Lewis Hamilton
Wikimedia Commons/ Jen_ross83

Hamilton speaks out against FIA’s neutrality guidelines

Lewis Hamilton has vowed to continue to speak his mind, in the face of new FIA guidelines on neutrality. The FIA’s new rule indicates that drivers who make “political, religious and personal statements, notably in violation of the general principle of neutrality […] unless previously approved in writing by the FIA” will face sanctions. Since the announcement of Article 12.2.1, drivers and fans of the sport have expressed their consternation towards the regulations, which many feel will stop drivers from expressing themselves and speaking about current issues.

The new rule comes is the latest in the line of controversial ideas under Mohammed Ben Sulayem’s FIA presidency. He recently told teams that he would be taking a step back from day-to-day involvement in the sport, after there were mounting concerns about his behaviour.

The new rule will prevent drivers from showing their support for current issues across the world. Each driver has an impressive platform of social media followers, to which they can show their support for a cause. Although drivers can only be sanctioned against on-track, and pre- and post-race events, they would be forbidden from taking their social media messages and showing them at race events; this is arguably the best opportunity for them to show support for a cause, with the eyes of the world fixed on the competition.

Max Verstappen sparked controversy by refusing to take the knee alongside Lewis Hamilton during his protest against racial inequality. Hamilton also wore a t-shirt on the podium after the 2020 Tuscan Grand Prix with the words ‘Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor’ across it. Is the FIA now preventing free speech under the pretext of minimising controversy in and around the sport?

Many drivers have expressed their views on current issues and have used their status as elite athletes to raise awareness of them

Although he made it clear that he would not actively want to get penalty points for speaking out, Hamilton denounced the addition of the rule: “Nothing will stop me from speaking on the things I am passionate about,” he said. The Mercedes driver was also keen to highlight Formula 1’s unique position of influence across the world of sport: “The sport has a responsibility to speak out and create awareness on important topics, particularly as we are travelling to different places.” There are not many sports that travel to as many countries as Formula 1 does, each with its own cultures, beliefs and laws. Hamilton went on to suggest that the grid were united in their feelings towards free speech, a cohesion which could present significant opposition to the rule over the course of the season.

The responsibility for determining whether a statement contravenes the rules stated in Article 12.2.1 lies with the stewards on a case-by-case basis. The FIA has produced an illustrative list of scenarios, which might be in breach of the new regulations to help the stewards. Fans of the sport and drivers will hope the stewards will be able to stick to the rules better than its race director in previous years!

Such measures bear a striking similarity with FIFA’s suggestion for teams to ‘focus on football’ during the World Cup, despite the tournament being steeped in controversy off the pitch.

European teams wanted to wear ‘One Love’ armbands against Qatar’s LGBTQ+ laws and Denmark were banned from wearing training shorts with ‘Human Rights for All’ on them. FIFA’s will to shy away from controversy at the tournament under the guise of ensuring an enjoyable competition for teams and spectators was controversial in itself. It is interesting to see the FIA take a similar line.

At a time when the lives of all people — not just drivers or elite sports players — are intertwined with and affected by social and political issues, the defiance from the grid is unsurprising.

Many drivers have expressed their views on current issues and have used their status as elite athletes to raise awareness of them. Political statements or not, under this guise of maintaining neutrality, the FIA are perhaps shying away from the sport’s position of influence to do good in the world, as Hamilton suggests.


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