Formula One has hit the headlines for alleged sexist, racist and homophobic abuse of fans. Teams and drivers have been quick to condemn this behaviour with the comments of the Team Principal of Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula Team, Toto Wolff, capturing the attention. The man leading Mercedes has been very clear that the minority of ‘brainless’ Formula 1 fans intent on abusing other race-going supporters can "f*** off’. As well as this, several other drivers and F1 team principals have spoken out. All of this shows that in the same way the drivers race as one, the expectation is such that the community of fans should rightly be together as one.
This season’s Austrian Grand Prix provided some incredible racing and Charles Leclerc’s victory has now seen the Monegasque racer gain ground on the current F1 Drivers’ World Champion Max Verstappen. However, quite rightly, it was the alleged incidents off track which hit the headlines after reports of sexist, racist and homophobic behaviour in Spielberg.
The F1 community has spoken out after numerous reports (largely on social media) of sexist, racist and homophobic behaviour at the Red Bull Ring. One female fan in attendance claimed they had received misogynistic abuse as well as "inappropriate touching” within 90 minutes of arriving at the circuit. Unsurprisingly, this was the hot topic in the drivers’ post-race press conference as shown in the fia.com transcript.
Max Verstappen spoke first and said ‘Yeah, of course it's not good. All the things that happen anywhere. These things shouldn't happen. I read a few things, a few shocking things. So yeah, that's clearly not OK. And I mean, I shouldn't even need to say this. I think this should be a general understanding that these things shouldn't happen. A normal human being, I think, should think like that and should behave like that.’
Charles Leclerc then referred to F1’s own statement which the sport released ahead of the race when it labelled the comments ‘completely unacceptable’ and stated it would investigate. ‘Yeah, it's horrible to see that. I've seen the statement of Formula 1 just before the race and yeah, I just hope that Formula 1 can do something for that. I don't know how it can be tackled but obviously it's unacceptable to see that anywhere, but obviously if we can do something we should and need to do something.’ Leclerc said.
Sir Lewis Hamilton, a man well known for speaking out on a host of issues, was next to share his thoughts at the Drivers’ Press Conference after securing another podium on race day. The seven-time F1 Drivers’ World Champion explained how having arrived at the circuit on race day ‘with a really positive mindset’ he was then ‘just in a bit of shock’ and ‘just really sad’ having heard what had been reported by fans.
Hamilton stated ‘just to notice someone sitting in a crowd supporting someone else is receiving abuse is…It's crazy to think that we're experiencing those things still in 2022. So, we have to continue to do more. It just highlights that it's still an issue all over. And it comes down to education, and, of course, ignorance. So, we all have to work together, with our platforms to spread that positive word, with all of our platforms, to all those people that are watching, because people should come here, should feel safe, should feel included. And you should be able to follow whoever it is you want to follow. Doesn't matter. And it shouldn't matter, your gender, your sexuality, or the colour of your skin, you know, it should just be everyone here to have a great time.’
Meanwhile, in the media pen away from the discussion with the top-3 finishers, Lewis Hamilton’s teammate George Russell expressed concern with the alcohol-fuelled festival feel of Grand Prix weekend. ‘Obviously, more needs to be done to stop this sort of behaviour. It’s horrifying to hear and read about this and if anybody is having any of these racist, sexist – whatever comments, people need to speak up and it needs to be spoken about. Formula One is a sport that is generally on the up and when things are expanding substantially there’s inevitably going to be issues along the way and things need to be done…I’m sure there’s a lot of booze going around and clearly things do get out of hand.’
Sebastian Vettel, much like Lewis Hamilton, is also one not to shy away from issues and he was inevitably asked for his thoughts on a controversy-filled Austrian Grand Prix weekend and replied: ‘I think it’s good that this stuff comes out, that’s a start, it’s horrible so whoever these people are, they should be ashamed of themselves and they should be banned from racing events for their life…there’s zero tolerance. If people have a good time and they have a drink too much that’s ok, but it doesn’t justify or excuse wrong behaviour. We race as one - fans are part of that.’ Vettel concluded.
Meanwhile, in his own post-race interview with the media, Lando Norris was clearly shocked when it was put to him by journalists that fans and women in particular had experienced abuse during the weekend. McLaren’s popular racer also showed in his response the difficulty there is in policing such an issue. When asked what could be done to stop the abusers, Norris replied ‘kick them out, I wouldn’t say a life ban because a fan’s a fan…the thing is, there’s thousands of people, what can be done? I don’t know, I think the first thing that can just be done is if you get caught doing it, I don’t know, you get a year ban either from coming to the races or something like that…I just drive cars, maybe you can come up with better ideas than me but of course we don’t want it and it’s unacceptable.’
The remarks from Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team’s Toto Wolff were as ever straight to the point as he said, ‘If you are a real Formula 1 fan, whatever team, whatever driver, you can’t be a racist, you can’t be homophobic and you can’t be sexist because then you don’t fit to Formula 1, and we don’t want you.’ However, Wolff also made clear in his remarks that he is under no illusion that this is a minority of fans as he continued. “On the other side, we need to be careful just because there are a few drunk dumbasses out there that haven’t comprehended how the world goes today, we shouldn’t condemn the 99.9 percent of fans who come here. There is always going to be these idiots around, I hope we provided a good show for the rest and these ones can stay at home…Overall, 99.9 percent are great fans whether you are Max, Lewis or Charles (Leclerc) and the one percent put a shadow over them, but they are from yesterday and to them we say, ‘stay at home, we don’t want you here’.”
The circuit for the Austrian Grand Prix, is the Red Bull Ring and as such the vast majority in attendance are Red Bull Racing supporters. Due to the geographical location, many Dutch fans make the trip from the Netherlands to support Max Verstappen. However, Red Bull Racing team boss Christian Horner had a clear message for any person choosing to attend a Grand Prix and also highlighted that it is a minority of fans.
‘Regarding these isolated incidents that have happened, obviously, we do not condone in any way, any form of abuse or bullying or racism – prejudice in any shape or form. We stand absolutely united with every member of the Formula One community on that. Actually, I was pleased to hear on the podium today that there was, certainly from where I stood, no booing of Lewis. There was respect for all the drivers today which is how it should be.’ Horner was then asked if there is anything F1 can do to combat such an important issue at events with a crowd exceeding 150,000 people on a single day. ‘I think in terms of preference for a driver or a team that’s always going to happen. One thing that’s intolerable is any form of abuse or prejudice or racism or homophobia or anything like that doesn’t belong in this sport and we would absolutely stand shoulder to shoulder with our colleagues in the pitlane – it doesn’t have any place in this sport.’
Christian Horner then addressed one of the main issues facing the sport. “As F1’s popularity has increased, fan support has polarized. You see that in other sports and when you’ve got record crowds attending and new audiences coming into the sport - you know we’re breaking records at every single Grand Prix we go to - and there’s so many new fans coming into the sport, you know, you’re always going to have heroes and villains from circuit to circuit.” Horner concluded.
The large majority of the behaviour from fans towards teams and drivers they choose not to follow is ‘pantomime-esque’ but for a minority of these fans - the line is clearly starting to be crossed. So, is there an expectation for there to be such abuse in Formula One? As a pantomime audience would say – “Oh, no, there isn’t!”
It already says, ‘motorsport is dangerous’ on every race ticket, it shouldn’t also need to say, ‘mind your manners when you attend’. There will be many who feel it is down to the FIA and F1 event organisers to ensure provision is in place to keep fans safe. However, every person attending knows the difference between right and wrong and if they don’t, then Toto Wolff knows exactly where they can go - and so does F1 as a whole.