Formula 1 drivers have been asked to take a stand against ‘brutal’ new rules which prohibit them from making political, religious or personal statements without prior written consent.
This follows a controversial amendment to the FIA Sporting Code which now explicitly states that participants will be in breach if they make or display “political, religious and personal statements or comments including in breach of the general principle of neutrality… except prior approval in writing. by the FIA”.
It’s not yet clear what the penalty would be, but the list of potential penalties for any rule violation ranges from a warning or reprimand to a fine, conduct penalty, suspension or even an exclusion. However, these last two sanctions only apply to “serious” or exceptionally serious incidents.
The FIFA World Cup was first overshadowed by the threat of sporting sanctions against any player wearing an armband with the words “One Love” and athlete representatives have now accused the FIA of “removing a page from the playbook of Fifa to silence the athletes”.
Some drivers, including Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, are increasingly willing to make political statements and Global Athlete chief executive Rob Koehler says the FIA has no moral authority to limit free speech pilots.
“Without athletes, sport doesn’t exist,” Koehler said. “It is patently hypocritical to tell athletes to stick to their sport and stay out of politics when the FIA constantly uses politics to its advantage.
“Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and the rules of sport cannot supersede human rights. Many people see athletes as agents of change. The example set by the FIA is that every child, youth and adult who watches sport must remain silent on social justice issues. It is simply wrong. Shame on the FIA. Athletes are humans first, athletes second.
Koehler also pointed to how Olympic and Paralympic athletes have resisted governing bodies.
“It is also clear that the FIA is taking a page out of FIFA’s playbook to silence the athletes,” he said. “In 2020, athletes took a stand against the IOC and IPC to force them to relax their rules on free speech. I hope the drivers do the same. It’s brutal.”
The FIA has indicated that it has modified article 12.2.1.n. to “align with the practices of other similar international sports organizations such as FIFA, the IOC and FIBA in terms of neutrality”. He added that he was expanding the code “to cover statements/comments in violation of the general principle of neutrality”. However, it is currently unclear which issues would fall under the ‘neutrality’ clause given that F1’s official ‘We Race As One’ initiative currently focuses on ‘sustainability, diversity, inclusion and the community”.
Another new amendment to the code stresses that it will also be an offense if drivers do not comply “with FIA instructions regarding the designation and participation of persons at official ceremonies”.
Hamilton, who has supported the Black Lives Matter movement, wore a t-shirt at the 2020 Tuscan Grand Prix that read ‘Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor’. Taylor was an African-American woman who was shot dead by an undercover police officer in her apartment in March 2020.
He has also spoken out on race and diversity issues within F1, setting up the Hamilton Commission which aims to improve “black representation in British motorsport”.
Vettel wore a rainbow-themed “Same Love” t-shirt during the pre-race national anthem ceremony at the 2021 Hungarian Grand Prix to protest the country’s LGBTQ legislation. He was reprimanded by the stewards but did not repent.
“I would do it again,” he said. Vettel also wore slogans and statements highlighting climate change.
The latest tightening of the sporting code comes after a long confrontation between pilots wearing jewelry during competitions.
The ruling was originally issued for the Australian Grand Prix in April, but its enforcement was delayed, giving Hamilton – who had worn a nose stud and earrings – a grace period. “It’s kind of crazy to think, with everything going on in the world, it’s a priority for people,” he said.
F1 also scrapped its “We Race As One” pre-race ceremony in 2022, which had become part of the build-up to every grand prix throughout 2020 and 2021.
This gave the drivers an opportunity to get down on their knees, although not all of them had to, and show solidarity with the wider campaign and other causes. Instead, a pre-recorded video is played before the race begins.
FIA President Mohammed bin Sulayem wondered if the drivers should voice their views during an interview earlier this year.
“Niki Lauda and Alain Prost were only interested in driving. Now Vettel rides a rainbow bike, Lewis is passionate about human rights and Norris deals with mental health,” he said.
“Everyone has the right to think. For me, it’s about deciding whether we should impose our beliefs in something above sport all the time. I do not impose my beliefs on others. No way. Never.”
After the interview was published, Ben Sulayem wrote on Twitter: “As a pilot, I have always believed in sport as a catalyst for progress in society.”