Formula 1 Opinion – You could argue one of Lewis Hamilton’s more endearing traits is his ability to say what he thinks. Whether over team radio in the heat of ‘on track’ battle, or in the immediate moment of a post race interview; Hamilton wears his heart on his sleeve.
These interviews can be gold before the PR spin kids from the Mercedes F1 team get hold of him.
‘Playing the race card’ is a loaded phrase and a brief Google (other search engines are available) will reveal tomes written on the subject. Yvonne Addai of ‘Varsity’ believes, “This phrase implies that black people manipulate racial tensions to turn arguments in their favour, unfairly alleging oppression and tarring all white people with the same ‘racist’ brush in angry red lettering. The assertion that black people trot out their race as a ‘trump’ card in order to ‘win’ arguments serves only to silence those who speak out on their experiences.”
Yet when the topic is unrelated to historical racism, there are examples of where someone uses their racial history of prejudice and oppression to attribute a discriminatory motivation to a present day action they disagree with. Later we will see Lewis Hamilton do just this.
However, to do such a thing is in itself inherently a perpetuation of racist tropes by casting aspersions on another person or institution, suggesting their behaviour is driven by a racist attitude or agenda, when in fact it is not.
It is a matter of fact that Lewis Hamilton has suffered racial abuse during his life, and as human beings our history goes some way to frame the point of reference from how we view society and the world around us. There is no such thing as raw data. All data in what we believe is in its most raw form is in fact interpreted from the knowledge we have of its setting.
Even the ‘laws of physics’ are based upon interpretations based upon certain fundamental assumptions.
So our view of the society and of other people’s motivations or intentions can surely not be completely objective. Further, it is reasonable that someone can come to believe bad things happening to them now is a result of their ethnicity, education or even historical geography.
We saw a glimpse of this mentality from Lewis Hamilton back in Monaco 2011. In an astonishing attack on race stewards following them issuing three sanctions in two days against Hamilton, the British driver stated: “Maybe it’s because ‘I is black’. That’s what Ali G says… I don’t know.”
“It’s an absolute frickin’ joke,” Hamilton added. “I’ve been to see the stewards five times out of six [race weekends] this season.”
Clearly, Lewis had either transgressed in the view of the stewards on each of these occasions, or there was in fact some hidden agenda of the FIA officials to discriminate against him unfairly.
Under the threat of another sanction for breaching article 151c, which forbids competitors from bringing F1 into disrepute, Hamilton hastily apologised to the Monaco stewards for suggesting they may be acting out of racially driven motivations. He claimed his comments were “a bit of a joke” and admitting he had caused offence. “Sometimes you really put your foot in it and offend people”, said Lewis.
Yet despite this climb down, this is a classic example of someone ‘playing the race card‘.
Following an F1 race, the drivers’ views and opinions are instantly solicited in the post race podium interviews and also in the media bull pen. The teams have hardly any time to get to their drivers and coach them in terms of what to say over potential controversial matters. By the time the podium drivers arrive at the written press conference, the teams’ PR spin artists have a better idea of their drivers’ early reactions are and have some time to influence and modify them.
Lewis Hamilton’s reaction immediately following the 2020 Russian GP was equally as astounding has his 2011 Monaco outburst.
“I need to go back and see what the rules are, see exactly what I did wrong, I’m pretty sure no one’s got two five-second penalties for something so ridiculous before. “I didn’t put anyone in danger, I’ve done this at a million tracks over the years and it’s never been questioned.”
The six times world champion had been awarded two 5 second penalties during the early part of the race for performing two practice starts at the very end of the pit lane, when the track was opened on race day. The pit lane exit in Sochi is particularly long and the cars are approaching full speed as they re-join the track. F1 on board video shows cars passing him leaving the pit lane at well over a hundred miles an hour.
The usual place for practicing starts on such occasions is just beyond the pit lane exit lights.
When asked by Sky Sports F1 presenter Natalie Pinkham whether the stewards penalties were excessive, a downbeat Hamilton replied “Yep, of course it is…. They’re doing every… of course it is…. But it’s not to be expected. They’re trying to give me… they’re trying to stop me”.
When a surprised Pinkham responded “Really? You really think so?”, Hamilton asserted: “Of course, but its ok. I just err… need to keep my head down and stay focused and err… let’s see what happens.”
To be fair to Lewis, at no point here did he ‘play the race card’ and in fact as the story develops the spectre of this idea is initiated when Sky interview Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff. Asked for his response to his driver’s claim “they’re trying to stop me”, Wolff replied, “I think Lewis has faced a lot of adversity in his life and for all of us, the penalty seems a little harsh
It’s the first part of this response, which is incredible. Exactly what adversity is Wolff referring to?
Have the F1 and other racing stewards treated Hamilton unfairly over his career more than others? There’s probably little statistical evidence for that.
Could it be the other teams are jealous of Mercedes F1 and Lewis 6/7 year dominance in the sport and therefore try to use the regulations to slow them down? Probably. Yet the same happened to Renault and Red Bull Racing. When you’re a six times world champion there’s a huge amount of financial and other benefits fall your way, but its par for the course to expect some detractors.
There is a notion that Lewis Hamilton came from the ‘slums’ of Stevenage (self perpetuated by Lewis at SPOTY), his family had no money an he was forced to compete on a home made kart made form collecting the parts in a breakfast cereal box. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.
Yes, Anthony Hamilton worked three jobs to get the young Lewis on track, but the real expense began after him winning the Super One national championship. It was then Ron Dennis stepped in and sponsored Hamilton as he moved into European Junior competition age 12.
So Lewis was in fact relatively privileged as a junior racer, and of course Dennis offered an option to later join F1 with McLaren Mercedes when he was age 13. Adversity cannot really be a descriptive term to describe Hamilton’s ascent from a ‘good local kid’ to proper junior European racing and then on to F1 champion.
Wolff’s ‘adversity’ claim about Lewis could be attributed to a couple of other minor – real or imagined’ – aspects of his life, yet the elephant in the room must be addressed.
Given the current F1 emphasis on anti-racism and Lewis Hamilton’s pre-race support for BLM, it wouldn’t be difficult to believe Mercedes F1 team boss was ‘playing the race card’ on Hamilton’s behalf.
By the time Lewis arrived at the written media press conference, he had modulated his initial comments to suggest it was now predominantly the team being persecuted. They were trying to ‘stop the team’.
“Everything we have on our car is being checked and triple checked and triple checked.
“They are changing rules, such as the engine regs, lots of lots of things to get in the way to keep the racing exciting, I assume.
“I don’t know if the rules – in terms of what happened today – was anything to do with it but naturally that’s how it feels, naturally it feels like you we’re fighting uphill.
“It’s OK, it’s not like I haven’t faced adversity before so we just keep our heads down and keep fighting and keep trying to do a better job and be cleaner and squeaky clean, as I said before.”
It’s worth noting at this point that F1 drivers are drilled in the use of the collective personal pronoun ‘we’. Not only do they speak of the entire team by the use ‘we’, but also their side of the garage and their individual race performance and strategy.
Almost always, the only time the drivers use the singular pronoun, “I”, is when asked their personal opinion on something they cannot ascribe to the ‘we’ of the team.
Here, Hamilton initially refers to the ‘we’ of the team repeatedly until he gets to the bit about adversity, which we have observed is a re-iteration of Wolff’s earlier comments. Here adversity is clearly personal to Lewis life, “it’s not like I haven’t faced adversity before…”
There is one fascinating aspect to this trail of events. It is usually the role of the team media experts to de-escalate initial controversial comments made by drivers or team bosses in the impromptu post race interviews. Yet, following the opportunity to discuss the initial reactions of Lewis and Wolff, Mercedes F1 media spin doctors chose to continue with the adversity subject, rather than making it go away.
The effect was that Lewis’ original observations that ‘they’re trying to stop me’ has now morphed into the topic of his life’s ‘adversity’. Hamilton needed little encouragement to revert to his view of the world that unfair things have happened to him because of who he is.
Interestingly, Alex Albon makes light of the idea that he suffered adversity through racial adversity. In a recent interview he said, “Truthfully, from my perspective, (my) ethnicity I also saw kind of as a way to stand out. It was also a way to even for myself to get me through the junior formulae”
On the BBC 3 programme ‘Black Britain’ Anthony Hamilton speaking from when Lewis was a local karting hero states, “You need to have an angle that people are interested in. And honestly being the only black youngster in racing at the moment, I wouldn’t be averse using Lewis’ colour as a means to getting on”.
Clearly, ‘the race card’ can be a self confessed advantage.
Yet is it possible that the ‘playing of the race card’ has in times gone by been discouraged, as in Monaco 2011. However, in Sochi it appears that Wolff, Mercedes PR and eventually Hamilton saw this as an opportunity given the anti-racism topic emphasis present each week as part F1’s current diversity agenda.
Racism is now not a political topic – promoting such matters are banned by F1 – but a human rights issue, according to Hamilton. It will be interesting to see the tightropes the FIA now have to tread when they visit China, Azerbaijan, Bahrain and Russia (other racist states are visited), when previously their position on racist abuse was covered by the whole ‘politics and sport don’t mix’ mantra.
Will Lewis and others in F1 speak out against other extreme and despicable acts racism found in the countries of the world they visit next year?
Writing for the FT, Christian Shephard reveals, “Scholars estimate that about 1.5 million Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Hui and other mostly Muslim minorities have been interned in camps that the government describes as aiming to “transform through education’, while hundreds of thousands more have been arrested and jailed.”
Maybe in the setting of Shanghai 2021, Hamilton could replace the ‘Black Lives Matter’ T-shirt he wears in the pre-race anti racism event.
Wearing a shirt demanding, ‘Uighurs Lives Matter’; now that would require real bottle from Lewis.