16 weeks later than planned, Formula 1’s 2020 season started last weekend, albeit in Austria rather then Australia. The race itself was worth the wait – only 11 out of the 20 cars that started, finished, making for an exhilarating watch. But for race’s winner, Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas, things were a lot calmer as he started on pole and led every lap until the checkered flag.
When he climbed out of his car to celebrate, his helmet showed a symbol of solidarity: hands of all skin tones connected beneath the words ‘stronger together’. Bottas is teammate to 6 time World Champion Lewis Hamilton – the sports’ only ever Black driver. Their Mercedes team, the dominant constructor of the sport, has been the most outwardly supportive of the campaign to end racism. Their iconic silver livery has been changed to black and both drivers will wear black race suits for the remainder of the season. Although cosmetic, these changes are a visible reminder of the issues at large.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, [Hamilton] issued a statement on his Instagram Story calling out high-profile people in his industry for being silent.
Hamilton has been leading his industry on track for over half a decade, and now he’s leading off it too. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, he issued a statement on his Instagram Story calling out high-profile people in his industry for being silent. Shortly after, many of his peers released statements of their own condemning racism. Formula 1 issued a plan to accelerate their commitments to diversity and inclusion. This included establishing a foundation with an investment of $1 million to finance internships and apprenticeships for people from under-represented groups, and a diversity taskforce “to listen and identify the right initiatives required to increase diversity and inclusion”.
Furthermore, Hamilton has created a commission in his name in partnership with the Royal Academy of Engineering, to explore the “barriers that prevent people from more diverse backgrounds from joining the racing industry”, the eventual results of which he hopes will form part of his legacy within the sport.
Change needs to happen, and the industry must be proactive in forcing it
Whilst he has long stood up for his beliefs, the fight for change should not fall on Hamilton alone. He recently spoke of feeling previously silenced when intending to visualise his support for Colin Kaepernick, the NFL player who started the gesture of taking a knee in 2016 at the US Grand Prix. Formula 1 has a long way to go with addressing its diversity issue, and as a global sport with an enormous audience, it truly needs to be more reflective of society as a whole – one woman or one person of colour dotted amongst the sea of white male faces that fill the grid and the pit lane is not enough. Change needs to happen, and the industry must be proactive in forcing it, from the grassroots up.
Before the start of the race, all drivers donned ‘End Racism’ T-shirts, with Hamilton’s stating ‘Black Lives Matter’. 13 other drivers took the knee alongside him before the Austrian national anthem, while 6 chose to remain standing. Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc took to social media to explain their reasons not to kneel, largely for political connotations sensitive to other countries, but emphasised their support and solidarity in the fight to end racism.
Formula 1 as an industry seems more committed than ever to changing itself
The split decision of whether or not to kneel within a sport is not something we’ve seen since sport’s resumption. In both football and cricket everybody on the field has taken the knee as a symbol of complete solidarity, so it was jarring to see some drivers kneel and others stand. Whilst respecting an individual’s right to choose, it doesn’t help but come across as a sign of disunity, not to mention distracting – attention has been drawn to who did or didn’t do it rather than the point of kneeling in the first place.
Nevertheless, Formula 1 as an industry seems more committed than ever to changing itself, with prolonged attention and intention with its actions and financial backing. Lewis Hamilton is one of its brightest ever stars, and whether it’s his unquestionable dominance as a 6 time World Champion keeping audiences transfixed, or as a powerful voice for political change and social justice, the sport has an awful lot to thank him for. No way of showing appreciation could be better than a commitment to producing tangible results sooner, rather than later.
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