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Formula 1

Shambolic stage fright is undermining F1’s anti-racism cause

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
9 min read

Equality is not a fad. Formula 1 must take swift and decisive action to stop its commitment to the anti-racism cause being seriously called into question.

World champion Lewis Hamilton had some harsh words for F1 over the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend, where the division within the ranks about what the longevity and prominence of the championship’s stance should be was clearer than ever.

F1’s pledge to support a global effort to shine a light on the systemic racism that blights society is laudable, and there is some substantial action under way in the background to fight for tangible change.

But a huge part of F1’s role in this fight is to engage and educate its audience, and the most basic way to do that has been in the moments before a grand prix where the championship can stand united and share a single message.

F1 drivers anti-racism

Unfortunately, F1 seems to have got stage fright. A partially fractured initial stand at the season opener was followed by increasingly rushed and frankly shambolic efforts before the next two grands prix.

F1’s pledge is being undermined, and though it’s more by accident rather than design it does seem to be because of disinterest from within.

“There definitely is not enough support for it,” says Hamilton. “I think from a drivers’ point of view, many people seem to be of the opinion that they’ve done it once and they’re not going to do it again. And I don’t know their reasons for that opinion.

“We are all members of the GPDA and the GPDA is run by three people, two who are really for it [Sebastian Vettel and Alex Wurz] and supportive and one that is one of those that tends to not think it’s important to continue with [Romain Grosjean, according to Hamilton].

“Formula 1 did an OK job, I would say, at the first race. It’s not good enough in terms of what you see in other sports. But still, it was a step forward.

“And then it’s almost like it’s gone off the agenda after that. It’s lacking leadership.”

Hamilton’s frustration is understandable given the shift in prominence F1 has given this issue over the last few weeks.

Lewis Hamilton

We were told that F1, as a collective, recognised that inaction was part of the problem.

We were told a clear, united front would be formed.

We were told efforts would be made to enact lasting and meaningful change.

Fundamentally, we were promised gestures of solidarity and action to back that up.

What have we had in reality? A mixed bag, even if you subscribe to the view that at least all 20 drivers have shown they are anti racism, and it’s their personal decision whether they take a knee or not.

“You need a leader. Where’s Jean, in that scenario? It shouldn’t be for me to have to call the teams, or call the teams out” :: Lewis Hamilton

There has been very little of substance beyond F1’s taskforce initiative and foundation to create opportunities for under-represented groups.

We’ve had 20 individuals failing to agree to perform one gesture together. A gesture performed in unison by more than 200 players and officials across every game in English football’s Premier League on its comeback. That league has more than 60 nationalities represented in it. They managed it fine.

We’ve had one formally organised pre-race stand, and two rushed affairs that barely made it onto the main broadcast.

We’ve had just one team – Mercedes – publicly acknowledge the ethnic imbalance within its organisation and pledge to make a change. No other can even say how diverse its workforce is. I know because I’ve asked them all.

Lewis Hamilton Mercedes Hungarian Grand Prix 2020

If this feels preachy or judgemental it’s because it is. There is some excellent groundwork being done away from the racetrack but F1 seems almost embarrassed to continue the cause publicly.

Many drivers and teams seem content to do the bare minimum, as if this is someone else’s fight. Keeping the issue front and centre regularly confronts people with arguably the hardest part of systemic racism to tackle, which is unconscious bias.

There’s little F1 can do about extreme racism, but anti-racism doesn’t just mean taking a stand against white hood-wearing lynch mobs. It means confronting the deep-rooted biases, the assumptions, the subconscious racial profiling that’s prevalent throughout the world.

Gestures alone will not combat that but a public and united stand before every race would at least force viewers to confront the issue. And slowly, one by one, it will encourage people to be more vigilant about it.

The value of that cannot be overstated when prominent voices continue to spread ignorance like wildfire, accusing the lone black driver in F1 of creating a problem that is not there.

Notice how the lone black driver is the one championing the cause while some others flirted with it while it suited, and have gradually lost interest.

If Mario Andretti’s reported comments are accurate, and he is espousing the view that Hamilton is taking needless “militant” action against a made-up issue, it shows how far F1 still has to go.

Andretti’s personal story is that of a displaced immigrant, so he is a powerful representation of what it means to overcome a struggle and therefore a very relevant voice on the matter.

So when he downplays this issue, people will listen. And if views like his are met with anything other than well-coordinated, united action, it’s like taking a knife to a gun fight.

Critics wanted evidence that Hamilton cares about this and isn’t just virtue signalling while a cause is in the public eye. Well, if it wasn’t for him the issue wouldn’t have retained any prominence in F1.

F1 drivers anti racism Hungarian Grand Prix

The consistency through this entire process – the revitalisation of a movement, F1’s embrace of the cause, action at the first weekend, reduced messaging over the next two – has been Hamilton leading while others drag their feet.

He has some willing allies so it would be wrong to say he stands alone on this matter.

But it’s equally wrong for anyone to claim F1 is united. It isn’t. We’ve had very visible proof of that on the most basic element of this cause. And so, it has been undermined from the very beginning.

The easy way out of this is usually for people to claim that F1 doesn’t have a diversity issue, or F1 isn’t racist. So this isn’t F1’s fight.

That’s nonsense. F1 competition is elite sport but that doesn’t mean the championship itself needs to remain elitist. Which it is, because I refuse to believe that the only people who want to compete in F1, and are good enough to, are mostly privileged white men.

“I don’t think it’s been taken seriously,” says Hamilton. “I think there are perhaps people who have not grown up around it so don’t understand it.

“And there are those that because of that, think ‘it doesn’t affect me’.

“I’ve heard those comments, ‘it doesn’t do anything for me so why should I do it?’ but it’s not about me, it’s not about you, it’s about this fight.

“There are people out there who are experiencing discrimination, that’s what we’re fighting for.”

Lewis Hamilton

Hamilton has called on FIA president Jean Todt and F1’s bosses to take more of an active role in this. But it should not be left to Hamilton to spur others into action at every turn.

Otherwise we are reducing this issue to the solo plight of a black person who is forcing white people to reluctantly get involved. And that just brings it full circle.

F1 was never going to solve the issue of racism in four weeks. In fact there is probably a finite impact it can make in the long term because the problems it suffers from are symptomatic of a much wider and deep-rooted problem, and nobody is saying it is F1’s responsibility to solve it single-handedly.

But right now, despite all the promises, F1 is operating well below the peak of its capabilities to support the fight.

“We haven’t made any progress,” says Hamilton. “We’ve said things and there’s been statements released and we’ve made gestures, such as kneeling, but we’ve not changed anything. Except for perhaps some of our awareness.

“I am definitely encouraged by our team and those in F1 that are like ‘what else can we do more, can we do better?’ So I think it’s about communication.

“So, I think I’ll get back on a call with F1 and see where they are feeling confused, where they’re feeling pressure.

“I’d love to know what Jean thinks, I’d love to know what Chase [Carey] thinks and what the organisation thinks of doing moving forwards.

“But there is no progress yet. So far it’s been visible, but there’s nine [other] teams and I think there’s one that I’ve spoken to who already are working in the background.

“But there’s no other teams that I know of that have been held accountable or hold themselves accountable.

“And I think you need a leader. Where’s Jean, in that scenario? It shouldn’t be for me to have to call the teams, or call the teams out.

“I want to encourage them, but it shouldn’t be me that has to get on the call to say, ‘Hey, what are you doing? What’s your plan?’. That should be announced or discussed from the top down, it should be coming from the high powers that pull the strings.”

F1 safety car

Those powers have a sporting competition to run and administer, it is true, but the remit of a powerful, global organisation with an enormous multicultural audience does contain a certain degree of social responsibility as well.

Has there been a step forward in recent weeks? Undoubtedly. Awareness has been raised and some difficult conversations have started.

But is it enough? Absolutely not. To see the issue, as Hamilton puts it, fall off the agenda is incredibly disheartening. Hopefully, it will return in more prominent form once the powers-that-be have taken stock in this short break between races.

If it continues to slip, all F1 will have to show for its pledge to do better is a series of barely united public stands, hints of in-fighting and an inspirational black competitor becoming increasingly marginalised.

This does very little to further an important cause. It will likely have the opposite effect, simply vindicating critics who felt this was just a public front of moral correctness because it was the popular thing to do.

Ultimately, the 20 F1 drivers don’t have to be vocal ambassadors for the anti-racism cause if they don’t want to be. It’s disappointing if they don’t see the value in that, but that’s on them.

But F1 needs to realise any disinterest like that will harm its efforts, because it makes the cause look like something not worth believing in.

Either do it properly or don’t do it at all. A few weeks ago this was a really important issue to take seriously and now the most visible part – which is the element that most fans will see – is being left to the drivers to decide whether they want to bother.

Clearly some don’t. F1 needs to react to that.

“My dream is that by the end of the year, we all know and understand things better,” says Hamilton. “We all stand united, and the whole of F1 is on top of it.”

More power to the idea. It starts with confronting those asking, ‘How long do we have to keep doing this?’ and ‘How much do we need to do?’.

The answers are simple. As long as it takes. And whatever we can.

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