This weekend, Formula One will be racing in Saudi Arabia, which hasn’t exactly been a huge hit. Yes, there are the practical concerns (the track, after all, was desperately unfinished just two weeks ago). But Amnesty International also alleged that F1 was contributing to the sportswashing of the country, which essentially means that F1 racing there will overshadow ongoing concerns with human rights. Two drivers, though, have used their platform to speak out.
Reigning World Champion Lewis Hamilton has stated that he doesn’t feel comfortable competing in Saudi Arabia due to the country’s “terrifying” and repressive laws regarding the LGBTQ+ community.
“It’s not my choice to be here, the sport has taken the choice to be here,” Hamilton said in a press conference ahead of the event. “Whilst we are here it’s important we do try to raise awareness. In the last race, you saw the [rainbow] helmet that I wore. I will wear that again here and in the next race [in Abu Dhabi] because it is an issue. If anyone wants to take time to read what the law is for the LGBT+ community, it is pretty terrifying. There are changes that need to be made.”
In Saudi Arabia, being an LGBTQ+ person is, essentially, illegal. Acts of queer intimacy are forbidden, queer relationships are not recognized, queer people can be subjected to legal discrimination and being queer can be punishable by death.
Of course, F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali doesn’t have quite the same opinion. He told Sky Sports that “as soon as these countries choose to be under the spotlight Formula 1 is bringing... They have taken the route of a change.”
Meanwhile, Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel took the opportunity to host an all-female karting event for women in Saudi Arabia. Women, after all, were only legally allowed to drive in June of 2018 — but there are still laws in place that complicate this simple freedom. The activists who advocated for a woman’s right to drive are largely still imprisoned, and women are still subject to strict guardianship laws that forbid them from making even the most basic decisions without the explicit approval of a male relative or spouse.
“Obviously there has been a lot of talk and thought about heading into the race here, the first time we race in Saudi Arabia,” Vettel said of his event, as reported by Motorsport.com.
“There are a lot of questions that have been asked and I have asked myself, so I was thinking of what I can do. There has been so much attention on negative examples when it comes to shortcomings of certain countries in regards to maybe human rights and other things, so I really tried to think of the positives.
“I set up my own karting event today under the hashtag #raceforwomen, and I think a group of seven or eight girls and women were on the track.
“We set up a nice event only for them, and I was trying to pass on some of my experiences in life and on track, to do something together to grow their confidence.”
Vettel argued that, by renting out the track and encouraging some women to compete, he was able to express his dissatisfaction with the state of women’s rights in a way that would go beyond a mere spoken quote.
Vettel has also opted to don a pair of LGBTQ+-inspired shoes for the weekend.
All this comes in the wake of a new Amnesty International statement condemning Saudi Arabia’s decision to use events like F1 races a “PR stunts” to “deflect attention from their brutal crackdown on activists and human rights defenders.”
“The Saudi Arabian authorities need to realize that the best PR comes from respecting human rights,” the statement read. “If the authorities want to be perceived differently, they should immediately and unconditionally release all those incarcerated for peacefully expressing their views, lift all travel bans and impose a moratorium on the death penalty. Foreign governments wishing to deepen their relations with Saudi Arabia should urge the authorities to address their egregious human rights record.”
Further, Amnesty International challenged F1 itself to do something about the human rights concerns: “Any company holding major events in Saudi Arabia must identify, mitigate or prevent any human right abuses that it may cause, contribute to or be directly linked to through its operations, products and services, including Formula 1 and its Grand Prix races.”
Will Hamilton’s comments and Vettel’s actions spark a massive change of opinion and legislation in Saudi Arabia? Probably not. The F1 drivers may not even succeed in getting a few people to change their minds about, say, the appropriate roles for women or the social acceptability of being queer.
Two of the sport’s key drivers could encourage F1 itself to change, though, and that’s far more important. The collective of F1 itself has the power to demand significant change in exchange for a country’s ability to host a race. And if I were the sport, I’d be listening to what these drivers have to say.