims and Christians alike, united by their shared enthusiasm to put their fears and animosity to rest, if even just for a day or two.
Little wonder, then, that the mayor committed to recreating the success this year. Unfortunately outside influences had other plans: The prolonged skirmish in Gaza forced the event to be postponed, but once the hostilities subsided, the show was rescheduled for this week – in the middle of the Jewish high holiday season and immediately following the Muslim Eid al-Adha festival.
"Last year, the Jerusalem Formula Road Show attracted over 250,000 people to Jerusalem, significantly contributed to the city's economy and tourism, and gave the world a different perspective of the city," said Mayor Barkat. "The pictures of the Formula One cars racing through our streets sent an international message that Jerusalem is an open, welcoming city in which sport and entertainment are enjoyed by residents and tourists alike."
Although these demonstration events take place across the calendar and around the world, they typically center around one team. This year's event, however, brought out both the Ferrari and Caterham F1 teams (each powered by wailing atmospheric V8 engines) along with the Le Mans-winning Audi R10 TDI and a handful of Porsche and Ferrari GT racers. Up-and-coming Israeli racing drivers Alon Day, Roy Nissany, Bar Baruch and Yarin Stern brought their single-seaters for the rare opportunity to run on home soil, joining the returning Fisichella and GP2 race winner Nathanaël Berthon. Legendary British stunt driver Terry Grant wowed the crowds burning donuts and smoking the tires on his '37 Ford hot rod, and the FMX4Ever freestyle riders soared high above the ancient skyline to the applause of the masses gathered along a route starting at the Ottoman-era train station and ending by the Jaffa Gate in the Old City walls built over 3,000 years ago.
"Hearing the sound of a Ferrari F1 roaring through the streets of Jerusalem is something you can only dream about."
"Formula Jerusalem was a great experience once again, hearing the sound of a Ferrari F1 roaring through the streets of Jerusalem is something you can only dream about, but it was a reality once again," said Roy, a 32-year-old journalist from New York who we spoke to at the event. "This event brings together all faiths in Jerusalem: I saw Jews, Muslims and Christians at the event and I am looking forward to the Roadshow coming back next year."
Not everyone was so enthused by the event, though. In an opinion piece for the Jerusalem Post, columnist Erica Schachne characterizing the mayor as "tone-deaf to the needs of his residents" and lamented the road closures and rerouting of city buses necessitated by the event: "Monday and Tuesday are schooldays and workdays for the majority, with people all over Jerusalem struggling to ensure their kids get to school and they themselves get to work, alongside holiday shopping and preparations that must be done in time to welcome family and guests."
Not everyone was so enthused by the event, though.
Some locals who had gone to the inaugural event didn't bother this time around. "Last year I went to see what all the fuss was about." said Ari, 27, a digital marketer from Illinois who moved to Israel three years ago. "The cars were very cool – certainly not something you see every day in these parts. This year, I didn't go because I figured the cars would be the same and I didn't have time. I liked that it put Jerusalem on the map, but we need to get a real race sometime soon – not just a show."
Speaking to the press about the prospect of putting on an actual race in Jerusalem, Barkat pointed out that the costs would be around ten times higher. Israel does not currently have a dedicated racing circuit, so one would need to be constructed, with all the costs and logistics that would entail. We suppose that, when it comes to racing fast cars, progress can move rather slowly, but it has to start somewhere. And after witnessing the action first-hand two years running now, the Jerusalem Formula roadshow struck us as about as good a starting point as you're likely to find.