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Jim Wright: F1’s ‘We Race as One’ can’t just be a slogan

by Matt Beer
4 min read

If you haven’t yet watched the Netflix documentary Uppity then please, as a motorsport fan, I implore you to do so.

If nothing more then watch it to understand, in a motorsport context, what racism feels like through the eyes of a supremely talented race driver – William Theodore Ribbs Junior, or Willy T Ribbs to give him his racing moniker.

Uppity is a flawed documentary with a number of mistakes that motorsport aficionados will easily spot but look beyond that to the injustice that Willy encountered along the way from race officials, competitors, sponsors – even his own team crew members.

It’s saddening, enlightening and wholly relevant to a mid-COVID-ravaged, #BlackLivesMatter-trending 2020.

And sadly, in the last few days, we have heard from Lewis Hamilton about how his own experiences across a glittering 26-year career have been blighted by institutional racism and that he feels that he has been fighting pretty much a lone battle.

More shocking is the news from NASCAR where this weekend’s weather-postponed Talladega race has made national headline news around the world due to someone placing a noose in the pit-stand of the only African-American racer Bubba Wallace.

But what really shocks here?

The fact that Lewis, despite being a six-time world champion, feels that he has not been supported by promoters, governing bodies, ASNs, employers and fellow racers? The fact that somebody within the NASCAR family – remember paddock access was limited at Talladega – should stoop to such deplorable depths? Or that Bubba and Lewis are the only BAME drivers in two of the world’s top motorsport series?

Nascar Cup Series Blue Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500

Hamilton has been stirred into action following the death of George Floyd and he has launched a commendable new initiative called the Hamilton Commission together with the Royal Academy of Engineering, which will explore how motorsport can be a vehicle to engage more young people from black backgrounds with science, technology and mathematics – the STEM subjects.

Following closely in Lewis’s wheeltracks, the Formula One Management group announced its own diversity campaign ‘We Race As One’ on Monday. It will mean rainbow-coloured stickers applied to all F1 cars and it has, according to FOM, the full support of each F1 team.

Both Hamilton and F1 should be commended for their initiatives and I’m sure that both Lewis and FOM are fully committed to making their respective programmes work. I have no doubt that they will devote good resources and money to their programmes and that they will be sincere in their promotion and support of these two great campaigns.

But neither of the initiatives was launched by the world motorsport governing body itself.

Lewis Hamilton

In fairness to the FIA, only last Friday did FIA president Jean Todt address a virtual FIA Sport & Mobility Conference at which he announced the FIA’s commitment to what it called #purposedrivenmotorsport and he referenced the statutes of the FIA in referring to equality and discrimination.

Todt has also achieved much in terms of addressing motorsport’s gender equality issues and should be commended for his actions in this respect. However, I see much less on the topic of racial equality from the FIA offices in Place de la Concorde so far.

Monday’s announcement by F1 fell neatly under the umbrella of the #purposedrivenmotorsport campaign and there is undoubted alignment with the FIA.

But president Todt’s Sport & Mobility address stopped short of actually stating what the FIA was going to do, internally, through its members and what was going to be introduced in motorsport to address the institutional racism that both Hamilton and Ribbs have been subjected to throughout their careers.

Former England, Aston Villa and Coventry City striker Dion Dublin, speaking on the BBC last weekend, said: “I’m glad we’re dealing with it [racism]. I’m glad there are T-shirts… but we’re dealing with it yet again. There are T-shirts again. I’m sick of T-shirts. I just want action.”

We need to take great care, in my opinion, that hash-tagged campaigns and halo car stickers don’t become the motorsport equivalent of football’s T-shirts and that there is real action to fight racism from the highest echelons of the motorsport community.

The next time the F1, Formula E or World Rally Championship cameras take a look inside an FIA Race Control room tell me what you see. Only when the sea of white, predominantly male, faces has a more balanced multi-cultural look to it will we be able to say that motorsport has changed at the highest echelons.

Until then, it seems that it’s down to Lewis, Bubba and Willy T to lead by example.

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