Ashwin Menon, Undergraduate batch of 2022 Over the years, the sport of Formula 1 has witnessed
“IT’S LIGHTS OUT and AWAY WE GO!”
For Formula One fans all over the world, hearing this famous refrain from David Croft at the start of Sunday’s Grand Prix was a welcome breath of fresh air as it marked a rather exciting start of the racing season for 2020. However, for some fans the F1 action began much before Sunday’s race. All the racers of Formula One paused before the start of the season in Austria to recognize the #WeRaceAsOne initiative under Liberty Media with drivers wearing black shirts with “End Racism” messages.
However, the buck for unanimous solidarity among the racers pretty much stopped there which has since then allowed fans, much like you and me, to reevaluate how seriously Formula One and FIA take issues of systemic racism in their organization.
Now, a lot has happened in the pre-season leading up to the Austrian Red Bull Ring weekend. The start of the season was pushed back from March to July after the Coronavirus outbreak forced the last-minute cancellation of the Australian GP.
In the meantime, the world was shocked by the death of George Floyd. Six-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton has been an outspoken advocate of the Black Lives Matter movement. This included his consistent participation in protests over the past few weeks and recently, speaking out against the comments made by former FIA top boss, Bernie Ecclestone.
Britain’s most successful F1 driver also explained that the problem of racial prejudice goes beyond isolated incidents and needs to be resolved by institutional change, in a letter penned online.
“The unchanged make-up of the F1 community throughout my career makes it feel like only a certain type of person is truly welcome in this sport, one who looks a certain way, comes from a certain background, fits a particular mould and plays by certain unwritten rules,” he continued.
While many racers were moved by his comments in this letter, it would be hard not to notice that apart from a few online posts, like Leclerc’s #BlackOutTuesday and Ricciardo’s online message for BLM, the racers’ support lacked any collective initiative to address institutional reforms in the racing world.
The sheer lack of unity in supporting the Black Lives Movement could also be seen for almost all pre-race activities. Leading up to the weekend, Hamilton alone was seen sporting the ‘Black Lives Matter’ slogan on his T-shirt. The rest of the grid wore tops bearing the message ‘End Racism’.
‘End Racism’, that’s it. It’s safe to say that a message this vague definitely missed the mark of standing in solidarity to the worldwide protests against the systemic oppression of black people.
This disassociation from the BLM sentiment further intensified when six racers refused to take the knee for the pre-race solidarity gesture.
Now, before the weekend, the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, particularly Grosjean and Vettel, had decided that the drivers would “stand united with their teams against racism and prejudice” and take the knee to continue an act performed by sports people around the world that first came to prominence through NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
But two of the brightest young stars in the sport — Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc — were among six drivers who stayed on their feet.
Leclerc and Verstappen had announced on Twitter before Sunday’s Grand Prix that they would not be taking the knee. If one were to go by Leclerc’s statement, then it can be discerned that he considered the offence that might be caused by “formal gestures that could be seen as controversial in some countries” of greater importance than assuming the universal gesture of support for black people. Verstappen said that he felt “everyone has the right to express themself at a time and in a way that suits them”, with 2020 apparently not the right time to take a visible stand against racial inequality.
Both of these tweets, as well as Giovinazzi’s, ended with #WeRaceAsOne. Yet by choosing to oppose the point of taking a knee, these three drivers in particular have shown why the sport has a problem to tackle. It was stressed that each driver be left to their own independent decision for this gesture, and this is exactly the spirit that they conveyed: a group of individuals choosing what was right for themselves and their own little communities, not a united front trying to demonstrate what is right for the greater universal good. There should never be a bad time to tackle racism and by taking a knee, you are not choosing a complex political stance.
While the leadership of BLM may choose to side with Palestinians, taking a knee has nothing to do with inter-nation politics. By taking a knee, you’re not choosing to support a side in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. By taking a knee, you do not back calls to defund police. By taking a knee, you are not displaying a gesture that should be deemed “controversial in some countries”. By taking a knee, you are demonstrating a belief that a black life means the same as a white life, and that those two lives should be able to live without fear of oppression, discrimination or prejudice.
By choosing to stand, what these six drivers have done is reduce Formula One’s visual stance against racism to an empty gesture. Before Sunday afternoon’s conflict, what the sports administration and its leading individuals have initiated to address racial inequality has been applaudable. Both the FIA’s chief executive and Hamilton, the sport’s only black world champion, have started their own commissions to boost under-represented groups in the sport. While institutional reforms as these were much needed and highly appreciated, they still need to go hand in hand with visible united solidarity gestures from the face of the sport, that is, the racers, yet that evidently got off to a rough start.
It’s safe to say that when the BAME population within motorsport needed to see its 20 racers on Sunday united in sending a message that racism will not be tolerated in their sport, they were instead just given further evidence that F1 continues to teem with white privilege that refuses to acknowledge its platform for universal upliftment and is definitely not ready to #EndRacism. To this day, Lewis Hamilton remains the only black person to compete in F1 and it is high time we change that. Only then can #WeRaceAsOne.