Lewis Hamilton is a seven-time Formula One champion and legend of the sport.

So, when he speaks, others listen.

More recently, the governing body of the sport, the FIA, introduced rules prohibiting any of the drivers from making political statements to avoid controversy.

Hamilton has agreed to disagree, as have others who regard the intrusion as an obstruction to their right of free speech and voicing their concerns, especially regarding social problems.

Of most concern is the clause inserted by the FIA into the International Sporting Code preventing them from making ‘political, religious and personal statements’ without written approval.

The FIA mandate was perhaps surprising, given the F1 driver unity for the ‘We Race as One’ campaign which had its origins from the Black Lives Matter movement.

It has been an increasing trend for sports men and women to align themselves with political agendas in recent times. In F1, both Hamilton and his colleague Sebastian Vettel have been prominent in their profile.

Indeed, Hamilton has frequently used his platform as one of the world’s most successful athletes to highlight issues of racism, including his own experiences.

Vettel has been an outspoken critic of F1’s environmental impact in recent years. Drivers have also spoken out against homophobia in various nations.

Defiance of the FIA edict could be hefty, including fines of up to AUD$387,000, together with other punishments including the suspension of their competition license. Many of the drivers, Hamilton included, said the possibility of a fine would not necessarily act as a deterrent.

“Nothing will stop me from speaking on the things that I’m passionate about and on issues that there are,” Hamilton said at the launch of Mercedes’ 2023 car, the W14.

“The sport does have a responsibility still to speak out, to create awareness on important topics, particularly as we travel to all these different places. So nothing changes for me.

I think it would be silly to say that I would want to get penalty points for speaking out on things, but as I said, I am still going to be speaking my mind. We still have this platform and there are still a lot of things we need to tackle.”

Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate George Russell, McLaren’s Lando Norris and Williams’ Alex Albon have all pledged to go against the FIA edict. For a driver like Hamilton, a fine worth hundreds of thousands of dollars is easily brushed off thanks to a multi-million dollar salary.

Albon, in his second season with Williams, said the insertion of the new clause was hypocritical of various public statements made by F1 in recent years. In addition to the ‘We Race as One’ campaign, F1 also introduced the ‘Purpose Driven’ campaign several years ago.

“On a personal side it is somewhat confusing,” Albon said. “We were very much for ‘We Race as One’ and all these kinds of situations, and so now it seems like the FIA are trying to go away from that.

“A lot of people come to us and look at us as spokespeople for issues around the world and I do feel like it is a responsibility for drivers to make people aware of these kinds of situations. We’re all concerned.”

Norris opined that it was akin to drivers being treated as children, having to seek permission to say anything on any given issue. He also said he would accept a financial penalty given the moral importance of the issue at hand.

“I don’t know what the penalty is. If it’s a fine, I am probably happy to break it,” he said. “If it’s a bit more, then maybe not, but it depends — at certain times there are things you are going to want to say which maybe they won’t allow but I think that will only be a positive thing for whatever that circumstance is.

“We are not at school, we shouldn’t have to ask about everything: ‘Can we do this? Can we do that?’. We are grown up enough to make smart decisions. Enough drivers have said things now to push back.”

Max Verstappen, the reigning world champion, also expressed concern by the decision.

The Red Bull racer said the rule infringes on freedom of speech.

“Everyone is different, some people are more outspoken than others,” Verstappen said.

“I’m normally not that outspoken, because first of all it’s tough as a racing driver to be fully committed to that as well in terms of going into everything and making sure that you know all the facts, right?

“But I don’t think it is necessary because you are, in a way, marking sure basically making sure that people are not allowed to speak anymore.

“I think we should be allowed and like I said before, some people will speak a bit more, some not, but it was probably a bit unnecessary.”

Hamilton’s former teammate Valtteri Bottas, who now drives for Alfa Romeo, also agreed.

But he also understood that the sport wants to control its own image.

“I think everyone should be allowed to say what they want and support things that they want or have passion for,” he explained.

“People in this world should be free to say what they want. In a way, I don’t see the need for that kind of thing to be in the rule book.

“But, if you think politically, let’s say from F1’s side or the organisers side of a race, obviously they want everything to go smooth and not having someone with a t-shirt saying this and this.

“I think everything we’re speaking about is making things good, the world a better place, stuff like that. That’s my view, I don’t think it’s necessary, but it’s Formula 1.”

Certainly, in recent years the role of sport and its athletes has changed considerably when advocating for social change. This is a good thing, since sport has the power to change social attitudes, belief systems and behaviour.

But some thought should also be given to those who long for the days when sport had a certain innocence, separated from political and social agendas.

When a family could attend a game supporting their favourite athlete, team or country, to escape from the constant reminders of having to consider what a mess the world was in.

Whether an athlete expresses support for a political or social issue is complex, depending on the issue and the prevailing climate.

There are also others to consider, such as teammates, coaching staff, organisations and personnel, owners, advertising and sponsorship. The financial ramifications could be crippling for some.

Until then, there seems to be no stopping the Lewis Hamilton’s of the world who demand change for equality.


Image via Sky Sports

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