MEDLAND: Austrian GP journal - Sunday

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MEDLAND: Austrian GP journal - Sunday

Insights & Analysis

MEDLAND: Austrian GP journal - Sunday

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This hasn’t been the case all weekend, but as I sit here now after darkness has fallen at the Red Bull Ring, I’m proud of Formula 1.

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There’s still a long way to go in this trip that is comprised of these first three races, and just because the first round is complete doesn’t mean there is no danger of mistakes or problems regarding COVID-19, but it put on a hell of a show on the track.

And off it, the drivers handled a potentially difficult situation well.

Late last night, an article appeared in a British newspaper that already doesn’t have the best reputation, but I’ve got to admit it, I was one of many journalists who were left ashamed to say they share a press room with the writer.

For some context: On Saturday after qualifying, when asked about his pre-race plans for an anti-racism protest, Lewis Hamilton had suggested he wasn’t fully happy with the way discussions had gone in the driver briefing on Friday night when it came to a united stance from the grid.

“In the meeting I just acknowledged a lot of the drivers that… obviously there was an interpretation of a message that I had posted, asking for people to speak out and their silence and just saying thank-you to those who have said something on their social media platforms because they’ve got a great voice, a great platform,” Hamilton said when I asked him to clarify if there was anything he was unhappy with from the drivers.

“And then encouraging the others that haven’t to say something, and I just described the scenario that silence is generally really complicit. So there still is some silence in some cases but I think it’s also part of a dialogue of people trying to understand, because there are still people that don’t fully understand exactly what is happening and what are the reasons for these protests.”

Simply tweeting that Hamilton had called the driver briefing “interesting” in a tone that suggested some unhappiness got me a lot of Twitter abuse for allegedly trying to cause divisions, but then an article appeared that tore into Hamilton.

Yes, it’s true that Hamilton can appear hypocritical at times — as we all can — and Mercedes doesn’t have a perfect history, but these are points that Hamilton himself has acknowledged.

Getting driver opinions anonymously, it was clear that they didn’t want to be pressured into having to do anything specific, but they were all with Hamilton that they wanted to do something. And that’s where a dangerous attitude reared its head.

Some drivers came out before the race saying they wouldn’t take a knee, but all 20 walked forward in black t-shirts carrying the slogan ‘End Racism’, and 14 of them knelt — including Hamilton who also had a ‘Black Lives Matters’ message on his t-shirt.

Of the six who didn’t kneel — Charles Leclerc, Max Verstappen, Carlos Sainz, Daniil Kvyat, Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi — the majority held their shirts tight to accentuate the message they were carrying, or pointed to the wording.

Would it have looked even more powerful if they all knelt? Yes, but that’s not the point. People should not be criticized for not doing the same as someone else when they are still being proactive and making a statement. To start negatively comparing different positive approaches distracts from the important overall intention to try and encourage equality, diversity and an end to racism.

And Hamilton should also not be targeted for calling on his fellow drivers to use their platforms to help eradicate racism. It’s an uncomfortable conversation and it’s no wonder some were a little cautious, but if it were easy then we wouldn’t have this problem in the first place.

Fortunately, the hateful piece that had angered so many who read it (it no longer exists online, I’m glad to report) did not reflect the views of so many in the sport. Team members freely made their own protests — Verstappen’s car crew took a knee, for example — and the focus then turned to what proved to be an epic race.

Lewis Hamilton displays his Black Lives Matter-liveried helmet at the Austrian GP. Steve Etherington/Motorsport Images)

It’s not just Hamilton who is asked about matters surrounding racism and making a stand, but it is him who is reported on so often as the most high-profile and outspoken member of the grid on the matter. So it’s only right he also gets credited with a magnanimous reaction after a race that did not go his way.

“Honestly, I don’t know everyone’s different reasons or opinions (for not taking a knee),” he said when asked about the six who didn’t. “I am aware of some opinions from some of the drivers but that’s more of a private thing and I wouldn’t like to share it.

“But I think ultimately nobody should be forced into a scenario where they have to kneel and I really would like to correct, there is a story out there that’s really incorrect. I never requested or demanded anybody to take a knee — I never even brought it up. It was brought up by Formula 1, and it was brought up by the GPDA.

“When we did the drivers’ briefing, Seb (Vettel) and (Romain) Grosjean both brought it up and asked the drivers whether or not they would do it and there were obviously several that said that they wouldn’t, and I let everyone just say what they wanted to say. I opened up to them and I said, ‘Look, guys, I will be doing it but you do what you feel is right.’

“I’m really, really grateful for those who did it along with me, I think it’s still a really powerful message. But ultimately, whether you kneel or do not kneel, that’s not going to change the world and it’s a much, much bigger issue across the world than just something as little as that. But for me personally, I think everyone had a right to their own personal choice and for me personally that is what I felt was right to do. But I didn’t make a decision until last night.”

He’s right. It was a powerful image, and it did show unity, even if not everyone did the same thing. And instigating real change is going to take far more than that one move.

There is so much work to be done to make F1 a more diverse and inclusive place, and there’s so much work to be done to make the sport as entertaining as it was today on a regular basis. Hopefully it won some new fans for the statements it made before the race, because it definitely did for the action it provided when the lights went out.

In a time of global crisis, today it did well. And while last night I was ashamed of one aspect of it, today I was proud of so many more.

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