A culture of controversy and chaos: A message to Formula One


The past month of Formula One has been quite controversial. Abusive fans in Austria, booing at Silverstone, Nelson Piquet using a racial slur in reference to Lewis Hamilton, and Bernie Ecclestone saying he would “take a bullet” for Vladimir Putin. This crescendo of controversy has drawn attention to the increasing presence of hostility in Formula One’s culture, particularly amongst its fans.  

Piquet and Ecclestone both have a history plagued by unsavoury comments. Ecclestone – who was removed as Formula One’s chief executive in 2017 – has long been a Putin supporter, saying that “he should run Europe” in 2016. The 91-year-old has now been charged with fraud by the Crown Prosecution Service, due to £400m in undeclared assets.

Throughout his career, three-time world champion Piquet has made inflammatory remarks, calling Nigel Mansell’s wife ugly, and implying that Ayton Senna was a homosexual. Whilst Ecclestone’s comments are that of an ageing billionaire with steeply declining influence and relevance in motorsport, Piquet’s comments are far more relevant when analysing Formula One’s hostile culture.

Piquet’s daughter, Kelly, is Max Verstappen’s girlfriend, suggesting that he is far from impartial. After all, he used racial slurs whilst blaming Hamilton for the crash with Verstappen at the 2021 British Grand Prix.

This crescendo of controversy has drawn attention to the increasing presence of hostility in Formula One’s culture

The 2021 season’s Hamilton versus Verstappen title fight was certainly dramatic; crashes at Silverstone and Monza, with a controversial Abu Dhabi conclusion, created tension between the rivals. On-track battles were supported by duels in the media, as they blamed one another for incidents: team principals Toto Woolf and Christian Horner bickered about everything from stewarding decisions to flexi-wings.

This public hostility between rivals has also infected the Formula One fanbase, leading to a growing culture of vitriol and division. Hamilton suffered racist abuse after winning the 2021 British Grand Prix, and Nicholas Latifi received death threats following his crash in Abu Dhabi, which subsequently resulted in Verstappen’s maiden championship victory. These were two separate incidents fuelled by notable successes for the rival teams.

2022 has unfortunately continued where 2021 left off. There have been multiple incidents of abusive fan behaviour, such as fans booing Verstappen during interviews at Silverstone, or some cheering when Hamilton crashed out of qualifying in Austria. For many, the events at the Red Bull Ring are a sign that Formula One’s culture needs to be fixed, with such reports distracting from a fantastic race. Within this context, Piquet’s comments can be seen as symptomatic of this developing, hostile culture.

But is any of this new? After all, this sport is no stranger to racism and hostility. Hamilton – the only black driver to compete in Formula One – experienced abuse at the 2008 Spanish Grand Prix after a group of fans appeared in black face wearing t-shirts with ‘Hamilton’s family’ written on them.

However, I would argue that changes in how Formula One is being presented to a broader audience have helped to foster this hostile culture. Following Liberty Media’s takeover of Formula One in 2017, the sport has attracted new, younger fans, largely through the success of Netflix’s Drive to Survive series.

With its reality-tv style coverage, Drive to Survive has come under increasing criticism in recent years for manipulating interviews and footage via its editing, with the intention of stoking up controversy. Notably, reports of drama between McLaren teammates Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz during the 2020 season were criticised for being mostly fabricated. In 2021, Netflix also emphasised the hostility between Mercedes and Red Bull. Perhaps if Formula One wants to place checks on its increasing toxic culture, this may be a place to start.

Formula One still has a long way to go if it wants to show it cares about more than just making money

Formula One executives can blame social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, as a means for fans to directly harass and insult drivers; Nevertheless, this does not mean there is nothing they can do. Formula One has a long-standing tradition of not letting political issues get in the way of making money. Whilst the Russian Grand Prix was thankfully cancelled following the invasion of Ukraine, holding a race in Azerbaijan during Pride Month, or racing in Saudi Arabia after Yemen forces blew up an oil facility just miles from the track, are good examples of F1’s avoidance of taking a sturdy political stance.

Furthermore, having set up the ‘We Race As One’ ceremony in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali cancelled it for the 2022 season, stating that it was time for action over mere gestures. The ceremony gave drivers a platform to show support for their personal causes, or protest injustices in the relevant grand Prix host nations, notably through t-shirts worn by Sebastian Vettel and Hamilton. To many, this displays more of an avoidance of controversy than any plan for action by Formula One.

Formula One is not solely to blame for this. Their 2021 Engineering Scholarships Programme for underprivileged students is a good place to start when seeking to increase diversity in the paddock. However, they should not distance themselves from this developing culture of hostility.

Issuing bans for abusive fans, and Piquet having his paddock pass removed offers some progress, but Formula One still has a long way to go if it wants to show it cares about more than just making money. Hopefully, they will eventually choose action over ignorance.

Image credit: Christian Reichl via Flickr

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