History Has Its Eyes On F1

There is no unity in Formula One. The 20 drivers were given a golden opportunity at the Austrian Grands Prix: the freedom to take the knee. A choice to form a united front against the systemic racism that plagues our society. Six of these men chose to remain standing. In that moment they stood but not in solidarity. They took the wrong stance.

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Ferrari’s leading man Charles Leclerc stood alongside his future team-mate Carlos Sainz. Red Bull’s superstar Max Verstappen remained upright. Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Räikkönen and Antonio Giovinazzi, and AlphaTauri’s Daniil Kvyat completed the set. Each driver has the right to decide not to perform the powerful gesture on the world stage but they do it in the knowledge that their actions send a message loud and clear: this is a sport divided.

Drivers take a knee before the 2020 Austrian grand Prix (image courtesy Mercedes-AMG Petronas)
Drivers take a knee before the 2020 Austrian Grand Prix (image courtesy Mercedes-AMG Petronas)

The display of unity from the Premier League has put Formula One to shame. Every single player has taken the knee in oneness with Black Lives Matter. This moving display of camaraderie, echoed in the return of cricket, is lost on Formula One. The Red Bull Ring was plastered with the statement “We Race As One.” But if actions speak louder than words, there was something disjointed about drivers wearing the words “End Racism” without committing to the action of kneeling.

Formula One is not known for diversity. Lewis Hamilton is the only black driver in the history of the sport.  The six-time World Champion is one of the greatest talents in Motorsport but even he has not been free from racial abuse throughout his career. “From kids throwing things at me while karting, to being taunted by fans in blackface” is how the British driver described his experiences. Being the focal point of racism was not a choice Hamilton had. Despite the cruelty he faced, the 35-year-old remains resolute in his commitment to equality within a white, male dominated sport. The Briton drew attention to Mercedes’ trackside fluid engineer Stephanie Travers, who in Spielberg became the first black woman to receive the Constructors’ trophy. She is an inspiration for both black children and girls across the world. Yet such advances are overshadowed by the lack of unanimity exhibited before each race.

What was particularly sobering were the ages of the drivers who chose not to take the knee. With the exception of Räikkönen, all are under the age of 27. The likes of Leclerc, Verstappen and Sainz have been praised for heralding a new era for Formula One but their stance seems out of step with the convictions of many members of their generation. Leclerc stated, “I believe what matters are facts and behaviours in our daily life rather than formal gestures,” in response to why he did not join his 14 competitors in kneeling. The Monégasque has an unusual definition of a “formal gesture” as the 22-year-old seemed to have no problem taking part in the #blackouttuesday campaign, posting a black image on Instagram.

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 Verstappen also gave a similar answer, saying, “I will not take the knee but this does not mean at all that I am less committed than others in the fight against racism.” Many viewers and fans of the sport are questioning why kneeling alongside the only black driver was an act too far for these men. The aftermath of George Floyd’s death in US police custody has sparked outrage around the globe. Saying you are committed is not enough. Taking an active part in the fight against racism requires more.

The Grand Prix Drivers’ Association highlighted how drivers have the “freedom to show their support for ending racism in their own way and will be free to choose how to do this.” They have the luxury of choice. Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback who famously took the knee in 2016 said, “To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.” Resisting bigotry is bigger than Formula One and bigger than a preferred form of expression. Choice is a privilege that has been robbed from many black people for generations. There is no choice in being the subject of racism. There is a choice for those who stand by and watch Hamilton kneel.

By Grace Evans