Image: Jen_ross83 / Wikimedia Commons
Image: Jen_ross83 / Wikimedia Commons

Formula 1: anti-racism protests undermined by disunity

Lewis Hamilton has criticised Formula 1 and his fellow drivers for not doing enough to combat racism. His comments came after the Hungarian Grand Prix, which featured a disorganised pre-race demonstration against racism.

Some drivers did not attend, some were late, some did not wear ‘End Racism’ T-shirts and the moment was rushed by organisers. The six-time world champion said: “There is definitely not enough support for it. It’s lacking leadership. From a drivers’ point of view, many seem to be of the opinion they’ve done it and they’re not doing it again.”

He singled out FIA president Jean Todt and Romain Grosjean, one of three directors of the Grand Prix Drivers Association (GDPA), as two senior figures who were not being sufficiently supportive of the movement. He said he was disappointed by the “battle” he is facing in order to make it a top priority.

There are perhaps people who have not grown up around it so don’t understand it

– Lewis Hamilton

Of Todt, he said: “It shouldn’t be me that has to call the teams out, that should be discussed from the top down, by the powers that pull the strings.”

Hamilton also expressed criticism of Grosjean: “The GPDA is run by three people, two who are really for it and supportive, and one who is one of those who tends to not think it is important to continue with.

“I try not to lean so much on the drivers because I don’t want them to feel it’s me who’s doing it because that probably could be in some cases the reason they don’t want to do it – because they think I’m doing it.

“But I don’t think it’s being taken seriously. There are perhaps people who have not grown up around it so don’t understand it and because of that ‘it doesn’t affect me’.”

At the Styrian Grand Prix, at least 15 drivers took the knee

F1’s reaction to racial protest has been mixed since the start of the season. At the start of the Austrian Grand Prix, six drivers refused to bend the knee, a gesture that has come to symbolise the fight against racism and an opposition to police brutality.

Charles Leclerc, Daniil Kvyat, Carlos Sainz, Kimi Raikkonen, Antonio Giovinazzi and Max Verstappen all remained standing, although they joined their fellow drivers in wearing slogan T-shirts calling for a fight against racism.

Before the race, Leclerc wrote on his Twitter account: “I believe that what matters are facts and behaviours in our daily life rather than formal gestures that could be seen as controversial in some countries. I will not take the knee but this does not mean at all that I am less committed than others in the fight against racism.”

The next week, at the Styrian Grand Prix, at least 15 drivers took the knee, as did many of the track personnel. Footage of this kneeling was only shown briefly on the world feed produced by F1, and then the director cut away to video of skydivers above the Red Bull Ring.

F1 has announced programmes to address the lack of diversity in motorsport

After Hamilton won the race, he performed a Black Power salute on the podium. He said that the gesture was “inspiring” and added: “It felt like the right moment. It felt like an important moment for me.”

Both F1 and the FIA have announced programmes to address the lack of diversity in motorsport, but Hamilton stated that the moves did not go far enough.

He praised his Mercedes team for publicly backing the movement, running their car in black livery this season and establishing a diversity and inclusion programme to address their own shortcomings, but is frustrated that other teams are not following suit.

The whole saga demands two major questions – is F1 serious about tackling racism and discrimination, and how does the struggle to present a unified front impact on this fight?

From the outside, the failure to coordinate a coherent response to racism does seem to reflect a lack of interest in the issue. Only two of the ten F1 teams are looking at their own shortcomings, and the lack of any devoted space for gestures or protests implies that it is seen as less important. When you look at it, the current taking the knee doesn’t even last a minute. It speaks volumes that F1 governors are unable to find that time in a long race day.

The issue is not on the racetrack, but the barriers before reaching it

But it’s also worth stressing that incorporating gestures into the F1 routine is not in itself sufficient. As Hamilton says, the whole point of these gestures is to raise awareness of racism, forcing it to the head of the conversation so we can deal with it. Forcing all of the drivers to perform a certain gesture could be counter-productive, and it’s already drawing attention away from the other, more important conversations that need to be held.

Hamilton has already been branded a “militant” by former F1 champions, and there are growing reports of disquiet among the racers, who don’t want to pressured into performing certain actions.

As we’ve seen, when you’re on the racetrack, it’s talent that shines through, no matter what your background – you don’t become a six-time world champion unless you have a real feel for racing. The issue is not on the racetrack, but the barriers before reaching it. Incredibly, Lewis Hamilton is the only main team black driver ever to grace F1. Mechanical and logistical teams are also predominantly white.

There should be space for the drivers and the other staff to show solidarity

If F1 is serious about tackling racism within the sport, it needs to figure out how to increase diversity long before anyone hits the circuits. It needs to look at recruitment, and inclusive driver training, for example.

The disorganisation surrounding the F1 racism protests is threatening to completely undermine their message. There should be space for the drivers and the other staff to show solidarity, and F1 needs to facilitate this. Proposals to address the lack of diversity are a good start, but why should we assume it will be treated seriously when the sport is currently stumbling over the smallest of steps?

EDIT: An earlier version of this article mistakenly claimed that Pierre Gasly had not taken the knee at the Austrian Grand Prix. This was incorrect – Gasly has taken the knee at all three races to date.

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