“Getting into political issues” is not the role of motorsport, the leader of a leading international motor racing organization said when Formula 1 is criticized for allowing the Grand Prix to be held in Saudi Arabia this weekend.
“Motorsport should not be used as a political platform. This is absolutely necessary, ”said Jean Todt, President of the FIA, the governing body of Formula 1.
Rights groups called on F1 use their power to counter abuses in Saudi Arabia, accusing sport of ignoring its commitment to equality and diversity. Activists also accuse Formula 1 of involvement in “sports wash” for the Saudi regime.
The penultimate Grand Prix of the 2021 season will take place on Sunday in the coastal city of Jeddah. This will be Saudi Arabia’s first long-term Formula 1 racing contract. One of the sport’s biggest stars has expressed concern about racing in Saudi Arabia.
Seven-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton, who is fighting for an eighth title against current championship leader Max Verstappen, said Thursday that he was uncomfortable racing in the country because of its human rights record. But he admitted that “the sport has made the choice to be here.”
“Right or wrong, while we’re here, it’s important that we really try to raise awareness,” he said, describing the country’s crackdown on LGBTQ people as “appalling.”
Saudi Arabia, citing Islamic Sharia law, prohibits homosexuality, and LGBTQ people are persecuted there. This topic remains taboo in the Middle East. Hamilton has pledged to wear a rainbow helmet in Saudi Arabia and in the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi. A Mercedes driver first donned a helmet at a previous race in Qatar to protest the country’s anti-LGBTQ laws.
The Saudi Arabian government and the Saudi Arabian embassy in the UK did not immediately respond to requests for comment from CNBC on Friday.
Jeddah, SAUDI ARABIA: UK’s Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes GP speak at a drivers press conference during a preview ahead of the F1 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix at the Jeddah Corniche circuit on December 2, 2021.
Hasan Ammar – Poole / Getty Images
Todt taped his performance on CNBC on Tuesday, prior to Hamilton’s comments. In his interview, which was broadcast on Friday, the leader defended Formula 1 from criticism.
“By saying that by traveling to some countries where there is some doubt about how things are, we are giving people a chance to talk, and I think we are making countries more visible,” Todt said. “There is complete freedom for everyone who wants to speak, who wants to demonstrate – they can do it.”
Other drivers have defended LGBT rights, such as Aston Martin driver and four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel. For example, during the performance of the national anthem at the Hungarian Grand Prix, he wore a rainbow-colored shirt.
Particularly with regard to Saudi Arabia, Todt argued that great progress has been made in recent years.
“Until 2018, Saudi Arabia could not host any international events because women were prohibited from driving, now women can drive, so changes are taking place, but we must not get involved in political issues,” he said.
BAHRAIN – MARCH 28: FIA President Jean Todt looks out of the net during the Bahrain F1 Grand Prix at Bahrain International Circuit on March 28, 2021 in Bahrain.
Dan Istitene – Formula 1 / Formula 1 via Getty Images
As the only black rider in F1 history, Hamilton was also an ardent advocate of racial equality. Following the assassination of George Floyd and the ensuing global protest movement last year, a number of drivers have joined the British rider and knelt before the race to draw attention to racial injustice.
Todt told CNBC’s Jeff Cutmore that he respects and admires Hamilton’s leadership on diversity and inclusion, which he called “a global challenge to be addressed.”
“Before each start of the Grand Prix, we give the riders the opportunity to show their attention to the problem, but of course more needs to be done,” he added.
Todt’s reluctance to take action on human rights and freedom of expression issues is in stark contrast to that of Steve Simon, chairman and CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association.
Simon announced this week that the WTA will suspend all tournaments in China due to the Chinese government’s attitude towards tennis player Peng Shuai after she filed sexual assault charges against a senior government official. He accused Beijing of censoring Peng and failing to prove that she is “free and can speak without interference or intimidation.”
“All this is unacceptable and cannot become acceptable. If powerful people can suppress women’s voices and hide allegations of sexual assault, then the foundation on which the WTA was founded – women’s equality – will fail tremendously. Simon said in a statement Thursday.