Robot Wars for billionaires

The high-speed hypocrisy of Formula 1

Widely considered to be the pinnacle of motorsport, the globetrotting circus that is Formula 1 (F1) has always been about money as much as it is about racing. With revenues of well over a billion dollars annually, ten teams pouring in hundreds of millions each year to compete, and twenty handsomely paid handsome drivers, it is hard to ignore the important role cash has in shaping the sport. Further to that, it is often hard to ignore the hypocrisy this amount of cash creates.

F1 has come a long way from its origins of European Grand Prix championships of the 1920s and 1930s (hosting its first official championship in 1950), growing to be one of the most watched sports on the planet, with an average audience last year of 87.4 million people per race. That number is only growing with the immense success of Netflix’s Drive to Survive series exposing a dramatic narrative of F1 to a much wider audience. A tremendously exciting 2021 season has done wonders too. Seven-time-champion Lewis Hamilton locked into a tight battle with young-gun Max Verstappen has made each race a must-watch.

We’ve seen serious conscious efforts made to grow and engage with new audiences since Liberty Media bought a controlling interest in the sport in 2016, for roughly $4.4 bn. Liberty are no strangers to the sports world, owning a stake in recent baseball World Series winners the Atlanta Braves, and have done well (economically speaking) at the helm of F1. In recent years we have seen a massive uptick in sponsorship with new deals from large companies like Aramco,, Uralkali, and a sparkling winemaker named Ferrari. The lattermost being of no relation to the famous Italian racing team, which doesn’t appear as often on the podium lately as this “new” Ferrari.

As things grow, there have been different geographical directions for the racing to go too. F1 has branched into new territories with Grand Prix now in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and even a second race for the United States to be held in Miami next season.

F1 has also made attempts to improve and grow its social messaging, with the hashtag “WeRaceAsOne” as a response to Black Lives Matter protests and the elevated global awareness and outrage to racism. This is usually highlighted just before lights out at a Grand Prix, with a short clip of the drivers saying that they race as one. We Race As One is referred to by Formula 1 as an “initiative, aimed at tackling the biggest issues facing the sport and global communities – the fight against COVID-19 and the condemnation of racism and inequality.” Alongside the hashtag, the 2020 season saw a rainbow comprising all ten team colours adorned on the cars and highlighted across branding, aiming to “promote diversity in motor sport.” Additionally, an element of awareness of environmental impact has been sprinkled into this reshaping of the brand, with a move to hybrid engines some years ago and plans to reach net-zero carbon footprint by 2030.

Despite these developments, the world’s quickest sport has been notably slow in making any changes to the fact that they race in association with companies and countries that are in obvious defiance of the values that F1 ostensibly supports. In fact, it has made next to no attempt at all. Why? Simply put: because cash is king. Like many other organisations, the move to rebrand to a certain degree as more personable and understanding of societal and systematic issues like racism, diversity, and climate change has been half-hearted and utterly hypocritical at best from Formula 1.

“I don’t think you would be invited to many Grand Prix events if you spent much of your time writing articles highlighting how bad and morally hollow F1 can be”

For as far as it has come in recent years, at the core it is still robot wars for millionaires. Many of the companies that are now key title sponsors of the sport and teams (Aramco, Petronas, Shell) use the sport as a breeding ground for innovation in terms of technology such as new fuels and lubricants while engaging in greenwashing in order to better mask the catastrophic environmental damage they are to blame for. Shell are of course well known as being among the highest pollution-emitting companies on the planet, yet continue to have a heavy involvement as sponsor and fuel partner for Scuderia Ferrari.

When we see F1’s environmental awareness messaging alongside Shell’s logos plastered all over their cars, it’s hard not to wonder which would trump which if push came to shove on branding. My money would be on the money. This goes without mentioning the immense amount of air travel involved jetting between twenty different countries, and the huge environmental impact with which that comes.

Given the recent financial involvement of several companies with backing in countries often accused of sports-washing, it cannot be a mere coincidence where F1 has decided to expand its racing calendar to countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia. All of these things work to directly contradict the branding that D1 wants us to buy into.

When it comes to tackling issues of social inequality, I don’t think it’s possible for a sporting organisation to be so out of line with its messaging as Formula 1 is. Over the course of its extensive seventy-year history, we have seen virtually no improvement in terms of diversity of personnel involved. Just two women have ever started a championship Grand Prix, one being Lella Lombardi – the only woman to score any points, also the only lesbian to race in the sport.

In terms of ethnic diversity, a report from the Hamilton Commission (established by Lewis Hamilton, the sports’ only black driver) estimates the proportion of black people employed in the sport to be less than 1%; a snapshot statistic that shows the tip of the iceberg. An organisation of this size should not be applauded for a hollow hashtag and a fancily filmed pre-race clip, while its only ever black driver is left to try reshape the reality of the sport for those who face discrimination within.

Yet again, cash is king when it comes to who gets to be included. With several drivers on the grid paying in order to secure a seat, often backed by dubious sponsors such as Uralkali (a Russian fertiliser producer), who are associated with Nikita Mazepin. It is of course not a coincidence that his billionaire father is majority shareholder and chair of the company. Mazepin is not the only example of this, with many on the grid today benefiting from generational wealth and privilege of influence. The ease with which individuals can pay their way into the sport above others directly comes into conflict with the We Race As One initiative. Driving a car at over two-hundred miles per hour is not something only super-rich people have the ability to do, yet a quick look at the F1 grid would almost convince you otherwise.

“I don’t think that heir-apparent to the F1 throne Max Verstappen will live up to the ethical standard that might be desired”

Formula 1 has little history (recently or otherwise) of addressing this inherent conflict of values it eschews versus values it actually supports. Likewise, the motorsport media is still yet to hold it to account for this problem. F1s hypocrisy is taken as a given, almost so obvious that there is no point delving in on a consistent basis.

Much of this comes down to power, I don’t think you would be invited to many Grand Prix events if you spent much of your time writing articles highlighting how bad and morally hollow F1 can be. Given the sheer financial weight onside, the status quo looks set in stone.

For anybody who pays any attention to motorsport, it will come as no surprise that the most outspoken individual by far is Lewis Hamilton. Over the last number of years he has rewritten the record book, firmly placing himself among the greats of racing– Fangio, Senna, Schumacher. As his career has progressed, he has separated himself from the rest of the pack not only in terms of pure talent, but with respect to activism. A highlight has been the establishing of the Hamilton Commission and compiling a damning report on diversity in F1. Alongside this, Hamilton has made great use of his platform and celebrity status to continually highlight the Black Lives Matter movement, and individual issues of racism. Coming from a working-class background, and being the only black driver to ever race in a Grand Prix, he remains in an extreme statistical minority. As his long career begins to wind down and speculation on his retirement begins, many will lament his absence, and many will ponder its financial impact. His activism and celebrity status have been key in attracting high profile brands and other celebrities into the sport, something that no other driver currently on the grid has the ability to do.

It seems ironic that just as F1 makes gains on the financial side, and shambolically attempts to shift toward being more “socially aware” and “environmentally friendly”, it is on the cusp of losing the one individual who can be pointed to as genuinely enshrining these ideals. I don’t think that heir-apparent to the F1 throne Max Verstappen will live up to the ethical standard that might be desired. As recently as last October he was pulled up for his open use of racist language and has previously stressed his right not to take the knee in a pre-race gesture.

That being said, it remains to be seen if this makes a difference in terms of attracting more money to the sport — I doubt it will.