How is it that over two years on from Formula 1’s very public display of willingness to increase inclusivity that we’re still talking about Lewis Hamilton being spoken about in racially derogatory terms by one of the sport’s most successful drivers?
The ‘We Race as One’ campaign and pre-race ‘taking a knee’ gesture might have disappeared from the usual grid procedure this season, but you’d have been hard-pushed to miss the global movement to eradicate racism in all its forms from wider society, using sport as a catalyst.
And yet, in the middle of 2022, despite plenty of work that has been going on behind the scenes, on the surface it seems that very little has changed.
Only Hamilton, Michael Schumacher, Juan Manuel Fangio, Alain Prost and Sebastian Vettel can claim to have won more Formula 1 world championships than Nelson Piquet. With three titles to his name, he sits alongside Ayrton Senna, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda and Jack Brabham. And while he regularly made headlines for things he said when he was racing, the latest headline is one that really can’t be allowed so slide.
Piquet used the racially derogatory term “neguinho” twice when describing Hamilton during a podcast interview with Brazilian outlet Canal Enerto. While some native speakers suggest it doesn’t carry the same connotation as the n-word in English, many others state that it does, and the vast majority say it is racially derogatory regardless of how specific a translation exists.
The context is important, given many of the examples of where it might have not been deemed offensive are private, endearing ones, and Piquet was clearly not speaking in such terms as he was asked to compare Hamilton’s collision with Max Verstappen at Silverstone with Senna and Prost in Japan in 1990.
But leaving aside the nuances of the situation, it’s actually the responses that I want to focus on right now.
Below are the statements issued by Formula 1 and the FIA yesterday.
Formula 1: “Discriminatory or racist language is unacceptable in any form and has no part in society. Lewis is an incredible ambassador for our sport and deserves respect. His tireless efforts to increase diversity and inclusion are a lesson to many and something we are committed to at F1.”
FIA: “The FIA strongly condemns any racist or discriminatory language and behavior, which have no place in sport or wider society. We express our solidarity with Lewis Hamilton and fully support his commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion in motor sport.”
What does that actually achieve? Neither referenced Piquet (perhaps for legal reasons, given the potential explanations he might try to offer up), and in both cases their support of Hamilton should have been a given. So there’s little of substance when you really look at the content.
I don’t believe Hamilton’s own posts were a direct reaction to those statements, but one message in particular really stood out.
“It’s more than language,” Hamilton wrote. “These archaic mindsets need to change and have no place in our sport. I’ve been surrounded by these attitudes and targeted my whole life. There has been plenty of time to learn. Time has come for action.”
He’s right. Wherever your allegiance lies, it’s hard to disagree that if we’re really to eradicate racism then the learning phase can’t be allowed to drift without change.
It’s not that everyone should be given the same response if they are found guilty of doing or saying something bad by the jury of public opinion (yes, there are varying degrees of bad, as annoying as it is to have to consider that), but the more significant offenses can’t be left unchecked.
Kyle Larson found out exactly that in 2020 when he so casually used the n-word on a gaming stream, and now Juri Vips can add his name to that list after being dropped by Red Bull this week for the same transgression.
I like Vips, but it was the right response because of the backdrop it comes against. I refer to my earlier comment that you’d have been hard-pushed to miss the global movement to eradicate racism in all its forms from wider society, using sport as a catalyst. Such a reaction hasn’t come out of the blue, and if racist terms are still forming part of your vocabulary, you’re going to have to face the consequences.
Education needs to play a big part moving forward too, but it’s not like Vips has been banned from racing, or jailed. He has lost the backing of a Formula 1 team, and will have to work very hard to get another chance. He does have the opportunity to do so.
And that’s why it was important there were real consequences for Piquet from those who issued statements and have the power to do so. As symbolic as it might be for an ex-driver who rarely attends races, a ban from the F1 paddock has been implemented and shows that such language needs to be carefully thought about. And by thinking about what a word might mean or how it might be taken – to give the benefit of doubt if it’s unintentional – then people will learn.
It won’t instantly change the world and probably won’t prevent future incidents, but statements like this week’s needed to be followed by action of some kind. If the sport is serious about trying to eradicate racism and racist language and attitudes – whether outdated or current – then condemnation isn’t enough.