Last weekend, in his moment of triumph after clinching his seventh Formula 1 world championship, Lewis Hamilton left no one in doubt that leading the calls for greater diversity in the sport means every bit as much to him as his record-equalling success.
“Whilst I’ve got this championship there’s still another big win out there, but it’s going to take all of us coming together.”
As Hamilton indicated, he hasn’t been alone in this fight. All drivers have participated in the pre-race anti-racism observances which began this year and many have joined Hamilton in ‘taking a knee’.
But by dint of his position of seniority in sport, being by far its most popular driver and – of course – the first and only black world champion, Hamilton has played a unique, leading role in pushing F1 and the FIA to respond to the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Although he is yet to sign a contract for the 2021 F1 season, it is seemingly a formality. Hamilton has made it clear he intends to continue combining his racing with agitating for change. And it seems he has further goals in mind.
While Hamilton has already spoken out on environmental issues as well as racial ones, the phrase “human rights” figured more prominently in his words last weekend. While Hamilton did not specifically mention F1’s newest race, it may be no coincidence that he made these comments following confirmation the first Saudi Arabian Grand Prix will be held next year.
“When we’ve seen the Black Lives Matter movement, that really gave me so much drive, so much focus that we had to utilise it, realise that we’ve got to really use this platform that we have, which is amazing,” Hamilton said.
“There’s a lot of organisations in the world that turn a blind eye to a lot of stuff that’s happening and they’ll use the excuse that it’s ‘political’. Human rights is not a political thing. Human rights should be equal for everyone and we’re going to all these countries where that is an issue.”
Saudi Arabia will not be the first country Formula 1 has visited which has faced criticism over its human rights record. F1 has raced in China, Bahrain and Russia over similar objections.
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Some have urged the sport to boycott these countries. Hamilton, however, sees racing in such places as an opportunity to raise and address the concerns many have about them.
“We don’t have to shut those areas off,” he said. “We have to figure out how we can engage more, how we can really utilise this platform to encourage and push for change.”
Before the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix was announced, human rights campaigners Amnesty International called on F1 drivers to “brief themselves on the dire human rights situation in the country and be prepared to speak out” on the subject, such as the unequal treatment of women, who were only given the right to drive two years ago.
“The bitter irony over a Saudi Grand Prix is that the very people who fought for the rights of Saudi women to be able to drive are now themselves languishing in jail,” said Amnesty’s UK head of campaigns Felix Jakens. “Brave people like Loujain al-Hathloul and Nassima al-Sada.
“Presuming this race now goes ahead, Formula 1 should insist that all contracts contain stringent labour standards across all supply chains, and that all race events are open to everyone without discrimination.”
No doubt Amnesty will have been encouraged by Hamilton’s recent comments. But how will F1 and the Jeddah race promoters handle criticism of the event?
Speaking to media including RaceFans last weekend the president of Saudi Arabia’s motorsport federation prince Khalid Bin Sultan Al Faisal confirmed human rights have featured in their discussions with Formula 1.
“I know this is a thing that a lot of people talk about Saudi Arabia,” he said. “We are not like the other countries. We know that we are different, we have our culture, there are things that people can do in other places that they can’t do here.
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“But these things, we respect our differences and we are opening our country to anyone. Any people can come – everybody can, if you’re a man or woman, there’s no segregation. So we know we’re different, but we respect our differences and it’s something that we take seriously.
“I live in a country and I have a family so humanity is very important for us. Maybe we disagree in a couple of things and how we do things but in the end, it’s very important for us.”
Formula E and the Dakar Rally have already held rounds in Saudi Arabia. “We didn’t have any problems with all the events,” continued prince Khalid. “We did a lot of international events, so there was no issue.
“The people that they came here, they lived freely. They do whatever they want to do. We know that we’re a very conservative country culture-wise but everybody came here and didn’t feel like he’s not welcomed.”
Events like F1 “bring people together and unites them” said prince Khalid. “So that’s why hosting these events is very important and hopefully you can come and see how the people live in Saudi Arabia and you can come and speak with them freely and get their impressions.”
Although Formula 1 will not be the first motorsport to race in Saudi Arabia, it will be by far the most well-known. That will inevitably bring all aspects of the country, positive or negative, to even greater attention.
It’s clearly a subject F1 is sensitive to. This week the series began polling fans on their “initial feelings towards the introduction of a race in Saudi Arabia”. It’s clear from early responses to the race on social media that many already have firm views on the subject and share the concerns raised by Amnesty.
Those hoping F1 will not, in Hamilton’s words, “turn a blind eye” to human rights in Saudi Arabia will draw encouragement from the sport’s most influential driver increasingly finding his voice on the subject.
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