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17th March 2023

Formula 1 vs political statements: A cause for concern?

F1’s political statement ban is causing a stir amongst drivers, with calls for a u-turn from the sports biggest stars.
Formula 1 vs political statements: A cause for concern?
F1’s inclusion iniative, We Race as One. Photo: Formula 1 @ Wikimedia Commons

In light of recent developments in politics over the past few years, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic, Formula 1 drivers have repeatedly been seen expressing their political opinions.

The first examples emerged at the start of the 2020 season in Austria with drivers kneeling in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, although they were divided in their choice to kneel. This coincided with the sport introducing the ‘We Race as One’ initiative, which according to the sport’s official website currently focuses on three key goals: sustainability, diversity and inclusion, and community.

The last few seasons have seen drivers continuing to be vocal around both issues within and outside the sport, and have used many methods to achieve this, the most notable being seven-times world champion Sir Lewis Hamilton, the sport’s only ever Black driver, wearing t-shirts during pre-race ceremonies in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Hamilton also sported rainbow colours on his helmet in support of the LGBTQ+ community, particularly at Grand Prixs in countries where being gay is punishable by law, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The latter was also supported by four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel.  The German driver has also visibly campaigned on climate change issues and the ongoing war in Ukraine, which was supported driver-wide at the inception of the 2022 season in Bahrain.

However, shortly before the start of the 2023 season, the sport’s governing body, the FIA, introduced a new rule in their International Sporting Code banning, according to their official statement on the matter: “The general making and display of political, religious and personal statements or comments notably in violation of the general principle of neutrality” in attempt to keep motorsport “neutral and thus separate from and free of political, religious, or personal interference.”

While this rule only applies to specific times over the race weekend and still allows drivers to express their views on social media, during media interviews and in response to journalists in press conferences, the rule crucially does not allow drivers during pre or post-race ceremonies, the former in particular being the site of numerous forms of political expressions amongst drivers in recent seasons.

7-times world champion Lewis Hamilton, pictured in 2022, has been a vocal critic of the rule change. Photo: Marina Ramos and Câmara dos Deputados @ Wikimedia Commons

In response to this, drivers have been overwhelmingly critical, with any support for the ban seemingly coming from other key figures in the paddock such as team principals. Hamilton in particular has outlined that it’s been great that drivers have been speaking out and sparking conversations over the past few years and that the change won’t stop him from expressing any of his own views despite the risk of a penalty for not following the new rule. In addition, Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate George Russell has also spoken out and claimed he would be shocked if the FIA don’t repeal the rule change, and Lando Norris has accused the FIA of treating drivers like ‘schoolchildren’.

However, criticism of the rule change has not been unanimous in the paddock, despite widespread criticism from drivers: Red Bull team principal Christian Horner has spoken in support of the rule, citing that F1 should be seen as a form of ‘escapism’. As a result of driver response and some outlining they will ignore the rule and continue to express themselves freely, it remains to be seen whether the FIA will deploy sanctions.

So far it appears this will not be the case as Hamilton continued to support the LGBTQ+ community via his helmet at the opening race weekend in Bahrain at the start of the month. But it is uncertain if any more overtly political statements will be disciplined, such as drivers collectively supporting Ukraine, which has not happened this year unlike at the opening race last year, despite the war showing no sign of slowing down.

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