We Race as (M)one(y)

The #WeRaceAsOne campaign created in the wake of civil unrest across the world has sparked controversy as it highlights the many corruptions within Formula One.

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After its abrupt lockdown just hours before the first free practice at Melbourne in March of 2020, Formula One (F1) returned in July with a new message. The “WeRaceAsOne” hashtag created by the sport was of no surprise, with the world battling the effects of the pandemic as well as civil unrest due to countless cases of police brutality throughout the US. Now, as the 2021 season begins, the issues that Formula One has tried to hide with a hashtag have become clearer than ever.

As not only the most successful driver but also the first Black man within Formula One, Sir Lewis Hamilton has become known for using his platform to push for many causes, including racial equality. As the season began, the Black Lives Matter movement was in full force. With the help of the other drivers, Hamilton created a video montage that was to be played just before each race while the drivers knelt (or in some cases simply stood) in front of the grid with an “End Racism” banner. The drivers also wore special T-shirts during this ceremony, with slogans like “Black Lives Matter” or “End Racism” on the front. This behavior was condoned by both F1 and the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA). However, their views changed after the sport’s visit to Mugello. After winning the Tuscan Grand Prix, Hamilton wore a shirt that said “Arrest the Cops Who Killed Breonna Taylor” on the front and “Say Her Name” along with a photo of Taylor on the back. The FIA quickly banned his actions and immediately changed the sporting regulation. Now, any driver who finishes on the podium must wear only racing attire until the end of all interviews. Not only did this regulation immediately affect Hamilton, who finished on the podium 14 times out of the 17 grands prix he raced in, but it sent out the message that the FIA wasn’t interested in Hamilton or any of the other drivers making any statements about anything other than F1 while on the podium.

This isn’t the first time the sport has made it a point to silence those speaking out about the role of the sport in major injustices. Azerbaijan was added to the championship calendar in 2017 despite major protests from the general public due to the country’s poor human rights record. The same happened in 2012 at the Bahrain Grand Prix, even after being canceled the previous year due to protests. This winter, the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix is set to join the calendar as well, with many expecting the new track to become the next Tilkedrome—even though it is only because they paid big bucks for a spot on the calendar. Not only is the track expected to be boring, but the addition of the Jeddah track to the championship has been labeled as an attempt by the Saudi Arabian government of sportswashing, in which a country will try to cover up human rights violations or controversies by hosting major sporting events. In fact, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, two major human rights organizations, have both condemned the sport for participating in what is being labeled as a PR cover-up for the country. Even drivers have been called out for their participation, with 45 organizations calling upon Hamilton to boycott the race, citing not only the country’s human rights record but also its involvement in the Yemeni Civil War and the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi (a Saudi Arabian journalist and dissident). Formula One is set to have the largest calendar this year, with a whopping 23 grands prix in the championship. However, many criticize the recent influx of cash grab tracks on the calendar. The safety of the new street circuit has also been called into contention. Formula One’s electric sister championship, Formula E, hosted the Diriyah Grand Prix in February, during which the Saudi Arabian government was forced to neutralize a missile allegedly fired by Yemen’s Houthi rebels over the nearby town of Riyadh. Formula One will always be forced to go to the tracks with the most money, but when a country is constantly forced to neutralize terrorist threats, it seems more than unwise to continue with an event there.

But money doesn’t just affect where the drivers go. It also affects who gets race seats. The idea of teams taking on pay drivers isn’t new. In fact, some of the most loved drivers in the sport, like Niki Lauda and Pastor Maldonado, fought their way onto the grid with their sponsors’ checkbooks. But sometimes pay drivers take it too far, pretending their bank accounts can hide their actions from the cameras.

This year’s standout pay driver has to be Nikita Mazepin. Even back in feeder series like F3, the son of Russian oligarch Dmitry Mazepin was known for crashing out and starting fights, even going as far as to give current Scuderia Ferrari Reserve driver Callum Ilott a swollen jaw and a black eye. After securing a seat on the 2021 grid with American team Haas, it was hoped that Nikita Mazepin would, for once, act professionally as is expected from all of the drivers. But before he even turned a wheel on track, he had already gotten himself into hot water.

A video was uploaded to his Instagram story in early December depicting him groping a woman he claimed was a friend in the backseat of a car. #WeSayNoToMazepin instantly became a trending topic throughout the motorsports community. The Haas team immediately issued a statement calling the video “abhorrent,” and the FIA and F1 issued a statement supporting the Haas team’s decision to handle the matter internally. Nikita Mazepin initially posted an apology but quickly took it down and did not break his silence over the event until early March, in an interview in which he claimed to accept full responsibility for the incident and told reporters that he wasn’t proud of his actions. When asked about what action he would take to educate himself, he simply said that “the racing should do the speaking, mostly.” During his debut at the Bahrain Grand Prix, he made it through only two corners before losing control of the car and spinning out of turn three, one of the worst performances ever in the hybrid era.

The hashtag “WeSayNoToMazepin” quickly changed to the moniker “Mazespin” with media citing the rookie’s claims that his racing would make up for his actions as foolish. In leaked direct messages, it was revealed that he has not only acted inappropriately toward other women but also shown racism toward other drivers. For example, he liked and responded to comments which claimed that fellow rookie Yuki Tsunoda was a clown and that he “should be in a Kabuki theatre” instead of in a car. Haas has provided no further comments on Nikita Mazepin’s actions since the original statement that they were “abhorrent”.

The controversy surrounding his relationship with Haas doesn’t just end there. The red, white, and blue car livery revealed by the American team earlier in the year seems harmless on paper. Except the red, white, and blue don’t represent the United States at all. In fact, the colors are painted in the order of white, blue, and red, in large vertical stripes. This simple rendition of what is obviously the Russian flag has raised eyebrows within the paddock on the legality of the livery. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has imposed a four-year ban on athletes representing Russia in any sports, including motorsports, after it was revealed that Russian authorities erased and manipulated doping data stored in a Moscow laboratory to prevent the disqualification of Russian athletes from competitive events. Though the punishment was mainly targeted at keeping Russia out of the 2021 Summer Olympics and the 2022 Winter Olympics, it also prevents and prohibits Russian athletes from competing under the Russian flag, and should they compete, they would have to do so under a neutral flag instead. Though the livery was approved by the FIA, it has been received as a rebellion against the WADA ruling by the team’s title sponsor, Uralkali, the potash producer of which Nikita Mazepin’s father is the CEO.

More than ever, it seems that despite the individual efforts of teams, drivers, and even media personnel within the paddock, F1 has yet to become the diverse and morally responsible sport it tries to portray itself as. The deal between Hamilton and Mercedes-AMG Petronas to create a diversity foundation within the sport and the sport’s sustainability strategy are a step in the right direction, but its venues and patrons still prove the sport’s crippling lack of a moral compass when money is involved. While the sport needs the money from track hosting fees, and the teams need money from sponsors, F1 needs to realize it must be a racing spectacle, not a PR nightmare.