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Opinion

Is F1 blowing its "pivotal moment" to support the championship's women?

OPINION: Off-track scandals have dominated the start of the 2024 Formula 1 campaign, with no end in sight despite Christian Horner calling for the focus to shift to racing. Now, the toll of recent news is being felt by exactly the group who should be being supported

George Russell, Mercedes F1 W15, Daniel Ricciardo, RB F1 Team VCARB 01, Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB20, out of the it lane

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

“As someone who loves the sport, it's definitely disappointing to see what's going on right now. It doesn't look good from the outside world. I think it's a really important time for the sport to really show and stick to its values, holding ourselves accountable for our actions.

“And it's a really pivotal moment for the sport – in terms of what we project to the world. How it's handled. And it's not been handled very well to this point.”

Lewis Hamilton there, not for the first time on a massively important and sensitive subject, getting it absolutely spot on.

The seven-time world champion was speaking ahead of Formula 1’s Jeddah round last week. Specifically, he’d been asked about the off-track controversies currently engulfing the championship.

The Christian Horner/Red Bull behaviour situation has been running longest, but the question posed to Hamilton also concerned the investigations currently facing FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem. In the championship’s hive brain, let alone the consciousness of the millions of fans watching on, neither is going to go away fast. And nor should they.

The latter situation, allegedly, is an amazing example of an organisation shooting itself in the foot. To have the FIA president under investigation concerning the ultimately trivial matter of a pitstop penalty (plus whatever went on before the Las Vegas race return) just gives oxygen to a very real fear of race fixing, a la what certain sections of the F1 fanbase feel about the Abu Dhabi 2021 officiating saga. We await the predictable outcome of the FIA marking itself here.

In the former, the Horner saga, the story has taken yet more twists. But the message from the man at the centre was: let's talk about something else.

Both Horner and Ben Sulayem are in unwanted F1 spotlights

Both Horner and Ben Sulayem are in unwanted F1 spotlights

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

“As far as I'm concerned, as far as Red Bull is concerned, we move on and we look to the future,” Horner said in the Jeddah team principals’ press conference. “My wife has been phenomenally supportive throughout this, as have my family, but the intrusion on my family is now enough.”

That was four days on from Horner walking Geri Horner down the Bahrain paddock in such an obvious relations display gambit that the Daily Mail was rapidly on the phone to a body language expert. The pair were back in front of the cameras after Max Verstappen had snapped up a second victory breeze in a week in the Middle East.

The overarching desire of progressing from this murky point can, of course, happen. But it’s simply vital that it doesn't happen until the full facts of the matter have been established and fully addressed. Only then can progress come as the following step.

That hasn’t happened yet because most of the case’s details remain private. And, while sources have suggested the Red Bull squad would like to release more specifics, perhaps even the full report that was compiled by an unnamed independent KC before Horner was cleared by Red Bull GmbH, it can’t do so without the express approval from all parties involved.

Right now, the optics look awful. What’s compounded things is the lack of any action or even proper words of support from the top levels of the F1 organisation itself and the FIA

This is a very complicated situation, with an important privacy element too. But the development last Thursday, on the eve of International Women's Day, that the woman who registered the original grievance has since been suspended elevates things into a different realm.

Was this a reprisal? Is this a suggestion of a different form of wrongdoing? How is everything going to impact her well-being and privacy at a time when another party is pontificating about such concerns?

These questions and plenty more were skipping around the F1 paddock in Jeddah. And in phones, offices and factories of the wider championship. For right now, the optics look awful. And what’s compounded things is the lack of any action or even proper words of support from the top levels of the F1 organisation itself and the FIA.

Hamilton has called F1's handling of the off-track focus points a

Hamilton has called F1's handling of the off-track focus points a "pivotal moment"

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

So, as this pervading sense of absent oversight combines with further scurrilous rumours abounding, it’s all feeding down through F1’s many areas. To the women working within those spheres.

Autosport understands there is now a strong sense in the paddock alone that if something happens to another woman and they speak up, they may be treated harshly. Canvassing opinions from sources at various teams last weekend and agreement on such a situation shone through. That must be reversed. And fast.

Legal proceedings have to be respected, of course. But when it's F1TV presenter Laura Winter, who spoke eloquently on how the news of recent weeks has made it hard to be a woman working in F1, and the championship’s only black driver being the strongest voices on such difficult matters, that's a problem too.

Arguably, F1 is at this point because it has collectively failed to address previous sexism issues. That has lionised those ‘Piranha Club’ and ‘sex, breakfast of champions’ attitudes. And signed up to hold races in one dictatorship after another. If the championship doesn't get things right this time around, and there really is still time, surely what might be yet to come could be even worse.

After all, in recent years F1 has committed itself to addressing its long-standing diversity issues. That is to be commended, alongside the understanding that by appealing more to minorities there is additional money to be made.

But if a real test of such commitments is now horrifying its women, and by extension potentially putting off any more young women who might one day want to come and work in F1 in whatever capacity only to find the dream really isn't what it seems, the progress it vaunts is depressingly in major peril.

F1 has a growing female audience and involvement but risks alienating it without the right next steps

F1 has a growing female audience and involvement but risks alienating it without the right next steps

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

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