Formula 1’s expansion in the 21st century has brought many benefits, not only financially but also in terms of spreading grand prix racing to new territories and making the use of the world championship tag ever-more appropriate. But it has also brought with it challenges and problems F1 has never really come to terms with, as what happened in Saudi Arabia last weekend laid bare.
The first Formula 1 world championship was fought out over seven races – six of them in Western Europe within, geographically speaking, a stone’s throw of each other. The other round, the Indianapolis 500, was a great race in its own right but an irrelevance in grand prix racing terms bolted onto the calendar to justify the ‘world’ title. It had next-to-nothing nothing to do with the rest of the championship for the 11 years it remained on the calendar.
Europe remained F1’s heartland for decades, despite some excursions beyond that with races in Canada, the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Australia and Japan becoming regulars. But it wasn’t until the end of the 20th century that the push to drive into new territories – and exploit new riches – really kicked off.
The introduction of the Malaysian Grand Prix in 1999 set that template, followed by the world championship making its first visits to Bahrain and China (2004), Turkey (2005), Singapore (2008), Abu Dhabi (2009), Korea (2010), India (2011), Russia (2014), Azerbaijan (2016), Qatar and Saudi Arabia (2021).
Of the 23 races originally on this year’s calendar, only 10 are in the traditional Western European heartland of F1. This isn’t a bad thing, it is after all a world championship and there’s no reason for it to remain euro-centric.
But it’s inevitable that as F1 spreads its reach into new territories that it must grapple with all sorts of cultural differences and geopolitical problems that wouldn’t arise were it to stay largely in what can casually be called the ‘western world’.
The planet may be smaller than ever thanks to transportation links and digital technology tearing down many of the barriers that once existed. But cultural and historical differences are more stubborn and this is where the problems arise.
The reference to ‘cultural and historical differences’ is a deliberately vague shorthand that encapsulates all sorts of challenges and concerns across a wide range of countries – and is in no way designed to downplay the seriousness of those problems.
This article isn’t about specific races and the multi-faceted criticisms about sportswashing, human rights and, most pertinent to what happened last weekend, the wisdom of holding races in ongoing conflict zones, but specifically about the way F1 deals with this.
So far, the approach can be crudely described as ‘hit and hope’. The catch-all strategy used to rebut any criticism of where races are held is to talk up the benefits of F1 racing in new territories while hoping that nothing happens to turn the ongoing background criticisms that it shrugs off into ones that overrun the race weekend, as happened in Saudi Arabia.
“Our position is always, and will be always, that we believe what we are doing will have a very positive impact in all the political situations for the best of our life and at all levels,” said F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali, when asked in Saudi Arabia whether F1 was putting commercial objectives over morality. “This will be always the consideration we take for our future in the sport all over the world.
“Formula 1 is in a great moment where a lot of countries would like to host that and of course, that could be a consideration that we need to consider for the future.”
It’s a vague answer, but it’s vague by design. During the Saturday FIA press conferences, five team bosses – Andreas Seidl, Mattia Binotto, Jost Capito, Guenther Steiner and Mike Krack – as well as Pirelli’s Mario Isola had to take questions on the decision for the race in Saudi Arabia to go ahead following the drivers raising their concerns in a lengthy meeting that finished in the early hours of the morning.
During the first part of the press conference, Seidl and Binotto used the phrase “positive change” seven times and “positive message” a further 10 times. It’s a laudable aim to argue that F1 can have a positive impact wherever it goes and it is reasonable to say that when it comes to such change, exposing certain territories to new ideas and the rest of the world is no bad thing.
But while this is clearly F1’s wider messaging – and Seidl and Binotto just happened to be the ones put up who had to make this case for all of F1 so it’s not singling them out – it rings rather hollow. During their press conference, I asked a question on this exact topic and got a vague answer, which is reproduced from the official FIA transcript here:
Q: (Edd Straw – The Race) For Mattia and Andreas. You both talked about the positive message, desire for positive change. Can you be more specific about what you actually want to see and can F1 really have a positive impact? Particularly in the context of what happened yesterday: it’s part of a conflict that has been going on for seven years. What possible impact can F1 have on that?
MB: As first many Government authorities were here at the racetrack yesterday, they will be here today, they will be here the day after. Saudi knows that the entire world is looking at the race this weekend. They are very aware of that, they know how important it is as well for them, to somehow to show the positive of the country – and I think by having those, let me say, all cameras on that show, for the weekend here is something important for them. They are understanding, they know and believe me, as well, they were with us yesterday when discussing, they’re very sensible. They were the first to tell us if they would be any minimal security issues, we would be the first, as Saudi government, to stop and cancel the race because we cannot afford such a, let me say, a problem. And so, they are very aware of how much is important, the security, the safety, the safety of us, not only on the sport, but to show to the entire world. And I think that the type of, at least, reasonings, that are starting and are important, and I’m pretty sure that, looking at the future, themselves as well, they want to prove that they are capable of doing well.
AS: Yeah. Again, I think everything is said, nothing to add.
This showcases the problem of the ‘positive message’ argument. It’s deliberately imprecise, so much so that it’s unchallengeable and untestable. What constitutes success or failure? There is no possible measure and simply referring to some amorphous need for change both says everything and nothing about the situations in countries F1 visits. The implication is something needs to change, but what and why? And it also indicates this is about nothing more than gentle cultural evolution when in some cases, the problems are about far more than that.
As the question above highlights, it is at best hubristic to suggest F1 could resolve the Saudi/Houthi conflict that’s now in its eighth year – but, of course, that’s not really what was being suggested. The positive change message is a blunt object, a one-size-fits-all defence used to tackle any criticism of any race. But in itself, it means nothing beyond a vague admission that F1 doesn’t like certain non-expressed, non-specific aspects of where it sometimes races.
That’s why F1 must evolve its messaging in this area. It’s not easy because it can neither afford to shrug off criticisms, concerns and genuine outrages, nor position itself as an instrument of cultural imperialism. Culture, history, geopolitics and countless other forces are intertwined and for every straightforward issue that can be condemned because it is so clear-cut, there are many more that require judgement calls of morality and ethics that do not lend themselves to easy, provable answers. That’s one of the many challenges of globalisation.
Of the 23 races on the current calendar (with the Russia replacement to be added), Freedom House rates three as “not free” – Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – and one as only “partly free” – Singapore. What’s more, two other races on the 2023 calendar – Qatar and China – are also rated as “not free”.
But, of course, there’s also plenty of criticism from some quarters of the conduct of other countries on the calendar. For example, authoritarian Viktor Orban’s re-election as Hungarian Prime Minister, or the United States using capital punishment in Texas and Florida – it also remains available, but not used since 2006, in Nevada, which will host the Las Vegas GP next year. This isn’t about whataboutery or false equivalencies, simply that if F1 wants to draw a line, it has to decide where that line is and not be mealy-mouthed about it.
The bottom line is that F1 is not a vehicle of diplomacy, a force for social change or a mediator for conflicts. For all the ‘we race as one’ rhetoric of the previous two years, it is a sporting and commercial entity that has a business model that race-hosting fees are key to.
F1 should stop pretending to be something more than that if it has no intention to deliver on it. And if it is going to try to be more, then it must drop the pretence that it can have its cake and eat it with vague talk about positive change and have some more complicated, difficult discussions about how F1 really does see its place in the world and the ways it should act accordingly.