“You can’t, as a global sport, say you are not involved in politics,” said Ari Vatanen back in 2012 amid the controversy of whether F1 should have been visiting Bahrain at a time of continuing violence and unrest triggered by peaceful protest. “The moment you say you are not political and take no stance, you become a political football – to be used by both sides in a way you have no control of.”
There will inevitably be criticism of Lewis Hamilton in going public with his support of the Black Lives Matter cause in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis after a police officer knelt on his neck for eight minutes. Such criticism is a natural backlash for fans who enjoy sport almost as an escape from the real world and its difficulties, injustices and conflicts. But, as the pandemic has made very clear, no sport exists in a bubble. In a time when the whole world seems caught in a 1930s-repeating slide towards extremism, when police vehicles are on camera mowing down protesters in New York City, the sport has to have a moral centre of gravity, cannot just allow itself to be above abuses.
In his Instagram statement Hamilton berated F1 for ‘staying silent’ on the issue – and there quickly followed statements of support from other drivers, with Nicholas Latifi, Charles Leclerc and Lando Norris. It would be no surprise if more were to follow.
A selection from Hamilton’s statement: “I see those of you who are staying silent, some of you the biggest of stars yet you stay silent in the midst of injustice…. I would have thought by now you would see why this happens and say something… Just know I know who you are and I see you.”
Leclerc’s: “I felt out of place and uncomfortable sharing my thoughts on social media… and this is why I haven’t expressed myself earlier than today. And I was completely wrong…. Racism needs to be met with actions, not silence. Please be actively participating, engaging and encouraging others to spread awareness. It’s our responsibilities to speak out against injustice. Don’t remain silent. I stand.”
Norris: “I have fans and followers. Support and love. And I have power through this to lead and inspire so many. But we also stand for what’s right.”
Formula 1 has historically kept itself well outside of any political stance on anything – and has done business with some very questionable regimes. That’s probably a position it would ideally wish to maintain. But as events in the US have escalated to the streets even to other countries, it’s not a great look – and it’s encouraging that at least some of its drivers have unilaterally stated their positions.
If there should come a time when F1 is considering taking money from a regime, the head of which quite brazenly had a journalist murdered and chopped up for being critical of that regime in print, then what position should F1 and the drivers then adopt?