Formula One is addressing its equality and sustainability issues – is it enough?

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In July 2021 the Hamilton Commission released its findings about inequality in motorsport. The report, launched in June 2020 in partnership with the Royal Academy of Engineering, investigated the lack of representation of people of colour within Formula One and related engineering fields. 

Strikingly, the Commission notes that less than 1% of trackside F1 engineers are black. Assessing inequalities in career progression, the report states that, in 2019, only two students with a Caribbean background achieved an A* in Physics A-Level. 

Sir Lewis Hamilton has led the charge in recent months to raise awareness surrounding inequalities in motorsport. Hamilton and Toto Wolff, Mercedes F1 Team Principal, have pioneered the Accelerate 25 scheme which will see Mercedes aim for 25% of new employees coming from BAME backgrounds. 

As part of its ‘We Race As One’ campaign, with donations from non-executive chairman Chase Carey, the F1 leadership plans to offer engineering scholarships to students from underrepresented backgrounds.

Driver initiatives, like that of the one Hamilton has led, are likely to face challenges in the muddy politics of F1

With only 2% of the 500,000 teachers in England from black backgrounds, the Commission calls for the Department of Education to do more to enhance the experience of students from minority backgrounds. 

It highlights the lack of role models to inspire students, in conjunction with limited after school informal opportunities, as key factors that stop students from pursuing careers in engineering or motorsport. 

The international platform of sport gives F1 an opportunity to set an example to the millions who tune in to watch on race weekends. Yet, driver initiatives, like that of the one Hamilton has led, are likely to face challenges in the muddy politics of F1. Interests of drivers, sponsors, teams, FIA motorsport authorities and countries have the potential to clash. 

Many of the races on the F1 calendar are paid for by host country governments. This year races are to be held in Russia, Bahrain, Singapore, Azerbaijan and for the first time in F1 history, Saudi Arabia. It is likely to prove difficult for F1 teams and drivers to reconcile their efforts to promote equality with the human rights records of host countries. Political activism from drivers will therefore need to be tempered by sponsors and the need to satisfy the host country, making for a difficult compromise. 

In December 2021, Formula One will be racing for the first time in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The track will be a street circuit running through Jeddah’s city centre, at night, along the banks of the Red Sea. 

Amnesty International along with other human rights advocacy groups have criticised hosting the race in Jeddah, citing specifically Saudi Arabia’s treatment of religious minority groups, civil rights of women and the fallout from the case of Jamal Khashoggi. 

F1’s effort to promote equality in the UK, while noble, may only be a drop in the bucket

Saudi Arabia’s addition to the calendar calls into question Formula One’s sustainability initiatives, given that the host country is one of the world’s biggest fossil fuel producers. Honda, the engine supplier to current Championship leader Max Verstappen, announced that they will leave the sport at the end of 2021, citing a mismatch between the trajectory of F1 and their road cars as car manufacturers beginning to shift attention towards sustainable fuel and electric vehicles.

Despite building a race-winning engine, Honda has stuck with its decision to leave the sport. The sale of internal combustion vehicles is scheduled to be banned in the UK by 2030 with other European nations following suit. 

It is a necessity for F1 and motorsport to adapt to such changes, yet also manage the relationship with its lucrative sponsors and backers, many of whom have stakes in fossil fuels. 

F1’s governing body has discussed implementing sustainable fuels and stated that it aims to become carbon neutrality by 2030. Racing in countries whose income is generated primarily from fossil fuel production presents a disconnect between aims and reality which F1’s leaders will have to address. 

F1’s efforts to promote equality in the UK, while noble, may only be a drop in the bucket. In contributing to the ‘sportswashing’ tactics of authoritarian regimes they may be causing more harm than good but, in a sport where ‘Cash is King’, it will be difficult to avoid alluring offers. 

Formula One’s effectiveness will be dictated on whether the right balance is found. Teams and drivers may use their platform to raise issues in host countries. However, they must reconcile this with the interests of the host country and sponsors, without whom the show cannot go on. 

Image Credit: Vishwaant via Creative Commons

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