Last week Lewis Hamilton panned his phone across the paddock and gave social media his views on the sport seems no more diverse now than when he arrived 11 years ago.
Would F1 prefer to sweep the diversity debate under the carpet? Or are the obstacles to progress outside its control? Dieter Rencken gives the benefit of his experience.
Lewis Hamilton ranks as Formula 1’s most diverse character: mixed-race, born to Grenadian/English parents; four-time world champion and holder of various F1 records, yet good-times seeker; rapper; fashion aficionado; on occasions absolutely focussed, at others totally detached; given to light-hearted banter at times, yet deeply philosophical; born in a Stevenage council estate, now a Monaco resident.
Hamilton’s Instagram video
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Thus it was fitting that Lewis should he share an Instagram message calling for diversity in Formula 1, posting: “There is hardly any diversity in F1, still nothing’s changed in 11 years I’ve been here. Kids, people, there’s so many jobs in this sport of which anybody no matter your ethnicity or background, can make it and fit in. #diversity #youcandoit”
His call followed comments he made last November during a BBC Radio Five Live Sportsweek interview, when Hamilton showed his interest in diversity is not limited to those with similar roots to his: “People come up to me from different ethnic backgrounds. I have Asian families, black families, Mexican families come up to me and saying, ‘My kid wants to be you one day’, and I can assure you when I started racing there weren’t people from those places,” he said in November 2017.
“I take great pride in that. Like the great Williams sisters [Serena and Venus], like Tiger Woods, who really broke a mould, knocked down a wall for others to come through.
“I’m proud to be part of that hopefully positive change.”
Setting aside some historical inaccuracies (Althea Gibson won three Grand Slams including Wimbledon in the fifties, Mexicans first raced in F1 in the sixties and Asian (Japanese) drivers contested F1 in the seventies, Malaysian Alex Yoong contested the 2001-02 F1 seasons, Narain Karthikeyan, known in the paddock as ‘The World’s Fastest Indian’ debuted in F1 in 2005, while Arthur Ashe and Charles Luther Sifford blazed tennis/golf trails in the sixties) Lewis is spot-on. A cursory glance about the paddock proves F1 lacks diversity.
The implication, though, is that F1, and therefore ultimately the FIA, Formula One Management and the teams collectively, are to blame for this lamentable situation. Yet clause 1.1 of the FIA’s statutes states: “The FIA shall refrain from manifesting discrimination on account of race, skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic or social origin, language, religion, philosophical or political opinion, family situation or disability in the course of its activities and from taking any action in this respect.”
Saliently this clause is preceded only by the aims of the FIA, proving that its commitment to diversity is of the highest priority, with the next clause (1.2) reinforcing that message by stressing the governing body’s obligation to democracy: “The FIA shall respect the highest standards of governance, transparency and democracy, including anti-corruption functions and procedures.”
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The teams have every reason to embrace diversity, for they are in the business of selling performance to multi-national brands, all of whom depend upon the full global customer spectrum to maximize brand awareness and, by extension, profits. Thus the blame for F1’s lack of diversity cannot be laid at their feet; if anything, the opposite.
Where, then, does the problem lie? Why does F1 not have Congolese drivers or Jamaican tyre fitters, or East Javanese hospitality staff and Tibetan doctors? Given that virtually every real world job is replicated in the F1 paddock, why no Indian medical staff, or Aboriginal mechanics, Amazonian scrutineers or Namibian timekeepers? Of course these question apply equally to all genders and orientations.
The answers lie not with the FIA, FOM or F1’s teams, sponsors or suppliers, but in global politics. Taking just one of the examples above, namely that of an ethnic Congolese tyre fitter: What chance does a youngster in Kigali who dreams of being of being Hamilton’s right rear tyre fitter have of obtaining a work permit to work for the team, or obtain visas to travel the world?
Heck, the poor kid can’t even obtain a UK visitor visa without shelling out thousands and answering reams of questions even before the cost of his air fare is factored into the equation. What chance then of a permit to work in a country that already shuns qualified workers from the European Union? The signs are Britain’s departure from the EU this situation will become even more acute, even for highly qualified engineers.
Consider the case of a freelance Indian journalist, whose work appears in a major international publication. Ahead of last week’s Australian Grand Prix he did everything according to the book to apply for the Sub-class 400 work visa required to report on the event: He applied immediately after receiving the official invitation letter from the circuit, then completed all 20 pages in the application form and paid the required AUS$275 (£150).
Three weeks later his application had even not been assessed, forcing him to re-book his flight at considerable cost. After contacting Australian immigration consultants he was assured of obtaining his visa in time. It did not arrive so he missed that flight, with no refund possible. Eventually his visa arrived Thursday, forcing him to book another flight at horrific cost, which landed Friday noon. What chance for an East Javanese scribe?
I was not alone in experiencing similar issues last year. Having applied within the “window”, my visa was eventually issued on the morning of the flight. A UK colleague who had not received his visa prior to flying, took a chance and departed for Melbourne on the strength of a valid ESTA visitor visa, hoping to blag entry. He was relieved when his Sub-class 400 arrived by email while he was already in transit.
When first I decided to devote myself to F1 in 1992 I travelled from Africa to the UK on a visitor visa, aiming to gain employment with a team. I hold an industrial engineering qualification and had many years of marketing and managerial experience, plus a burning desire to get into the sport I loved. I applied to all nine British teams then in F1, and received six replies – without exception all required proof of work permit.
I approached numerous immigration consultants, all of whom advised I did not qualify as my skills set did not meet specialist criteria. Shortly before departing the UK in utter despair I discovered foreign journalists could apply for “leave to remain”, and requested a letter of accreditation from a newspaper editor with whom I was acquainted, despite not having written essays for 20 years and being unable to type. I was fortunate…
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Of course one hears of ‘foreigners’ working in F1. However, upon closer investigation they invariably hold ancestral passports or spousal rights that qualify them for European residence. Ten years ago a South African publication commissioned me to write a piece about the 10 or so South Africans in F1 at the time in the hope of inspiring others to follow in their footsteps.
Following various preparatory interviews I realised that unless South Africans (or most non-European nationals, for that matter) had second passports or spousal rights, they had absolutely no chance of working in F1 unless they had other-worldly specialist skills in a field with few graduates. Therefore such a feature would prove utterly demoralising for readers who had set their hearts on working in F1. Unsurprisingly, we canned it.
During the course of that research in (South) Africa I discovered many I spoke to didn’t necessarily regard Lewis as a role model, but rather viewed him as being fortunate enough to hold UK nationality, with the implication being that on nationality grounds alone Grenadians (or others in developing countries) could not achieve his heights, even if they possessed the necessary talent.
Of course African footballers and West Indian cricketers prevail in those sports in Europe. But the difference is that the sports have low economic barriers to entry, while motorsport costs a fortune, even at ground-level. And football or crickets teams don’t employ 1,000 people back at base, so the difference in diversity is less stark.
Thus to draw parallels with people from under-represented communities working in NASCAR, as some have done since Lewis spoke out, is downright disingenuous. How many visas or work permits does a tyre fitter from Alabama require to work in Charlotte? They would, however, require visas and permits to work in F1, as would Mexicans to work in NASCAR.
Given the foregoing, folk would do better to ask why NASCAR has had just two African American drivers in its 70-year history; why Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jnr is only the category’s second black driver, and its first since 1971; why NASCAR has taken until 2018 to find its first African-American woman tyre changer namely Brehanna Daniels at this year’s Daytona 500.
Therein lies the crux: Much as F1 considers itself to be a world championship, and thus theoretically open to all citizens of this world, the sport does not exist in a bubble. All F1 personnel whether working for teams, the governing body, or FOM, are required to satisfy the employment laws of their host countries, just as the employing entities are required to comply. Any deviations result in immediate deportment and massive fines.
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F1 teams currently operate out of three countries – UK, Italy and Switzerland* while FOM and the FIA operate out of the UK and France / Switzerland respectively. The relevant laws in these countries are particularly stringent and exemptions are issued only where employers are able to categorically prove a dearth of specialist skills in their countries. Aerodynamic and CFD specialists may fall into that category if teams motivate their applications correctly; tyre fitters and hospitality staff decidedly do not.
Unless prospective employees, regardless of gender or creed, satisfy the employment criteria conditions of those three European countries – and that is without factoring the need for travel visas into any equation – there simply is no chance of a job in F1, regardless of their passion for the sport. That is precisely why F1 is Euro-centric, and likely to remain so.
True Indians, Iranians, Africans, Australians and others from non-European countries have been able to find employment in F1. But their presences are/were down to specialist skills, ancestral visas, spousal rights and so on. And do not for a moment believe that ancestral or spousal rights are standardised across the EU – citizen laws vary across the community.
Drivers, of course, have specialist skills, and thus generally are issued with employment permits (where contractual situations demand, some are not classed as employees) and travel visas, but not without inconvenience in some instances: I once stood in a non-EU passport queue for what felt like hours in Frankfurt with Sergio Perez while F1 buddies who held maroon passports sailed through.
However, not all drivers gain automatic entry into grand prix host countries: In 1977 Ian Scheckter, brother of Jody (that season a title contender), arrived in Japan for the country’s second grand prix, only to be whisked away and held in a cell for the weekend despite presenting valid documents. Why they grabbed Ian and not his brother as well despite both holding the same (South African) nationality was never explained.
If anything, the situation will deteriorate as countries tighten up on immigration in the face of terrorism, refugees and asylum seekers, or while unemployment is rampant. Last week The Times reported “The Home Office has turned away thousands of engineers, doctors and lawyers after hitting a cap on the number of visas for highly skilled non-EU migrants for a record fourth month in a row.” So what chance F1 workers?
Much as Lewis Hamilton’s push for diversity has unarguable merit, the bottom line is that F1 as a sport is unable to heed his calls until, first and foremost, the European geopolitical situation changes, employment laws are relaxed and visa official don’t view every applicant as a rogue hell-bent on asylum. Sorry Lewis, but F1 is likely to be extinct long before that happens.
*Haas enters under an American licence, but its manufacturing is undertaken by Dallara’s facility, wind tunnel work at Ferrari and the race base is in UK, and apart from team executives, few US nationals feature on its Europeans payrolls
Follow Dieter on Twitter: @RacingLines
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