Saudi Arabia is staging its inaugural grand prix this weekend after securing a lucrative long-term deal, a move which has resulted in F1 being accused of sportswashing to cover up human rights issues in the country. 

The country has faced heavy criticism over its LGBTQ+ laws and treatment of women, who were only allowed to get behind the wheel of a car in 2018 after a decades-old ban was lifted. 

“I was thinking of what I can do and we have so much attention or focus on negative examples when it comes to shortcomings of certain countries in regard to maybe human rights and other things,” Vettel said on Thursday. 

“I really try and think of the positives so I set out my own karting event today under the hashtag ‘Race For Women’, and yeah we had i think a group of seven to eight girls and women on the track, and yeah set up a nice event only for them. 

“I was trying to pass on some of my experiences in life and on track to do something together to grow their confidence. 

“Obviously in Saudi Arabia women have only been allowed since 2017 [the ban was lifted in June 2018] to drive a car so some of them had a license others they did not. 

“Some of them were huge F1 enthusiasts, others had nothing to do with F1 or racing before today, so it was a good mix of women from different backgrounds and a great event, everyone was extremely happy and I was extremely inspired by their story and background, their positivity about the change in the country. 

“It’s true if we look from a western or European lens there’s still lots of things that should be improved and have to be addressed but it’s also true that some things are changing and for those people they make a huge difference. 

“In the end it’s very difficult for us coming to a country where we spend maybe only a couple of days and trying to be a perfect judge by not knowing the background exactly and the people inside out. 

“This way for me it was important to get to know some of these women and it was a very inspiring day and a great way to kick off the weekend, and that’s the main thing, focusing on the positive.” 

Seven-times world champion Lewis Hamilton admitted that he doesn’t feel entirely comfortable about racing in Saudi Arabia due to the country’s human rights record. 

Rather than focusing on negatives, Vettel said he finds it more inspiring to learn about the positive steps that are being taken. 

“I think it’s clear that some things aren’t going the way they should but that’s our point of view,” he added. “It’s also probably true that things take time and it’s a progress. 

“I would love to change the world in some things overnight but who I am to judge about right and wrong, I think that’s a slippery slope. It’s true that in some countries, some shortcomings are bigger than in others. 

“Much more inspiring I find is to highlight the positives and listen to those who have been touched and whose life has been improved. 

“To see today these women, the confidence they had and maybe in the area that is male-dominated when it comes to driving and racing, to give them the chance and the focus, it’s been great and it’s given me a lot of pleasure as well.”