Thrilling racing, predictable winners, protests, investigations and late night stewards’ decisions – in the end, Formula 1’s return has been reassuringly familiar.
It took a huge amount of effort to pull it off, and I’ll admit I had one hell of a lie in on Tuesday morning after working 22 days straight and running off just a few hours sleep on Monday. It felt like time to let a huge breath out. But then I reflected on the past three weeks when I really wanted to just focus on racing, and a rant started brewing. You’ve been warned.
Getting prepared and traveling to Austria for the opening round was an ordeal, but I had a refreshing moment when I heard the sound of pit stop practice from McLaren at the end of the first day at the Red Bull Ring. Fire-ups on Friday morning, too – those noises don’t change, and they were the first real reminder that F1 was going to provide the escapism that so many people are craving at the moment.
For many fans, that escapism often includes relief from hearing about wider global issues. But there has – rightly – been no escaping the ongoing movement that calls for an end to racial injustice and fairer opportunities for all. And on this front, F1 and the FIA are failing.
Let me start by saying that I don’t believe there’s a major problem in terms of racial abuse in the sport. Nobody is saying they suffer insults in the paddock, even if some of the ignorant comments on an F1 technical video from Sam Collins – one of the very few Black journalists in motorsport – suggest there are some fans we can do without.
Sam has worked with F1 for years, but to accuse the sport of tokenism and bandwagon-jumping just because it’s the first time you’ve noticed him does a massive disservice to his talent. Like Lewis Hamilton, he’s there because he’s the best person for the job.
But the main overall issue where F1 is concerned is that not enough people who are not white males are getting the opportunity to take up studies or pursue careers that could lead them to a similar point.
It’s not just about police brutality in the United States or the United Kingdom, and the target isn’t to get an equal number of each ethnicity making up a team. It’s about leveling the playing field so that there’s a bigger range of people fighting to prove themselves the best.
To achieve that, change needs to happen at virtually every level. In many areas it’s small change, but it can have a big effect. And if the sport shows itself to be proactive in trying to improve, that is going to be attractive to those groups that have been systematically discriminated against.
But for now, both F1 and the FIA are giving off an impression that they’ve done their bit, said their piece when it was fashionable, and don’t need to worry anymore.
Where the initial statements were encouraging – #WeRaceAsOne branding, a scholarship fund being set up involving $1million of Chase Carey’s own money, a scheduled window for protest pre-race in Austria – it all started to fade far too quickly. I appreciate that Hamilton’s comments have often been reported on RACER, but that’s because he is being forced into a position of being the only real leader on this front. Others are asked about the topic, but none speak out like he does.
After giving the drivers time to make a stand – however they chose – at the first race, that slot was removed for the following two. Why? Is it less important now? The drivers tried to organize it between themselves, but unsurprisingly it didn’t work out and resulted in messy displays. The broadcast director therefore understandably never knew what was coming, which meant it often wasn’t covered particularly well, either.
You may have seen comments attributed to Mario Andretti and Sir Jackie Stewart regarding racism in Formula 1, which drew a frustrated response from Hamilton due to their claims that racism in F1 is not a serious issue. I personally don’t think it’s fair to pitch the opinions of people from such widely different generations directly against each other, but they have served to underline Hamilton’s point that there is both a lack of understanding and support.
At no stage over the first three races has Hamilton said people have been treating him differently in the paddock because of his skin color. He has also made clear when he states ‘Black Lives Matter’, his support is for the broader movement, not a specific political organization. When he talks about the likes of Andretti or Stewart not having educated themselves, it’s because they’re arguing a different point back at him to the one he’s making.
Hamilton wants racial equality, and I believe that the vast majority of people in the world want the same thing. But as the only Black driver in F1, it is left to him to try and continue the momentum beyond the initial burst of enthusiasm, and that’s completely wrong.
I think it’s too simple to say that other teams, the FIA or F1 itself haven’t done anything, but it’s right that they have done a little bit and then fallen quiet. When Hamilton has asked them to keep highlighting what they are doing to make a lasting difference – because F1 has such a massive global platform – there’s been no response. And it’s Hamilton, the Black guy, being left to do the asking.
That’s not how it should be. Hamilton shouldn’t need to call on other teams, or even his fellow drivers, to make more clear statements. It should be noted that he hasn’t been publicly criticizing those who don’t take a knee – as much as he’d like to see all 20 do so – but he has been calling out drivers who don’t want to do anything at all.
Which understandably rubs some drivers up the wrong way, because they’re all elite competitors. But that’s why it shouldn’t be down to Hamilton to ask this of them: there should be more happening that prompts drivers think about it themselves. In the same way, it shouldn’t be down to Hamilton to ask for F1 to make time in the schedule so that a statement or protest can be made.
In a sport with multiple high-profile members – drivers, team bosses, executives – it really shouldn’t be that just one person is publicly pushing on this front. It’s not Hamilton’s fight, and it’s being turned into that, which is just another way of highlighting that there is a serious problem. To the question ‘Why doesn’t Lewis do X or Y himself?’, follow it with ‘Why does he have to? Why not anybody else?’
Dismissing a lack of diversity and equal opportunities as something that only those suffering from it should do the work to improve only strengthens the status quo.
This isn’t about mixing politics and sport, this is about addressing basic human rights and looking at how wider inequalities have an influence on the make-up of F1, and extrapolating that out to see the impact on the sport’s reach, popularity within certain demographics and overall success.
If you’re sick of hearing Hamilton talking about it, it’s because other people aren’t talking about it enough alongside him. It will only start to improve – and eventually become less of a topic as a result – when they do.