The year 2020 has been a particular one in every sense of the way, partly due to a Covid-19 global pandemic outbreak, and also to the several calls for social justice following George Floyd’s death. In this regard, Formula One and FIA — it’s regulatory body — found themselves aligning with drivers, and giving a platform for those who wanted to raise their voices in support for important human rights issues. Hence the #WeRaceAsOne initiative, which was supposed to fight challenges of global inequality and tackle the biggest issues facing the sport and global communities — The condemnation of racism and inequality.
That being said, it was therefore expected that Formula One — along with FIA — would embody the ideals of equality, diversity and inclusivity, with drivers being first ambassadors of the said ideals of their sport.
In December 2020, Nikita Mazepin became one of the twenty privileged motorsport athletes to race in F1, as the american stable HAAS F1 announced him along with Mick Schumacher. As such, he represents the sport and the aforementioned values F1 and FIA are adamant to convey. However, the young Russian found himself embroiled in controversy, as a video surfaced, showing him reaching towards a female passenger in the backseat of a car, touching her breast, and continuing to do so despite her protests.
With the release of the video and the backlash it received, it prompted an apology from Mazepin which he later deleted.
“I would like to apologise for my recent actions both in terms of my own inappropriate behaviour and the fact it was posted onto social media.
“I am sorry for the offense I have rightly caused and for the embarrassment I have brought to the Haas F1 team.
“I have to hold myself to a higher standard as a Formula 1 driver and I acknowledge I have let myself and many people down.
“I promise I will learn from this.”
Before going any further, it is important to remember that sexual assaults are not acceptable, under any circumstances and are criminal offences. No matter the gender, any touching without consent is traumatic for the victim, and must be treated with the utmost seriousness and transparency. The way sexual assaults are dealt with are often the social barometer of the environment in which they have occured. In this case, it is a F1 driver whose sport has been vocal in its will to promote more diversity and equality. In theory.
Ideally, after acknowledging a behavior that the team itself has qualified as "abhorrent", one could have expected HAAS F1 to cut ties with the young Russian. Unfortunately, the American team's financial position seems tenuous at best. Rumors were of imminent bankruptcy, with the team struggling to find sponsors or additional funding. HAAS F1 seemed to be in a no win situation, as the team were expected to bite the hand that feeds them — Mazepin Sr. Contemplating the options, Guenther Steiner certainly kept in mind the fate of his 100s of staff. Whilst Nikita Mazepin actions are totally unacceptable, it is difficult to consider having those men and women losing their jobs, right in the middle of a global pandemic, in a tight economic context, for no fault of their own.
The fact the matter was dealt “internally” by HAAS F1 nonetheless gave an impression of opacity and impunity that would have been fitting for F1 and FIA to address. After all, the policing body had intervened before, when they deemed drivers were bringing F1 into disrepute. Thinking about recent FIA’s interventions, two come to mind: Max Verstappen’s punishment, and Hamilton's investigation over the Breonna Taylor T-shirt.
In 2018, Max Verstappen was ordered to complete two days of public service as punishment for his post-race altercation with Esteban Ocon, as the late race director Charlie Whiting qualified their encounter as unacceptable. In Hamilton’s case, after the Tuscan GP podium, the FIA put the matter of wearing a T-shirt highlighting Breonna Taylor’s case "under active consideration", stating that the FIA as a non-political organisation, was considering whether Hamilton's T-shirt broke its statutes.
With precedents of FIA’s interventions being set, and considering their #WeRaceAsOne commitments, how they stood out overall with the social issues that came to their attention is a thing of surprise, in many instances.
In March, the Covid-19 outbreak was out of governments’ control, and few could give answers as to ways to stop the virus’ propagation. Despite the sanitary uncertainty, Formula One decided nevertheless to go ahead with the Australian GP, which led Lewis Hamilton to express his concern as he said: “Cash is king”. It was an unveiled criticism from the world champion to his sport’s management, which was keen to put the commercial interests above everyone's health and safety.
Moreso, other controversies came from Carlos Sainz, referring to a restaurant being “too Chinese” compared to european standards, or Max Verstappen using an ableist slur against Lance Stroll. The latter even led Mongolian officials to call the FIA to action against the young Dutch star, in vain.
Furthermore, the FIA, following several concerned voices in the paddock during the Russian GP, reaffirmed their support to Vitaly Petrov. The Russian Steward criticised Hamilton’s support of the Black Lives Matter movement, by comparing the Briton’s actions to those of a driver coming out as gay and then pressing others to follow him under a gay flag. The governing body then issued in that instance, the following statement:
“The FIA appoints driver stewards with the relevant Formula 1 experience and expertise to carry out this function at the highest level, and who have expressed an interest to the FIA in being a driver steward.
“The Federation does not discriminate in this process based upon views expressed outside of their function as an FIA Steward, provided that any such expression does not contravene the FIA’s regulations and Code of Ethics.”
It is fair to question whether the appointment of Petrov was appropriate and did not contravene the FIA’s position on diversity and equality.
All in all, when also considering the secret agreement with Ferrari prior to the season, it is fitting to question the position of both F1 and FIA when it comes to transparency, equality and inclusivity. What credit to give to a sport who doesn’t put actions where their words are? What is the relevance of the #WeRaceAsOne slogan and their pledge for diversity? F1 and FIA’s moral compass looks as shaky as their will to effectively fight for everyone’s rights within the sport, regardless of their gender, their religion or their sexual orientation.