“What shocked me was the extreme tone of the hate, abuse, and even the death threats I received…”
This, from a current Formula 1 driver, about an accident they had in a race – let alone any other context that could possible exist – is something they should never, ever have to write.
It’s just one line of a very well-written and admirable statement from Nicholas Latifi. This wasn’t some PR play, or team-encouraged post. This was the young Canadian wanting to speak out after receiving some outrageous comments via social media after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
For those who are struggling to understand why — and I hope there are many – it revolves around the fact that Latifi crashed and triggered the safety car period that then led to the absolute farce that was the race restart, and ultimately Max Verstappen overhauling Lewis Hamilton.
There are still so many unanswered questions about how the rules were interpreted that led to a one-lap shootout where Verstappen had a clear tire advantage, given that the regulations do not appear to permit the race director to only allow the drivers they choose to unlap themselves behind a safety car — it’s either all or none.
But what isn’t in question is Latifi’s role in all of this. His incident had absolutely nothing to do with the FIA’s shocking handling of what followed.
Latifi — like all of the drivers on the grid — was driving his heart out to get the best possible result he could for his team in the final race of the season. He’d just been overtaken by Mick Schumacher at Turn 9, running wide as a result, and getting dirt on his tires.
Understandably, Latifi did not want his season ending with a Haas getting the better of him, and pushed to stay close to Schumacher. But he pushed that bit too much, lost the rear end in the dirty air behind the car in front, and hit the barrier.
And yet, somehow, some people want to equate that as the reason the driver they “support” lost the championship.
“Reflecting on what happened during the race, there was really only one group of people I needed to apologize to for the DNF: my team,” Latifi wrote. “I did that right afterwards. Everything else that followed was out of my control.
“Some people said I was racing for a position that didn’t matter with only a handful of laps remaining. But whether I am racing for wins, podiums, points or even last place, I will always give it my all until the checkered flag. I’m the same as every other driver on the grid in that regard. To the people who don’t understand or don’t agree with that, that’s fine with me. You can have your opinion. But to use those opinions to fuel hatred, abuse and threats of violence, not only to me, but to those closest to me as well, tells me these people are not true fans of the sport.”
I’ve used the word support in quotes above because in my mind there’s nothing supportive about abusing someone else. How does that help the driver or team you’re backing? Do you think they get some kind of performance boost from seeing horrific comments fired at rivals?
“Thankfully, I’m comfortable enough in my own skin, and I’ve been in this world long enough that I can do a pretty good job of just letting any negativity wash over me,” Latifi goes on. “But I know I’m not alone in thinking that a negative comment always seems to stick out more — and can sometimes be enough to drown out 100 positive ones.”
And I can relate (on a much smaller and less significant scale) with Latifi on that last point. On Sunday, during my first full day off in about four weeks given how the season has been going, I tweeted about watching some sport at home:
Chilling on the sofa with beer and chocolate watching football, letting others worry about controversial decisions. What a difference a week makes 😅
— Chris Medland (@ChrisMedlandF1) December 19, 2021
Now, I don’t mind people replying “don’t care” or similar, seeing as I’m largely followed for what’s going on during an F1 weekend and not for my random thoughts on football, but I was a little shocked to find the tweet made me the target of abuse for allegedly “sweeping under the carpet” what had happened in Abu Dhabi, being “complicit in corruption” and my tweet exercising “the power of privilege.”
These comments came from people who were claiming to be Hamilton fans — as I’m sure were the same who were threatening Latifi — and I couldn’t help but try and defend myself. Because like Latifi says, the negative comment always seems to stick out more. I thought I was simply tweeting about what I was doing on my day off, in a way that had no relation to any opinion on the race that had happened a week earlier.
By one stage I found myself shaking at the way some would just twist every single reply or word to try and further abuse. The fact that I’m ranting about it now tells you how angry it made me. And that was still all at a rather petty level of people questioning my integrity and deciding to take four words from 1000 out of context in an attempt to defame you. I can’t imagine how Latifi felt reading death threats.
Surely these “fans” would never speak the words they write on social media out loud to Latifi himself? We have an incredible set of readers of RACER who love motorsport and can be extremely passionate about what happens in racing, and I genuinely struggle to believe any would walk up to a driver and threaten to kill them for making a mistake in a race. But there are people who think it’s OK on other platforms — whether it’s towards the biggest names or even to their fellow spectators for supporting someone else.
On one hand, it feels like misplaced anger, as people take out their frustrations on anything vaguely associated with the sport because they’re so fired up about the sporting injustice of how the rules were applied in Abu Dhabi. But on the other, it’s just a continuation of a massive problem where people aren’t held accountable for their actions online as they hide behind a screen.
“As soon as the checkered flag dropped, I knew how things were likely to play out on social media. The fact that I felt it would be best if I deleted Instagram and Twitter on my phone for a few days says all we need to know about how cruel the online world can be,” Latifi wrote.
I hope I’m shouting into a vacuum here and there’s nobody reading this that needs to hear it, but if there is, do you not see how damaging what you’re doing is? You get this incredible access — the ability to communicate directly with a driver — and use it in a way that makes them remove themselves from social media, at least for a spell.
The platforms themselves have to do more, but for now they’re frustratingly lax at delivering consequences to threatening and abusive behavior.
While that remains the case, that’s why it shouldn’t just be on the subjects of the abuse — like Latifi — to call it out when it happens. Real fans, real supporters, need to do the same. Because when it’s allowed to happen and goes unchecked then not only is it hurting the stars of racing but also the fans who want to be able to get as close to their sport as possible.
Social media is likely to be the avenue that Hamilton will use to voice his feelings publicly over what happened in those final laps, and it will reach hundreds of millions of people. How incredible is that? It’s a platform for people and a connection for real fans that needs to be protected.
Don’t be one of the few idiots that jeopardize it all.