How the FIA risks following FIFA down a worrying path

OPINION: As the FIA updates its sporting code to restrict political statements across the series it governs, it sparks a risk that it could derail a progressive push to improve inclusivity, a problem FIFA gave itself during the Qatar World Cup

How the FIA risks following FIFA down a worrying path

News that the FIA had updated its International Sporting Code to restrict ‘political’ statements in Formula 1 and other series has rightly been met with disappointment.

It comes after weeks of debate about FIFA’s intervention throughout the World Cup in Qatar on the highlighting of social issues, preferring to “stick to football” despite the controversies surrounding the tournament.

Up to now, F1 never had anything explicit in its rules that could limit drivers from speaking up on issues they find important, only that they must comply with the FIA statutes that had a broad scope. But with the more specific limitations now being written into the ISC, the FIA appears to be following FIFA down a worrying path that goes against so much of the recent push for change in F1.

Much of the narrative around the World Cup has surrounded Qatar’s suitability as a host nation, given its human rights record, the treatment of migrant workers who “continued to face labour abuses” according to a 2021 report from Amnesty International, and the fact homosexuality is a criminal offence.

It led many to speak up in protest, be it through plans for teams to wear an armband with a rainbow flag on it - that was ultimately scrapped due to threats of sporting action - or through their broadcast coverage. The magnitude of the event meant it was impossible to simply stick to sports, as those looking to brush such big human, social issues under the carpet may wish.

FIFA, football’s governing body, simply pointed to its laws of the game, saying they did not permit the kind of political statements that teams were looking to make with the ‘OneLove’ armband. It did not stop some figures from taking a stand.

Ahead of their opening game against Japan, the German players posed for a photo covering their mouths, a move that designed to “convey the message that FIFA is silencing us” according to head coach Hansi Flick. BBC analyst Alex Scott wore the armband during the coverage of England’s match against Iran, while UK sports minister Stuart Andrew wore one in the stands during the Wales game. But the call for players to not wear the armband was met with disappointment by many LGBTQ+ fan groups, particularly as FIFA was informed of the plan back in September.

Hamilton wearing a special helmet adorned with the 'Progress Pride' flag at the 2021 Qatar Grand Prix

Hamilton wearing a special helmet adorned with the 'Progress Pride' flag at the 2021 Qatar Grand Prix

Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images

In the wake of the decision, many F1 fans on social media pointed to the example set by Lewis Hamilton at last year’s race in Qatar, which was its first grand prix. On the Friday of the race, Hamilton got into his car wearing a helmet with the ‘Progress Pride’ flag on the top. He kept the design for the final two races in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, countries that also have LGBTQ+ laws.

“It’s important for me to represent that community here as I know there are several situations which aren’t perfect and need to be highlighted,” Hamilton said of his helmet in Qatar last year.

“But I hope that someone reaches out and I would love to know what is happening here and what they’re doing to help support that community more, the LGBTQ+ community. I wait to hear.”

Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have been two of F1’s most vocal figures when it comes to social rights in recent years. They led the conversation around the Black Lives Matter movement following the delayed start to the season in 2020, while Vettel wore a ‘Same Love’ t-shirt at last year’s Hungarian Grand Prix in response to the country’s proposed anti-LGBTQ+ laws, a stand Hamilton said he was “proud” to see Vettel make. They are just a couple of examples of the duo speaking up about important messages that reach far beyond racing. 

And yet after it emerged on Tuesday that the ISC had been updated to prohibit "political, religious or personal" statements or comments without prior permission, the risk now lies that drivers will be limited on what they can speak up about. It has replaced a clause that said cars could not be affixed with slogans that were “political or religious in nature or that is prejudicial to the interests of the FIA.”

There has not been any direct action from F1 or the FIA in response to the kind of messages Hamilton and Vettel were sharing. Hamilton faced scrutiny over a potential breach of F1’s podium regulations at Mugello in 2020 when he wore a shirt reading ‘Arrest The Cops Who Killed Breonna Taylor’, while Vettel was reprimanded for keeping his ‘Same Love’ t-shirt on during the grid ceremony in Hungary. It was draconian, yes, but not a pointed move against their messaging.

Vettel made a statement by wearing a 'Same Love' shirt at the 2021 Hungarian Grand Prix

Vettel made a statement by wearing a 'Same Love' shirt at the 2021 Hungarian Grand Prix

Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images

At the Qatar World Cup, the basis for FIFA threatening in-game sanction, such as a yellow card, against players wearing ‘OneLove’ armband was embedded in the ‘laws of the game’ that govern football, which state: “The basic compulsory equipment must not have any political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images… The team of a player whose basic equipment has political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images will be sanctioned by the competition organiser or by FIFA.”

Previously under the FIA’s rulebook for F1, there was not the same kind of potential action. When Hamilton’s t-shirt at Mugello faced scrutiny, race director Michael Masi reminded drivers in the pre-event race notes that the FIA “supports any form of individual expression in accordance with the fundamental principles of its statutes.” These state the governing body is neutral in everything that it does.

“The FIA shall refrain from manifesting discrimination on account of race, skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic or social origin, language, religion, philosophical or political opinion, family situation or disability in the course of its activities and from taking any action in this respect,” read the statutes. It also states the FIA will “focus on underrepresented groups in order to achieve a more balanced representation of gender and race and to create a more diverse and inclusive culture.”

But now the update has been made to the ISC to say drivers would be in breach through “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,” unless there is prior permission, the risk is now far greater that these messages may not be shared due to the same threat of sporting action.

An FIA spokesperson said the update to the ISC was “in alignment with the political neutrality of sport as a universal fundamental ethical principle of the Olympic Movement, enshrined in the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Code of Ethics, together with the principle of the universality set out in Article 1.2.” It’s a formalisation of the process, and although there may have previously been dialogue between the FIA and drivers about public statements they may wish to make, the update is nevertheless more limiting than in the past by enshrining it in the ISC.

Mercedes team boss Wolff in conversation with FIA president Ben Sulayem

Mercedes team boss Wolff in conversation with FIA president Ben Sulayem

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

It’s a worrying move that points to an underlying wish to confine the drivers to being exactly that: drivers. Not the global superstars with the kind of platforms that allow them to speak up on important issues, to give voices to those who so often go unheard. It also goes against the grain of trying to enact positive change in the countries where F1 races where human rights are such a big topic, including Qatar, which returns to the calendar in 2023.

In Abu Dhabi, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said he was of the belief that sport could help bring change by putting the spotlight on issues. “That can trigger change because things can’t be hidden anymore,” he said. “We can just try, where we go to show our presence, to interact with leadership, and not to hide away. We can’t when we are there.”

But the drivers are a key part of that discussion as well. They are the ones fans follow and truly listen to, who they want to see stand for the right thing. We can’t simply visit these countries, take the sizeable hosting fees and just carry on our merry way, pretending like there is no work to be done or change to encourage. Values may differ across different cultures, yet so many of these are basic human rights that need to be spoken up for and protected.

The implementation of the FIA’s new ruling will be something to watch when the new season begins; if it limits drivers, what possible sanctions they might face, and if they’d be willing to accept them. When his ‘Same Love’ t-shirt in Hungary was investigated over a procedural breach, Vettel said: “I’m happy if they disqualify me. They can do what they want. I don’t care. I’d do it again.”

F1 may want to be progressive moving forward, focusing on issues such as sustainability and improving diversity. But for the FIA to now have something written in the rules that impacts the ability to make statements about important issues, limiting it only to topics or agendas it agrees with, if enforced strictly, it won’t fully align with that progressive push.

F1 drivers take a knee in support of the End Racism campaign

F1 drivers take a knee in support of the End Racism campaign

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

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