Formula One Speeds Through Jerusalem, Putting the Capital's Traffic Jams to Shame

Thousands of spectators - secular and religious Israelis, Palestinians, and tourists - step aside to watch the fastest cars Jerusalem has ever seen.

Tens of thousands of Israelis, Palestinians, and tourists flocked Thursday for the first day of Formula One road show on the streets of Jerusalem.

The exhibition, which included eight Formula One race-cars and a few motorcycles, is scheduled to continue on Friday. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, a fan of motor sports, initiated the bid for his city to host the world's greatest race-car show.

"We've made history," Barkat declared. "There isn't anyone who doesn't get excited by seeing world champions driving race-cars with the walls of the Old City in the background … Along the route stand 100,000 Arab, Christian and Jewish spectators: secular, religious and Haredi, sport unites them all.” The event also contributes to the branding and development of the city, Barkat said.

Starting at Old Railway Station complex, the cars raced across the city, along David Remez Street, Derech Hebron, Hativat Yerushalayim, Yitzhak Kariv and King David Street. Streets were closed off to the public on Thursday afternoon and will be closed again on Friday morning.

The masses crowded along the route, on balconies and on the fences. The most desirable spots were on the corners, where you could hear the tires squealing on the asphalt. Among the thousands of spectators were quite a number of young ultra-Orthodox Jews, Palestinians from the eastern part of the city, tourists, and families with little children in strollers.

After a long wait, the cars started to race past the crowds at high speed, as spectators attempted to capture the moments with their cell phone cameras. The loud engines and squealing tires competed only with the excited cries from the crowds.

These are, without a doubt, the fastest cars that have ever traveled the streets of Jerusalem in its thousands of years of history. The capital’s drivers are familiar with the various curves - as also traffic jams - of the roads of the city center. One of the spectators, who timed the Formula One cars, found it took them a minute and a half to negotiate the circuit: "If the driver only knew how much time it takes on a normal day, he would stop to say thank you."

At the corner of Agron St. and King David St. a truck was parked with the workers who put up the barriers along the route - and they placed themselves, equipped with a nargila, at a particularly good lookout point.

"This is the best job we've ever had," said Sufiyan Gargawi, one of the workers, from the town of Segev Shalom located in the northern Negev. Above them, taking a break from work and gathering onto a balcony at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, were Palestinian and Chinese construction workers.

For those looking for the political angle of the races, Thursday’s and Friday's events could be seen as part of the much larger race for mayor of Jerusalem, with the municipal elections coming in October. The Formula One event was part of the Barkat's efforts to prove to Jerusalemites that something really has changed in the city during his tenure.

Some view the event as another stage in the developing romance between Barkat and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Sheldon Adelson's Israel Hayom, the freebie newspaper that is commonly associated as supporting Netanyahu, was the main sponsor of the events. Last week, Netanyahu called Barkat and told him that he would not support Moshe Leon, who is close to former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, and who is considering running for mayor of the capital.

But the spectators were much more interested in what was happening on the track and preferred to bet on the speeds and RPM of the passing race cars, which were speeding by with engines roaring. "Jerusalem needs these celebrations," said Eliezer Zeligboim, an Israeli army retiree who stationed himself on a large planter in Mamilla.

It seems that only Mati Dan, better-known in the city as the chairman of the settlers’ Ateret Cohanim foundation, was dissatisfied with the event: "This is teaching criminal behavior, why do we need it? Why do our children need to see this?" he asked the head of the Jerusalem District Police, Maj. Gen. Yossi Pariente - while watching the stunt man on a racing bike do his tricks at high speed. "But here we are, even I came to watch," he added.