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Formula 1

FIA can calm F1 drivers – or ignite a free speech row

by Matt Beer
6 min read

While the FIA has insisted president Mohammed Ben Sulayem’s step away from close involvement with Formula 1 is a long-planned element of its wider restructuring of F1 governance, it comes amid rising FIA/F1 tensions that Ben Sulayem has been central to, and with an increasingly high-profile controversy over drivers’ freedom of speech unresolved.

How that situation is now clarified and handled from here is a test that will show whether Ben Sulayem’s role adjustment can signal a reset in strained FIA/F1 relations.

An update to the FIA’s International Sporting Code ahead of the 2023 season outlawed “the general making and display of political, religious and personal statements or comments notably in violation of the general principle of neutrality promoted by the FIA under its statutes” and said such statements or comments will only be permitted if the competitor has previously had it “approved in writing” by the FIA or by the relevant national authority.

The FIA quickly defended the change as being “in alignment with the political neutrality of sport” and emphasising its commitment to focusing “on underrepresented groups in order to achieve a more balanced representation of gender and race and to create a more diverse and inclusive culture”.

That didn’t stop it being widely interpreted as at worst a ban, at least a deterrent – or at best, a potential limitation. After all, the need to get written approval automatically carries the implication that this approval could be withheld if the statement a driver wanted to make was deemed inappropriate in whatever way.

The change followed three seasons in which the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel had openly championed causes from LGBTQ+ rights to climate change awareness and anti-racism efforts – including when F1 raced in countries where those issues were of particular concern.

As drivers emerged from the winter break for their first media engagements of 2023, responses to the ISC change were mostly negative and part baffled – with no clarity yet on what may or may not get approved, and what the repercussions of going ahead with an ‘unapproved’ gesture might be.

“We need clarity from the FIA on what they’re trying to tell us,” said Williams driver Alex Albon earlier this week.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Qualifying Day Abu Dhabi, Uae

“On a personal side, it is somewhat confusing. We were very much for ‘We Race As One’ and all these situations and now it seems like F1 or the FIA are trying to go away from that.

“We just need to be open in dialogue about what they’re trying to do. Of course we need to be able to speak freely to a certain extent and I’m sure we’ll get clarity about what they’re really trying to say.

“A lot of people come to us and look to us as spokespeople for issues around the world. I do feel like it’s a responsibility for drivers to make people aware of these kind of situations.”

The recently-retired Vettel plus world champion Max Verstappen had already shared similar sentiments, and drivers’ opinions are only likely to get more vocal next week when the remaining teams hold full launch events and the likes of Hamilton are asked about the FIA’s stance.

A Guardian interview with F1 chief executive Stefano Domenicali published on Tuesday could be seen in the context of current FIA vs F1 tensions as the championship defending its drivers’ rights when they are threatened.

“F1 will never put a gag on anyone,” Domenicali said.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Qualifying Day Abu Dhabi, Uae

“We are talking about 20 drivers, 10 teams and many sponsors, they have different ideas, different views. I cannot say one is right, one is wrong but it is right, if needed, to give them a platform to discuss their opinions in an open way.

“We will not change that approach as a sport. That should be the line of our sport, to give everyone the chance to speak in the right way, not with aggressive tones or to offend but with respect.

“We keep monitoring the situation. We keep the drivers informed, we meet with the Grand Prix Drivers’ Associations to discuss it. How we can allow the drivers to be open as human beings in our sport.

“Athletes can be very emotional and passionate about some things and they need to discuss that constructively with people they trust.”

He placed the ball firmly in the FIA’s court, saying “we are talking about a regulation and the regulator is the FIA” and “I am sure the FIA will share the same view as F1 but they are part of an Olympic federation so there are protocols to which they have to abide”.

But it was not a wholehearted declaration that F1 itself was happy for drivers to say whatever they pleased wherever they wanted to, with Domenicali’s ostensibly FIA-supportive prediction that “the FIA will clarify what has been stated, in terms of respecting certain places where you cannot do it” alluding to the prospect of the ‘ban’ meaning it would be inappropriate for drivers to make statements on issues in the countries where these issues are the most controversial.

Alongside the political gestures controversy, the FIA had already made what felt like a combative start to 2023 – opening the year with Ben Sulayem’s declaration that new teams were being sought (though their admittance requires F1 agreement), before his staunch defence of the Andretti-Cadillac bid that F1 has reservations over and then comments questioning reports of F1’s value if it were to be sold that prompted a firm letter from Liberty Media’s legal team.

That wider context already meant how the FIA chose to clarify its position over drivers’ right to free speech had the potential to escalate the distrust.

Ben Sulayem’s role adjustment now means the full explanation of the rule – assuming one is actually forthcoming – could be seen as the revised FIA regime still following through with his policies if it doubles down on the change, meaning his step away from F1 makes no difference to relations. Or if there appears to be a softening, it would come across as an admission that the FIA has taken some wrong turns of late.

In the meantime, F1 drivers are awaiting answers on how a highly contentious adjustment of an FIA stance is actually going to affect them, at a time when their views on it are going to hit the headlines repeatedly given all launch season’s interview opportunities and the dearth of track action to talk about.

With its next step on this matter, the FIA has the opportunity to calm a situation that’s currently worsening with every pronouncement. Or to do the opposite.

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