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Exposing sinister problems is why Hamilton report matters

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
7 min read

Lewis Hamilton’s commission exploring the underrepresentation of people from Black backgrounds in motorsport has confirmed some uncomfortable truths and exposed some new ones about Formula 1, motorsport as a whole, and the wider world it all exists in.

Motorsport is home to examples of the same systemic racism and unconscious biases that have been thrust into the spotlight in a tumultuous past year or so. They are just less overt.

Well, they were until a driver of Hamilton’s profile started to meddle with the status quo. His activism has brought sinister undertones to the surface.

As Hamilton has grown increasingly vocal in his desire to enact meaningful change off-track, the dissenting crowd has become increasingly fed up with his refusal to just be a racing driver.

The publication of his commission’s report, detailing the methodology, the findings, and the recommendations to try to address the problem of F1 and UK motorsport’s lack of diversity, will therefore have an inevitable, familiar, sinister backlash.

This report is not focused exclusively on F1 but the seven-time world champion’s profile, some of the case studies involved, and the simple fact that it is the top of the motorsport tree mean that F1 is a fundamental part of this discussion.

What it does is ram home an awful imbalance between engineering students of Black and non-Black backgrounds and – even more importantly in this context – show how the world in which that can exist and the world of F1 are one and the same.

F1 pitlane 2021

“There are a number of things that really surprised us,” said Rhys Morgan, director at the Royal Academy of Engineering, which conducted the research.

“We looked at the A level data for Black students in 2019. And just two Black Caribbean students got an A* grade in physics in that year, in the whole country. It’s just shocking really.

“This is out of several thousand who had done their GCSEs, just two years earlier. So, there’s some really shocking things like that that kind of popped up here and there. Only 23 Black students, including Black African and Black Caribbean, got an A* in that year. So just 2% of the population. Compared to 8% of white students.

“There’s a lot of intersectionality between poverty and ethnicity and we know that Black students are more likely to be coming from low income families. It’s quite complex, there’s no single answer to this problem, it’s quite deep rooted in society and with our culture. But there’s also differences between black African families and black Caribbean families that need unpicking.

“The motorsport sector itself is supportive, but I think there’s a culture there. We speak to the heads of HR, and they are supportive, but I think there’s embedded cultures that really need untangling.”

That is a polite, slightly cryptic, way of saying motorsport is part of a messy, bigger picture and contributes its own problems too.

In this case, Morgan is likely to be referring to the tendency big F1 teams have of turning to the UK’s elite universities for their recruitment of engineering staff – universities that, in 2019, had fewer than 900 Black students between them.

Anonymous F1 recruitment officers are quoted in this report as insisting that personnel are hired on ability, not ethnicity, and it’s not their fault if most of the people available are mostly from White backgrounds. There are so many societal factors at play that F1 surely is not the issue?

Austrian Grand Prix 2021

While it is always likely that micro-environments like F1 will reflect the wider world, clearly there is a responsibility to address the issues that come with that. This is something F1 has been very slow to act on.

But cases of outright racism tie F1/UK motorsport to the overt stuff, too.

The commission’s report states that having interviewed “and a number of Black engineers from Formula 1 teams and the wider motorsport industry to try to understand their lived experiences in the workplace, they all reported experiences of ‘microaggression’ and banter in the workplace”.

Their accounts show that these were outright acts of discrimination, regardless of the intent.

“Beyond banter, there were more serious incidents,” says one anonymous Black engineer.

“On one occasion, there was some confusion over an issue with a car whilst I was off work. A manager overheard the argument, listened to both sides and shrugged saying ‘Oh, that N****r fixed it’. Only one person asked if I was OK in private, everyone else laughed it off.”

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Another, 32-year-old ‘Quashiee’, is an electronics support engineer in F1.

“Things got off to a bad start,” he says. “We were trackside and jokes would be made about Black people; jokes about afro combs and fried chicken, to jokes about crime rates or poverty in Africa, which were inappropriate.

“I felt powerless. I was the only Black person trackside in my team.”

Outside of F1, one of UK motorsport’s true pioneers is Carol Glenn – the first black female race official in the country, who has also set up the Next Racing Generation Academy to nurture young karting talent.

“In the early days I would get called ‘Whoopi’ or they would laughingly warn others ‘Stand by your car, she might pinch your wheels’,” she says in the report.

“Sometimes, people would speak in what they thought was ‘gangster’ or a Jamaican accent when talking to me.

“With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement taking hold across the country and Lewis highlighting racism at the top, I wanted to highlight that it is happening at the lower levels where I am too.”

Morgan says that “brought to life” a lot of the data analysis that was identifying a clear problem – “just outright racism, racist comments that they would have to live with, which was waved away as banter”.

Yet when Hamilton attempts to drive home messages of equality in F1, and bring ‘outside issues’ into the world of grand prix racing, the cynics’ response is that it is not F1’s problem.

Austrian Grand Prix grid 2021

If there was nothing for F1 to take responsibility for then employees would not be speaking about having to put up with racist jokes as ‘banter’, and the Royal Academy for Engineering would not be concluding that F1 has “embedded cultures that really need untangling”.

There will be those who seek to devalue this report. It will be seen as virtue signalling, it will be criticised as unwarranted interference, it will be dismissed as an example of Hamilton acting in a manner he has no business acting in. And will be subjected to the catch-all response that we should ‘keep politics out of sport’.

The 180-odd pages of this report dive into various strands of a complicated issue but of the many, many contents precious few – if any – could be considered in any way political.

There is nothing political about highlighting racism experienced by black team members in F1.

There is nothing political about scrutinising long-held recruitment practices at F1 teams that mean they have an inherent bias towards hiring graduates from elite universities and understanding the societal issues behind the huge underrepresentation of black people at those institutions.

Austrian Grand Prix F1 drivers equality gesture

And there is nothing political about the revelation that only two -TWO – Black Caribbean students got an A* grade in A Level physics in 2019, or that only one-quarter of black students achieve the same high grades as their white counterparts.

To pretend otherwise, to pretend F1 exists separately to a world with so many underlying flaws, or to argue that it need not do anything about it, is wrong. It is not simply convenient for certain people to demand that sport ignore these issues. It is shameless, deliberate, privilege-protecting behaviour.

If we are expected to believe that getting to work in F1 is a purely meritocratic process from start to finish then we are expected to believe only white men are generally good enough. That is not the case. But it looks that way because of baked-in inequalities in the wider world and existing flaws in motorsport that don’t do anything to challenge them – or, until now, haven’t done much to.

Lewis Hamilton

The Hamilton Commission’s report proves F1 and motorsport do not exist in bubbles and shows how they can be part of the solution – to the ills that exist in their own back garden, and the problems much earlier in the process.

This will be another push in the right direction for F1, which like its world champion has begun to embrace its own diversity initiatives.

Whether Hamilton has dragged the championship kicking and screaming to this position will be irrelevant as long as F1 finds itself on the right side of history.

Actions like this report, exposing the sinister problems inside motorsport and out of it, show why that must be the outcome.

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