FIA: The political clampdown drama

FIA: The political clampdown drama

Formula 1 is a political sport. It always has been. Drivers have used this incredible, globally exposed platform to express their views on world issues, such as racial inequality, LGBTQ+ rights, or crimes against human rights. But the FIA wants to change that, and place it under regulation.

Let's take a look back to December 2022. The FIA updated the International Sporting Code -which are the rules that govern all FIA-sanctioned championships in the world- to make "the general making and display of political, religious and personal statements or comments notably in violation of the general principle of neutrality promoted by the FIA under its Statutes"  an offense if done before the written approval from the organization.

Such an important change in the Sporting Code prompted a strong response from the F1 paddock, which saw an increase in activism from drivers in the last couple of years. Examples are those of Lewis Hamilton, who fought against racial inequality and demanded the arrest of the cops who killed Breonna Taylor in the United States, and Sebastian Vettel, who defended LGBTQ+ rights at the Hungarian Grand Prix and received a reprimand from the FIA for doing so.

"I think Formula 1 has done a good job of paying attention to some issues, and many drivers have raised their voices, including Sebastian Vettel," Valtteri Bottas, who drives for Alfa Romeo, said. "I do not understand why they want to control us."

Team principals have also raised their concern about the new rule, with Christian Horner saying that "we don't want a load of robots that are without opinion going racing." He believes that sports should never be used as a political tool, but said that Red Bull has never limited their drivers' freedom of speech.

Others, like Toto Wolff from Mercedes, understood and slightly defended the FIA's decision. "We understand that sports are here to not make politics, on the contrary, unite," he said. "I have no doubt that Mohammed and the FIA mean well, to achieve the right things."

However, current FIA boss Mohammed Ben Sulayem justified the clampdown, stating that the sport is not a "platform for private personal agenda," because he believes that activism would "divert" the attention from the sport.

"What do drivers do best? Driving," Ben Sulayem exclaimed. "There are other platforms to express what they want, everybody has theirs, and they are most welcome to go through the process of the FIA. We just want our sport to be clean."

Ben Sulayem is right. Drivers have their own platforms to express their views. Their Instagram pages with millions of followers are an example, as well as the media that further expands their reach by reporting on their comments. But why should the protagonists of the sport, which let's remember, are human with their own thoughts and opinion, avoid voicing their concerns on such a huge platform that wouldn't exist without them? Especially since that same platform supports it.

"Formula 1 will never put a gag on anyone," Stefano Domenicali, current F1 CEO, told The Guardian. "Everyone wants to talk so to have the platform to say what they want in the right way, the better it is. We have a huge opportunity because of the position of our sport which is more and more global, multicultural, and multivalued."

"We are talking about 20 drivers, 10 teams, and many sponsors, and they have different ideas, different views. I cannot say one is right, one is wrong, but it is right, if needed, to give them a platform to discuss their opinions in an open way. We will not change that approach as a sport."

It was rather unclear how the FIA was going to actually implement this new rule until a new clarification was issued on February 17, in which the organization stated that drivers "can express their views on any political, religious or personal matter before, during, or after" the race "in their own space, and outside the scope of the international competition," US News reports.

They added that the freedom of speech will be allowed "through their own social media, during interviews with accredited media and during the FIA press conference, only in response to direct questions from journalists." The regulating body will allow "exceptional" statements "at an international competition that would otherwise be prohibited," but the drivers must "provide reasons why such permission should be granted."

The clarification continued, saying that these measures are implemented to "protect motor sport's neutrality," ensuring "key moments" such as podiums, national anthems, and official activities will be clear of political statements.

It is unclear what penalties drivers will face if they decide to breach this new regulation. But for Lewis Hamilton, it doesn't matter. "Nothing will stop me from speaking on the things that I am passionate about and the issues that there are," he said. "I feel the sport does have a responsibility to speak out on things and raise awareness on certain topics, particularly as we travel to all these places, so nothing changes for me." His teammate, George Russell, who is also the director of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association, had called the rule "silly and totally unnecessary."

Only time will tell how things will turn out with this new rule, but it has been clear since its announcement that it's a controversial regulation drivers don't like. In the end, Formula 1 is a global, multicultural sport, and its protagonists have different values, opinions, and concerns that they believe to be important, and want to share with the audience that follows them. But, as with everything, interests clash, and we can expect heated situations throughout the season between the FIA, Formula 1, and its drivers and teams.

Written by Luciano Calamante.