Last month, F1 fans in St Andrews gave a collective sigh – for several reasons – as the sport unveiled the addition of the Qatar Grand Prix to the race calendar this year, as well as announcing a 10-year deal for the country from 2023.
Preceding races in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi respectively, the 2021 season will therefore draw to a close with a triple-header (three races in a row) in the Middle East in late November and December.
Due to complications surrounding Covid and travel restrictions – thankfully the removal of Mexico and Brazil from the UK red list should guarantee races there at the beginning of November – F1 feels it should plug gaps created by the loss of the Chinese, Australian, Canadian, Japanese and Singapore Grand Prix.
The re-inclusion of Turkey, which has yo-yoed on and off the calendar all year, is a prime example of this cramming; the season currently stands at a record-breaking 22 races.
Replacing high-quality events at established circuits with new and relatively unproven tracks, such as Losail in Qatar, is not the solution. In this regard, less is more.
And then, most importantly, there’s ‘We Race as One’, F1’s initiative to help thank key workers globally post-Covid, and tackle “the major issues that we as a sport, but also society, are facing”, specifically discrimination of all kinds and global inequality. FIA President Jean affirmed that “The FIA is guided by the Fundamental Principles of its Statutes, including the fight against any form of discrimination and notably on account of skin colour, gender, religion, ethnic or social origin”.
So how, with the introduction of this new initiative, how can F1 bring itself to race in places with governments who commit rights abuses of all kinds?
Qatar will host the 2022 Football World Cup next year, and has during the last decade bid for numerous widely viewed and in-demand sporting events, including big boxing bouts, the 2019 World Athletics Championships and equestrian events, to name a few.
Amnesty International has accused the country of ‘sport-washing’ their image, to gloss over their notorious human rights abuses, curbs on free speech, and denial of LGBT+ and gender-based rights.
A report by The Guardian newspaper found migrant workers building facilities for the World Cup living in unsanitary, infested conditions, having gone unpaid for more than a year.
Amnesty International has also condemned F1 racing in Russia (which imposes strict curbs on freedom of expression), Azerbaijan (the government of which has recently committed conflict-based human rights abuses in fighting with Armenia) and Abu Dhabi (known to arbitrarily arrest foreign nationals without trial for political gains).
F1 claims that when signing contracts with new circuits and governing bodies, they seek to set ‘high ethical standards’, holding their venues and business partners accountable for the safety and security of their workforce, including their rights – but signing up for not just one race in Qatar, but ten across a decade, exposes FOM’s apparent tendency to follow the money above all else. ‘We Race as One’ consequently screams performance activism from the governing bodies.
Lewis Hamilton spearheaded the sport’s response to the killing of George Floyd last year. At this year’s Hungarian Grand Prix, Sebastian Vettel voiced his support for the LGBTQ+ community in response to the country’s harsh new laws which banned discussion and advocacy of homosexuality and transgender issues to young people in schools. Both were prompted by Formula One’s lack of response to these issues, leaving the drivers feeling they needed to act independently.
This shouldn’t need to be the case. The sport’s management should be always standing with their drivers, listening and responding to conversation and activism among the fans before being the driving force behind the response (no pun intended). The drivers themselves are contractually obliged to race for their teams, making it difficult for them to take a stand by boycotting certain countries’ races.
I’m a passionate F1 fan and have been for almost half my life. I love the drama and the energy of the sport, the dedication of those who work behind the scenes, who can be so easily forgotten behind the star images of the drivers, but whose contributions are invaluable.
If those who run the sport don’t consider the values that the majority of the fans, viewers and participants – be they drivers, mechanics, principles, or part of the army of people which keeps the sport going – want to see embedded into the sport, then something isn’t working.
The running of the sport is, at the moment, in flux – maybe it’s time for more permanent change.