Willy T Ribbs: F1 teams need dedicated academy seats for BAME drivers

F1

Willy T Ribbs, former IndyCar driver and now F1's ambassador for diversity and inclusion, says that teams need to take action to bring in BAME drivers

STAFFORD SPRINGS, CONNECTICUT - JUNE 12: SRX driver Willy T. Ribbs waits on the grid during practice for the Inaugural Superstar Racing Experience Event at Stafford Motor Speedway on June 12, 2021 in Stafford Springs, Connecticut. (Photo by Elsa/SRX via Getty Images)

Willy T Ribbs feels teams need to take action to help BAME drivers

Elsa/SRX via Getty Images

Willy T Ribbs, the new ambassador for Formula 1’s diversity and inclusion programme, says that grand prix teams should have specific academy seats to help bring BAME drivers into the championship.

Ribbs, the first black person to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, faced barriers of extreme racism throughout his career.

Describing Lewis Hamilton as a driver who comes along once in 100 years, he said that the seven-time champion had single-handedly transformed the way that F1 viewed diversity.

Ribbs believes it’s now time to build on this with a new generation of BAME drivers. He has called on current team owners need to follow the example of Ron Dennis, who identified Hamilton’s talent at a young age and eventually brought him into the McLaren team, to create more equal representation on the F1 grid.

FORT LAUDERDALE, FL - APRIL 07: Willy T Ribbs, retired American race car driver, reacts as he participates in a race car game with students under the F1 in Schools program during the Formula 1 Crypto.com Miami Grand Prix press conference at Bunche Park, Miami Gardens on April 7, 2022 in Fort Lauderdale, United States. Ribbs, along with event organizers, surprised students under the F1 in Schools program with tickets to the inaugural event. (Photo by Johnny Louis/Getty Images)

Ribbs helping out with F1’s diversity and inclusion programme

Johnny Louis/Getty Images

“They have to do what Ron did,” he said speaking to Motor Sport. “Zak Brown or Lawrence Stroll need to say ‘Alright, we’re going to feature a junior driver, so others [of BAME background] can see [what’s possible]’ – the money’s there to do it.

“They need to mentor these kids right through all the junior series. That’s a goal, but [we] also [need to] bring more into the STEM programmes, as designers, as engineers, as mechanics – that is all in our game plan now.”

In a sport massively subscribed to by the white western world, Ribbs does not believe this approach of positive discrimination would have a negative effect.

“It doesn’t mean that other kids who are not black or brown get shut them out – they’re coming too,” he says. “So any kid with talent gets a chance. But for a kid of colour who wouldn’t normally have those opportunities, the manufacturers need to be putting up the money to make that happen. I’ve been asking that for years.”

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Driving the programme forward with his ideas in the new role, Ribbs himself is now going into schools to promote STEM subjects in conjunction with F1. He says he can already see the positive effect of both F1’s new BAME initiatives and Lewis Hamilton’s role as a figurehead of the sport.

“The kids knew about F1 as much as I did,” he says laughing. “They might not know who Giuseppe Farina is, but their understanding of why F1 cars look the way they look, why they’re designed the way are – that was their school project, [and] that’s just the start for them.

“It used to be that a lot of young African American kids in this country wanted to be NASCAR drivers. Well, that trend is changing and fast.”

“Lewis has opened up the world. You won’t see someone like him again for 100 years”

Ribbs is in no doubt as to who to attribute that too: “Lewis has opened up the world. You won’t see someone like him again for 100 years.

“I think F1 as a business has learned from having Lewis, because they’re making more money now than ever, and diversity makes money. You can use Tiger Woods as an example: if all people can identify with you, then you make more money.”

Outside of the classroom and at the track, the former IndyCar driver has observed positive change too.

“I was at COTA [for the 2021 US GP] with a friend of mine the Trans-Am promoter Tony Parella,” Ribbs recalls. “And he said to me: ‘Have you noticed that there’s more people of colour here than any races to you’ve been to?’

“And he was right! There was a more diverse crowd there than any race I’ve ever been to in my life, and that includes the Indianapolis 500 when I drove there.”

Rather than having to make serious changes within itself, Ribbs believes F1’s main issue it addresses has to be the way it engages with the outside world.

“You’ve got to reach out, it’s like fishing,” he says. “You’ve gotta throw those hooks out there, and that’s what F1 has to continue to do. It’s leading the way on that right now though, more than any racing championship on four wheels, more than NASCAR and certainly more than IndyCar.”

When asked who he sees as the next BAME driver close to breaking through into a top championship, Ribbs is quick to answer.

Myles Rowe USF2000 driver

Ribbs views USF2000 championship leader Myles Rowe as the BAME driver with the best chance of making it at top-level motor sport

USF2000

“Myles Rowe – he’s won two out of four USF2000 races this year and is leading the championship, with very little experience,” he says. “When you see a kid exhibit that kind of talent, organisations have to follow Ron’s lead. Myles is a terrific young man. He’s smart and got all the right mannerisms to be a success.

“He’s here at Miami this weekend. You need to be at the show if you want to be in it.”