As the new Formula One season prepares to get underway in Bahrain, the world seems to have turned a blind eye to it’s governing body’s attempt to stop the sport’s high profile drivers from voicing their own political, religious or personal views in public. The subsequent stony silence over one of the most draconian attempts to stifle free speech in modern sporting times, speaks volumes for a sport that has sadly lost its way.
I have been an F1 fan all my life. In 1991, I sat on the banks of Bridge Corner at Silverstone, aged 14, to witness Nigel Mansell giving Ayrton Senna a lift back to the pits. I have supported the highs and lows of every British driver and Champion since then; Hill, Button and Hamilton. I love the sport, the unique connection it has with fans and the drama of the global travelling circus.
However, as each year passes it seems that F1 becomes more and more political – which makes its latest attempt to silence its stars ironically in keeping with its own divisive politics. In the last two seasons alone, we’ve seen bitter arguements over regulations, blind eyes being turned to some host nations’ human rights and LGBTQ+ track records and a Championship-deciding farce that soured an entire season.
Now, the FIA is back tracking on a regulation it threatened to introduce which would have banned drivers from freely expressing their opinions.
Yes, in 2023, the governing body of one of the planet’s most watched and most influential sports, featuring some of the most high profile sportsmen, wanted to stop its stars from talking about the things they care most about.
When the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel publicly show their support for LGBTQ+ rights by very publicly wearing rainbow helmets and t-shirts, or for Black Lives Matter by taking the knee and conducting media interviews on the subject – it seems almost unbelievable that a new law could have been introduced to potentially stop them from doing so. It’s almost as if someone, somewhere in a position of power feels a little uncomfortable at such visible political statements, a feeling that is shared by the rest of us at the prospect of the sport lucratively racing in parts of the world with questionable human rights agendas.
To make matters even more political, it seems Formula One’s two arms are at odds with each other. Its commercial rights owner, Liberty Media, fronted by F1 President Stefano Domenicali , say that the sport will never ‘put a gag on anyone.’ Meanwhile, the FIA, under its embattled President Mohammed Ben Sulayem, pushed forward with the proposal.
Today it seems that the FIA’s position has thankfully softened and that the initial proposal has been watered down after the controversy. However, the fact that it happened at all, and even exists in watered down form, is a blot on Formula One’s already blot-covered copy book.
What about the fans?
Buried deep at the back of F1 and the FIA’s mind through all of this, of course, are the fans. My 12-year-old son has followed in my footsteps and is now a die hard McLaren fan who idolises Lando Norris. He is one of millions across the world who look up to the drivers and aspire to be like them, hanging off their every word and looking to them as examples.
This is why it’s so important that sportsmen and women have voices that can be heard, that they stand up for what’s right, campaign against what’s wrong and use their influence to affect positive change. No one should have the right to stop that.
Freedom of speech is a fundamental right for us all, regardless of profession, fame or fortune. Formula One needs to take a long hard look at itself and remember where it has come from.
Talking of F1’s roots, and as money seems to be the driving force behind much of modern Formula One, it seems bitterly ironic that the sport’s greatest ever driver – the man I saw perched on the sidepod of Nigel Mansell’s Williams at the British Grand Prix – once said; “Wealthy men can’t live in an island that is encircled by poverty. We all breathe the same air. We must give a chance to everyone, at least a basic chance.”