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‘Did I do enough as a leader? No’ – Whitmarsh on F1 diversity

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
9 min read

Lewis Hamilton’s diversity drive can trigger two reactions among those of us who have not spent our time consciously thinking about Formula 1’s uncomfortable relationship with discrimination.

Either it forces someone to confront the reality they’ve been conveniently ignoring, or they bury their head in the sand.

Those who do the latter tend to take the very simplistic view that F1 is a pure meritocracy and made up of the absolute best. The implication is that if the people supposedly excluded from F1 worked a bit harder they’d get there ‘on merit’ instead of being helped along.

“There’s a bit of arrogance in Formula 1 and I’ve been, I’m sure, guilty of this feeling of ‘well I’ve got there and if I can, anyone’s just got to have the ambition and the drive and the commitment and go and knock on the door’,” Martin Whitmarsh, the former McLaren boss who was made a member of The Hamilton Commission, tells The Race.

“It’s how I got into F1, I just knocked on the door. But it hadn’t occurred to me that there were big sections of society, disadvantaged elements of our society, ethnic minorities from poor backgrounds, that just don’t feel invited.

“And therefore they don’t go knock on the door and they’re not inspired to go and do that education.”

Seven-time Formula 1 world champion Hamilton, the first Black person to race in F1, set up his commission in association with the Royal Academy of Engineering to identify the root causes of the lack of diversity in UK motorsport and F1, and come up with recommendations to address those issues.

In his answer above, Whitmarsh touches on one of the guaranteed responses whenever there is talk of F1 trying to increase diversity in its ranks, that people who work in F1 have worked very hard themselves to get there.

There is often an obliviousness to the reality that simply ‘working hard’ doesn’t produce the same outcome for every individual.

“Much to my shame because I was a leader in sport for quite a few years, I didn’t have enough conscious thought in just looking around at the evidence in front of me” :: Martin Whitmarsh

That comes from a place of ignorance. It is not necessarily rooted in malice. But unfortunately it often is, because it’s a sentiment expressed by people who respond poorly to the suggestion there is any kind of bias at play.

They reject the premise entirely rather than make an effort to understand the fact that F1’s not made up of the very best, it’s made up of the best who are invited to be a part of it.

But that’s not how everyone responds and there are many examples of Hamilton’s proactivity already inspiring tangible change, not least in the creation of his own charity but also his Mercedes team’s commitments and F1’s own efforts to make a difference.

Lewis Hamilton

“He recognises that as the icon that he has now become, that is something that gives him a platform, gives him a voice, gives him the opportunity to prompt this debate, and causes us to think about it,” says Whitmarsh.

“In 25 years I can’t remember an incident where I thought ‘that’s a decision based on some racist belief’ but on the other hand, much to my shame because I was a leader in sport for quite a few years, I didn’t have enough conscious thought in just looking around, just using my eyes, at the evidence in front of me in the paddock, in the garages, in the factories, in the engineering offices.

“We’re very international. But we don’t represent the society from which we draw these people.”

Opening up the pool of applicants is at the heart what Hamilton has tried to achieve with his commission and the charity he has subsequently created.

It is not designed to belittle those who work in F1 or suggest they didn’t have to work hard to get there. It simply recognises that there are those for whom working that hard simply isn’t enough because there are other hurdles in their path.

This sentiment is expressed neatly in the song Black, by Santan Dave, an incredibly powerful piece of work that delves into racial inequality and discrimination, and includes the lines: “We all struggled, but your struggle ain’t a struggle like me. Well how could it be when your people gave us the odds that we beat?”

Basically, you can be male, white and affluent and still have your own struggles. But you can’t pretend they are the same as someone with demonstrably fewer opportunities and bigger obstacles to get around.

The Hamilton Commission’s report was not focused exclusively on F1 but it did ram home the awful imbalance between engineering students of Black and non-Black backgrounds and showed how the world in which that can exist and the world of F1 are one and the same.

F1 pitlane 2021

Whitmarsh says he is now more aware of that than before.

“I can’t consciously recall or remember witnessing to conscious racial discrimination in my time in sport, but inevitably it was there as it is, unfortunately, in all branches of society,” he says.

“I was aware that the barriers to entry are pretty high, and they’re quite challenging to our sport that we love. Formula 1 is more than boots and a ball, or a racket and a ball, and therefore for the athletes, it’s extremely difficult to get into the sport.

“Formula 1 is the pinnacle of motorsport, we’re very much focused on performance, winning, excellence. So aside from the athletes we traditionally recruited from the top universities.

“And whilst that in itself doesn’t sound discriminatory, it is actually, because many parts of the disadvantaged elements of our society, they don’t feel invited to those institutions, and they don’t see a way to them, and therefore consequently they don’t necessarily have the route to Formula 1.”

Various factors combine to turn Black students away from studying Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects at school. They are also more likely to suffer expulsion and more likely to eschew further education entirely.

F1 is not, obviously, directly responsible for this. But these societal issues mean far fewer Black students get to the supposedly ‘elite’ universities in the UK. And as Whitmarsh says, big F1 teams have a habit of turning to these universities for their recruitment of engineering staff – universities that, in 2019, had fewer than 900 Black students between them.

The Hamilton Commission’s process involved interviewing more than 100 people in the past year including representatives from every F1 team, research of 2400 young people, detailed data analysis, surveying and literature review.

In a lengthy report spanning more than 180 pages, it revealed that only 1% of motorsport engineering jobs are held by people from Black backgrounds and found case studies of “outright racism” and discriminatory behaviour in UK motorsport teams dismissed as “banter”.

Mercedes F1 garage 2021

Only 2% of some 50,000 apprentices in engineering were from Black backgrounds, while only 20% of Black students got a first-class degree compared to 43% of White students. Around 2300 Black students were studying any form of engineering qualification in 2019/20 and fewer than 10 studied a motorsport qualification.

“In trying to sort of understand these issues a bit, we should be trying to use Formula 1 with its profile, with its prominence, as a catalyst to change,” says Whitmarsh.

“The sport is very attractive to many people. And therefore, we ought to be able to reach out to all sections of society to inspire them, but also to cause them to feel invited.

“That was one of my big learnings from listening to people through the commission. People from different elements of society didn’t feel invited to participate, they didn’t feel it was for them, they didn’t feel that they could or should or would be accepted.

“What we’ve got in Formula 1 is potentially, if we choose to use it, an incredible tool.

“One of the things that I learned along the way from some other work that I’ve done, is that actually children and their parents make some very, very fundamental decisions about schooling in the ages of 11 to 14, in choosing the subjects that are going to follow.

“They were also consciously or unconsciously deciding how important education is to them, and how they want to be included in that and achieve in that.

“I think that we can use a tool like Formula 1 as a means to inspire children from disadvantaged backgrounds and cause them to feel you’re invited to come and participate in this great technology sport.

“If you want to participate as a non-athlete, as an engineer, which is how I joined, then even at that early age, you’ve got to start to focus on the STEM subjects at school, you’ve got to start to focus on attainment and learning.”

“Formula 1 represents an opportunity to make a difference, to stimulate, to inspire. We’ve got to demonstrate to these children, and to their parents, that they are welcomed” :: Martin Whitmarsh

The Hamilton Commission’s findings include a call for F1 to lead the way in establishing a sport-wide diversity and inclusion charter, and an agreement to exempt apprenticeships from the championship’s new budget cap to encourage teams to hire more young staff from underrepresented backgrounds.

It outlined 10 recommendations in total across three core strands of support and empowerment; accountability and measurement; and inspiration and engagement.

Whitmarsh believes F1 can play a huge part in assisting wider change.

“I’m not trying to be defensive about it,” he says. “Did I do enough on these issues during my 25 years of leadership in the sport? No, I didn’t.

“I’m not defensive about that, it’s for me to reflect on, and that’s why I do a variety of things that I do now including trying to give to the commission. But I do think on a positive scope, however people view any of our motives, Formula 1 is an inspirational sport.

Martin Whitmarsh Lewis Hamilton

“The technology is inspirational, the athleticism is inspirational, the bravery of the drivers is inspirational. And Lewis’s broadening the appeal.

“Of course, it helps if you’ve come from the right place, you’re born in the right place with the right set of socio-economic circumstances.

“But we’ve got to try and reach out to those that haven’t and say, ‘OK, there’s some barriers, but you are invited in – if you want to be inspired, if you want to be part of this, you will be welcomed when you arrive here’.

Without a swell of social consciousness in recent years, F1 would be just like it was before: part of a sport in which the sole focus is competitiveness without any regard for a broader social agenda.

But while there are clearly things F1 could have been doing better, this exercise is not about shaming the people who worked there in the past or work there now.

Mercedes F1 pitstop practice

It is about recognising the need to do better in the future.

“I don’t need to be defensive about Formula 1 but Formula 1 is no better and also no worse than many other parts of society,” says Whitmarsh.

“Formula 1 represents an opportunity to make a difference, to stimulate, to inspire.

“We’ve got to demonstrate to these children, and to their parents, that they are welcomed, that we do want them, we’re going to help them, we’re reaching out to them.

“They’ve got to feel like they’re invited to join the club, which they haven’t done in the past.”

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