How do you make Formula One ethically acceptable?


Sport being political is not a new phenomenon. International sports championships are often centred around the concept of the nation state, and when countries compete, politics are inevitable. Yet why has the Formula One Championship, where the teams have no country alignment, become so controversial?

Part of this is due to location. While F1 teams are not aligned to nations, the races take places over the world. The last three races of the season – Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi – have been divisive.

Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah Circuit and Qatar’s Losail Circuit were new tracks for the 2021 FIA F1 World Championship, despite concerns regarding human rights abuses.

Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for Middle East and North Africa, accused Saudi Arabia of using the spectacle of Formula One to distract from “their brutal crackdown on activists and human rights defenders. Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia and Qatar impose the death penalty for homosexuality and have all been criticised for many human rights abuses.

Drivers have taken varying political stances to the human rights records of the countries they race in – Sir Lewis Hamilton donned a rainbow helmet for the Jeddah race and spoke out at Hungaroring about Hungary’s upcoming vote on anti-LGBT law with fellow driver Sebastian Vettel.

Other drivers have preferred not to comment. Daniel Ricciardo, who races for McLaren, came under fire for saying in an interview before the Jeddah race that he didn’t follow the human rights debate because he disliked “drama and negativity. Likewise, human rights charity Amnesty International stated now-champion Max Verstappen declined to discuss human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia with them.

The case can be made that these athletes are not employed for their political opinions, and so should not have to voice them. But, as public figures with huge sway and influence who make frankly nauseating amounts of money racing in countries with appalling human rights records, is it wrong to at least expect a bland statement written by some beleaguered PR person that acknowledges this?

F1’s financial priorities trump any ethical concerns

The issue is more than just the ethical record of the countries that races take place in. Multiple drivers have attracted controversy surrounding their political views or personal lives. Anger erupted in 2020 after driver Nikita Mazepin posted an Instagram video that shows him inappropriately grope a woman, leading to #WeSayNoToMazepin trending on Twitter and calling for his removal.

The fact that Mazepin’s billionaire father Dmitry Mazepin sponsors his son’s team, Haas, could be a reason popular pressure has not removed the driver. That leads to another key problem with F1 – beyond national or personal politics – how unavailable the sport is to those without extreme personal wealth.

In 2016 Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff gave his estimates of the costs to race, stating “karting to international level could cost £1m, a season in F4 £350,000, and £650,000 for a season in F3. For F2 a further £1.5m.” These figures will have only increased in 2021.

Concern over the sports inclusivity prompted former driver Derek Warwick, vice-president of the British Racing Drivers’ Club, to warn that the costs of racing increasing may mean Britain never again produces a driver like Lewis Hamilton.

Hamilton is one of the few notable exceptions to the elitism that pervades F1. Lance Stroll, son of billionaire Canadian businessman Lawrence Stroll competes in F1 after his father bought an F1 team (Force India, which Stroll renamed to Racing Point BWT Mercedes). For drivers trying to rise through F3 and F2 whose parents aren’t featured on the Forbes rich list, competing in F1 is an impossible dream.

The sport has made a considerable effort to improve certain aspects. The end of the ‘grid girls’ in 2018 was heralded as a step in the right direction for rectifying the lack of female representation in the sport. In Saudi Arabia, female driver Reema Juffali was a guest on the grid.

But the issue remains – F1’s financial priorities trump any ethical concerns, from fathers’ buying teams so their sons can race, to countries where political dissenters are executed. A mantra has emerged in Formula One that ‘cash is king’ . It is clear that won’t be changing any time soon.

Image: Rage77com via Creative Commons

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