Motor Sport: The New Bastion of Bigotry?

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If there’s one industry that’s pale, male and stale, it’s the automotive industry. That’s why I was impressed to see Gareth Thomas at the Ford Motors stand at Goodwood Festival of Speed talking about the prejudices that still exist in the industry and how it can move forward.

Sure, there may be an element of rainbow capitalism going on with Ford and the #verygayraptor, but the fact that Ford is pushing this message into the pick-up market is an indication that we really are making progress.

In motor sport however, we seem to be going backwards. In the past few weeks we’ve had a driver using homophobic and grossly racist terminology on a game stream, a former driver being racially derogative about a current one and spectators at the Austrian and Hungarian Grands Prix being reported for homophobic, misogynistic and racist behaviour.

In the past few years, Formula 1 and motor sport in general has spoken strong words, but it’s now starting to sound like it’s all talk.

Just before Festival of Speed, Formula 2 driver Jüri Vips had his contract with Red Bull suspended (and later terminated) after he used racist and homophobic language in a live game stream.

With someone whose first language isn’t English there are always some who leap to the defence that the person may not have understood the impact of their words. Sure, when the term itself is considered offensive, but there’s more to it than that. It doesn’t matter that much how offensive the terms are, it’s the fact that you are using race and sexual preference in a derogatory context that are the real problem.

It also emerged, over that same weekend, that former F1 driver Nelson Piquet (Snr) had been racially derogatory toward Lewis Hamilton. In response Piquet issued a statement which essentially said that the word he used isn’t considered offensive in Portuguese, so we should all get over it and move on.

Again this misses the point. Let me make 3 statements:

  1. Paul Smith is an overly aggressive racing driver.
  2. Paul Smith is a white racing driver.
  3. Paul Smith is an overly aggressive white racing driver.

Spot the problem?

There are plenty of contexts where it would be valid to talk about his driving style or his race. The contexts where it would be valid to bring both to the fore at the same time are very limited. So why has someone deliberately chosen to mention Smith’s race, in what is clearly a criticism of his driving style?

It might seem pernickety, but this is something people of colour have to deal with all the time. Positive contexts rarely include their race, whereas negative ones do. It’s racist propaganda, but because nothing offensive or incorrect is said the significance of the bias can be easily missed.

It’s even a tactic explicitly used by racist groups, deliberately trying to associate negative images and negative stories with particular races. A few years ago there was a rash of new “news” web sites and social media pages which largely carried celebrity gossip and negative stories about people of colour.

Because nothing directly derogatory is ever said about someone’s race, the operators claim they’re not racist. The reality is that they’re operating at a more subtle level, applying a bias to what they choose to report in order to portray people of colour in a negative light.

This is why Piquet’s defence plain doesn’t work and why Vips is in such deep water. Regardless of the language used, they both demonstrated prejudices.

Hamilton’s response is as it generally is these days; he’s a mature, thoughtful and eloquent man.

For too many years there has been a kind of standard procedure in motor sport; if you’re caught saying something bigoted, you issue an apology, state that your “unfortunate” choice of words doesn’t represent your true values… blah, blah, blah and everyone nods quietly and moves on.

But we’ve been giving the message long enough now and loudly enough that nobody can pretend they haven’t heard it. So when, if not now, are we going to move from “that’s naughty don’t do it again” to “here’s a 5 year ban from attending any F1 event in any capacity”?

In Piquet’s case it’s hardly his first offence. He knew exactly what he was doing, appealing to a certain demographic who might have a racially based preference, in particular, for the driver who is current dating his daughter.

Vips is a little different. Young people do say stupid things, things they know are stupid, things which genuinely don’t represent their principles, for a variety of reasons. I’m open minded on this; his language (sadly) wasn’t atypical of Call of Duty streams in general, so I could believe that he meant nothing other than to vent frustration. However, other drivers also play Call of Duty and they’ve avoided crossing the line.

This means the burden of proof now has to fall to Vips. In his cut-and-paste, obviously written by someone in marketing statement he assures us that the sentiments he expressed do not represent his true values. Fine, if that’s the case then he’ll understand the seriousness of the issue and be prepared to take meaningful steps to demonstrate what his true values are. He has the platform to do that. In fact he has a great opportunity to take ownership of the issue and to demonstrate real leadership on it. However, right now it looks like he’s just trying to keep his head down and is hoping it’ll all blow over. We just can’t continue allowing people to do that. We have to face these issues, not let people keep sweeping them under the carpet.

Just as I was doing what was supposed to be the final edit of this article, ugly events were reported at the Austrian Grand Prix. It was good to hear Naomi Schiff, in this weekend’s pre-race show, call it out directly for what it was, racism, misogyny and homophobia. We need more people prepared to tackle these issues head on and not just talk in general terms about “unfortunate behaviour” and sweep it under the carpet again.

It now transpires that there has been another clutch of incidents reported at the Hungarian Grand Prix and senior figures are reporting a sharp rise in online bigotry – and there does seem to be a pattern forming. It does seem to all be centred around one particular team and coming from the supporters of one particular driver.

Yes, it’s good to see Mercedes and Hamilton take such a positive lead, but when they’re the ultimate target of most of the bigotry we can’t expect that to be effective. Most of the teams and many of the drivers have, in fact, issued strong statements. The response from some has been notably weak, which doesn’t help.

Yes, it’s good to see media organisations like Sky TV being stronger than they previously have.

Yes, it’s good to see the new “Drive it Out” campaign from the FIA and F1 management.

Words do have a lot of power, but they only get you so far.

It looks like we’re facing a new wave of bigotry in motor sport. We need to put it down immediately; we cannot afford for it to take hold. That means more than just words. As Hamilton says “Time has come for action”.