In light of the social uproar following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, Formula One has been thrust into the spotlight by its only Black driver: Lewis Hamilton. The six-time world champion has been increasingly vocal about combating racism in the sport and in the world writ large, and he’s used the Black Lives Matter movement as inspiration for Mercedes-AMG’s new racing livery for the shortened 2020 season. In recent days, F1’s parent company Liberty Media also launched the “We Race as One” initiative and created a task force to “fight against any form of discrimination.”
It’s possible F1 is waking up a bit. But while the steps it is taking to advocate for social change are commendable, the sport needs to look within its own house and also address its own controversial races in places like Azerbaijan and Bahrain.
F1 is a complex thing, and how it makes its money is even more so. At the top, you have the circus owners, the likes of Liberty Media now (formerly Bernie Ecclestone, and a whole other essay could be devoted to him alone.) In the middle, you have the racing teams, and at the bottom, you have racing drivers who are willing to do almost anything to win. At a team level, drivers usually turn a blind eye to many questionable practices that ultimately fund the squads, such as sponsorships from corporate monopolies or less-than-desirable investors.
After all, getting two F1 cars and an entire team of people around the globe for the majority of a year isn’t cheap-it costs anywhere from $130 to $410 million per season.
Hamilton’s new livery in support of BLM.
New Halo livery to celebrate the We Race as One initiative.
At a sport level, however, things become more transparent, and therefore more bizarre. While it’s not that hard for a team like McLaren to hide individual sponsors behind corporation names, etc., it’s much harder for Liberty Media to hide the fact that it collects generous sums of money from some of the most corrupt governments in the world in exchange for hosting a race. How about Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Russia, China?
Chase Carey, Chairman and CEO of the world’s second most-watched sport, may claim that “Formula 1 needs to be more inclusive and diverse” and go as far as donating $1 million of his personal money to a foundation effectively established by his own company (how’s that for generosity?), but the truth is that he’s undermining all of these lukewarm initiatives by continuing to exchange money with some very dirty and bloody hands. Even worse, Liberty Media has yet to highlight the steps its initiative will take to improve diversity, or how exactly it will use the money it receives.
Inside the track at Bahrain.
Outside of the track.
One of the newest jewels of the F1 season is the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, which takes place in the capital city of Baku. Azerbaijan is one of the world’s worst offenders in human rights. According to Human Rights Watch and other various reports, Azerbaijani authorities freely and frequently imprison and torture activists, journalists, political dissidents and anyone else caught speaking out against the regime. “While criticizing the increasing crackdown, Azerbaijan’s international partners have failed to set conditions for future cooperation that will help secure rights improvements,” the organization says.
Imagine if there were a big, lucrative sport that could apply such pressure. If only one existed!
Things aren’t any better in the Kingdom of Bahrain, where its human and civil rights situation is described as “dire” by the 2020 World Human Rights Report. The country’s long list of atrocities includes executing people who haven’t had a chance to undergo proper trials, jailing everyone who opposes the ruling regime, and outright banning all independent media.
While countries like Russia and China are slightly “less evil” to the naked eye, let’s not forget that billions of people live under constant fear and oppression under power-hungry and power-rich governments that threaten to take whatever little rights they have. Let’s not forget for one second that in these count…