Drivers deserve credit as Formula 1 cuts its ties with Russia

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Formula 1 has never historically moved swiftly – bar on-track – and has only very rarely shown a political conscience about its calendar.

The swift, decisive action it took on this year’s Russian Grand Prix, in consultation with teams during testing at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, is in stark contrast to previous years – and was prompted largely by outspoken drivers calling on F1 to make a change.

Drivers objecting to F1 venues is not an entirely new occurrence. Just last year some expressed disquiet over the addition of new races in Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Yet change felt inevitable as drivers fell in line behind Sebastian Vettel in objection to against a race in Russia – a united front we are unfamiliar with.

The strength of Vettel’s response, insisting he would boycott a race in Russia after the country’s invasion of Ukraine, left F1 teams and bosses with no option other than to react. It was the kind of thing that pushes action from teams and F1 bosses. The urgency of the meeting just two hours after track action had finished on Thursday evening, highlighted the impact of Vettel’s comments and how it can change the sometimes-glacial pace of decision making.

Russian president Putin attended Sochi’s first race in 2014
The cancellation of Russia’s race was rubber-stamped by an extraordinary meeting of the FIA World Motor Sport Council earlier this year. One week on from the invasion, F1 has gone even further, tearing up its contract with Russia and making it explicitly clear that, as things stand, the race has no future – whether in Sochi, Igora Drive or elsewhere.

This is in sharp contrast to the scenario that unfolded in 2011 when F1 dragged its feet over cancelling the Bahrain Grand Prix after violent civil unrest left many dead in the island nation. The organisers initially postponed the event before finally bowing to the inevitable and calling it off.

With international pressure rising, including UEFA’s relocation of its Champions’ League final from Russia to France, and the risk of economic sanctions that might have made the race unviable financially, F1 confirmed a meeting on the Russian GP issue during its own official press conference.

It’s not the first time we have seen teams back their drivers’ political stance. Mercedes responded to Lewis Hamilton calls for greater diversity and inclusion during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. The team created Accelerate 25, a five-year programme in a bid to become a more diverse and inclusive team, in conjunction with the launch of its black livery.

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Hamilton, the first black driver in Formula 1, launched his own commission alongside Mercedes, pledging £20 million of his own money to support unrepresented groups in the UK.

F1 won’t be back to Sochi this year
Unafraid to speak his mind, with the backing of multiple world championships and global stardom under his belt, Hamilton forced changes in F1. It appears the era of drivers being reluctant to speak out on such matters is passing, and teams now need to take account of their views rather than being able to manage the situation from the inside.

Will this continue once Hamilton and Vettel, who are approaching the end of their time in Formula 1, have moved on? Will we see the likes of Lando Norris or Charles Leclerc taking on the task of challenging the sport and the FIA? Or will the political concerns fade into the background without multiple world champions to champion these causes?

F1 took on board Hamilton’s comments with the addition of F1’s ‘We Race As One’ message in 2020, which allowed drivers to perform a pre-race anti-racism gesture. While the Mercedes driver continues his fight for equality, he recently backed F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali’s decision to end the series’ pre-race observance. “I think we can do more and be more impactful somehow,” Hamilton explained in response to a question from RaceFans. “But I don’t know what that is just yet.”

It’s hard to imagine drivers being allowed to speak out on human rights in the same way just a few years ago. Times have changed since the Bernie Ecclestone era, with drivers increasingly thrust into the limelight as the sport’s rising profile – thanks to Drive to Survive – captures the world’s attention.

Former F1 driver and Grand Prix Drivers Association director Romain Grosjean, now racing in IndyCar, has his own theory. he believes Hamilton is in a completely different position from many others on the grid, for whom speaking out could hinder rather than help.

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The 35-year-old stated, “It’s always difficult because you’re an employee at the end. Lewis is a seven-time world champion, he’s earned loads and loads of money.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Mugello, 2020
Hamilton’s podium protest triggered a response
“So he can speak if there is a for some reason they don’t want to go racing, they go on strike. He won’t have a problem to go on strike.”

“If you’re a youngster and it’s your first season in Formula 1 and you’re trying to make everything perfect, you tell your team ‘I’m going to go on strike’ [they’ll say] ‘oh well okay go on strike, but don’t come back next race’,” concluded Grosjean.

But no driver is bigger than the sport. Hamilton, despite pushing F1 to make changes and highlight the injustice in the world, discovered the limits of what F1 was prepared to tolerate at the Tuscan Grand Prix in 2020. The FIA set out to clarify that the podium was a “neutral space” after Hamilton wore a T-shirt referencing the killing of Breonna Taylor by US police. A step too far for the sport’s governing body.

Getting into a political argument with the FIA, the public – even sponsors – may pose risks to a driver’s career. But when prominent voices in F1 can make their voices heard loud and clear across the world, when is it the wrong time to do so?

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Claire Cottingham
Claire has worked in motorsport for much of her career, covering a broad mix of championships including Formula One, Formula E, the BTCC, British...

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12 comments on “Drivers deserve credit as Formula 1 cuts its ties with Russia”

  1. Excellent article. I was so happy when Seb spoke out and I am happy to see him getting the lion’s share of the credit for F1’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

    To the question of why Seb and Lewis are able to effect this sort of change, I think it all comes down to respect in the paddock. That is not necessarily tied directly to world championships. Seb hasn’t won a world championship in nearly a decade, and to be honest he probably didn’t have the same level of respect then as he does now. It has grown with time. What having world championships allows you to do though is stay in the paddock for many years and grow that level of respect. But if Kimi, Button, or Massa, who were not multiple championship winners, had spoken out the same way as Seb or Lewis have on topics I think they would get the same level of response from the paddock.

  2. Looking at that picture of Vettel shaking hands with Putin on the Sochi podium, he’s giving Putin such a scathing look of “I know exactly the sort of things men like you do”.

    Lewis looks like he wants to chuck that trophy in the bin.

  3. First article I noticed and read fully written by Claire.
    I agree with it but just want to add that Gasly and Verstappen were also very quick in stating their objections to race in Russia so even though Vettel was the one that took a decision by himself, I believe that other younger drivers are already being outspoken as well, and hopefully they continue to be that way for the future, not just wanting on the “heavyweights” like Vettel and Hamilton…

    1. Yep, and dr. Marko confirmed none of the Red Bull drivers wanted to race in Russia @bakano, though it might be argued that indeed Vettel was one of the first to clearly say it, and others thus fall into the

      Yet change felt inevitable as drivers fell in line behind Sebastian Vettel in objection to against a race in Russia – a united front we are unfamiliar with.

      section, it remains notable that the others did speak out.

  4. Good I’m glad F1 did this…..and what about the other places with a poor democracy and human rights record…….China, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain perhaps?

    1. @machinesteve I agree but sadly no.

    2. @machinesteve good point. There was a lively debate about such things when the Saudi gp was first mooted, announced and held. And yet we still went there and the on track action was the loudest talking point. Sportswashing works – for Russia it lulled the world into a false sense of security about what the Putin regime was really about. It made people conflicted about ostracising Russia, when their primary concern was a grand prix or an Olympic games or a football world cup. It allowed people to look the other way when Russia invaded Crimea (though the West did the same for Chechnya and South Ossetia).

      Saudi Arabia is currently committing war crimes in Yemen but the world looks the other way, somewhat understandably given what is happening in Ukraine, but I very much doubt it will put the grand prix in jeopardy. Sportswashing works.

      You could argue that Russia is now feeling the consequences of its actions, but now is too late. I daresay if China invaded Taiwan, F1 and other sports would shun them too but again, it would be too late. The treatment of the Uighurs has been tantamount to ethnic cleansing but the West stands by. Sportswashing works.

      You could also extend this argument to Western countries – the USA has committed pretty appalling war crimes in recent history yet no one censures them. However, they are the world’s cultural and financial hegemonic power so F1 taking its ball home and refusing to play wouldn’t cut very deep (besides the sport is now owned by Americans).

      You may also say European countries with an imperial past can hardly lecture the world on how to behave either, but this is reductive – the future of the world should not be handcuffed by its past. We shouldn’t forget our lamentable history, we should learn from it to make the future better.

  5. Agreed. Now we need HAM or VET (or others ..) to make a similar stand against Saudi. I’m sure HAM is at a point in his career where he could even have a contract to that effect. It’s a big ask – but it would be a very powerful legacy for him.

  6. I would have to agree with Steve above. China, Saudi Arabia possibly Bahrain have way to many human rights violations.
    On 2 October 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident, journalist, columnist for The Washington Post, former editor of Al-Watan and former general manager and editor-in-chief of the Al-Arab News Channel, was assassinated by agents of the Saudi government at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
    On 23 April 2019, Saudi Arabia carried out mass executions of 37 imprisoned civilians who had been convicted mostly on the basis of confessions obtained under torture or written by the accused’s torturers. Most of the executed belonged to the country’s Shia minority.
    China has been accused of committing crimes against humanity and possibly genocide against the Uyghur population and other mostly-Muslim ethnic groups in the north-western region of Xinjiang.
    Liberty Media totally failed to address these issues.
    My 2 cents.

    1. Coventry Climax
      4th March 2022, 10:59

      Agree fully with @machinesteve, @frood19 and BB
      Regarding BB’s 2 cents: Add mine to that. If more people would speak out in this direction, that would hopefully amount to too many ‘cents’ to ignore.

  7. F1 is the top end of motor racing. Motor racing is a driver plus a car (has been for about 120 years.)
    Democracy is a right for many|most of us, we elect our political leaders to reflect our political opinions.
    I’m unaware of any (let alone world-wide) free, democratic way of “electing” the FIA, commercial F1 rights-holders, or race organizers. I personally do not “discriminate” based on where a driver was born.
    Russia and Ukraine have a historical difference of opinion. I might have an opinion. Mr Vettel might have an opinion. But surely it’s not up to the FIA to regulate world politics?

  8. Congratulations to those of us who speak out, and stand up….and even more importantly….refuse to “go along” with the commercial imperative. There is a Cherokee saying, “In business will be the ruination of the Earth”. If we find ourselves blessed (or cursed) with a social conscience, we need to act on those feelings….not everyone is so inclined.

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