While the start of the Formula One season has been pushed back from March when it was cancelled in Australia to July due to the coronavirus pandemic with a condensed season including three week runs and back-to-back races in Austria and Great Britain, a first for the sport.
But in the meantime, the world was shocked by the death of George Floyd and six-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton has been an outspoken advocate of the Black Lives Matter movement, including attending protests in recent weeks and hitting out at comments from former CEO Bernie Ecclestone.
Mercedes have backed Hamilton by changing the cars and race suits from silver to black, with signage around the Red Bull Ring for the season opening race with the “End Racism” message as well as FIA donating $A1.6m (1 million euros) to the new foundation set up by Formula One aiming to improve diversity in the sport.
But before the weekend, the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association held decided the drivers would “stand united with their teams against racism and prejudice, at the same time embracing the principles of diversity, equality and inclusion and supporting Formula 1‘s commitment to these.”
It came as all the drivers came together on the starting line all wearing black T-shirts before the race.
Before the race had started, F1 next generation stars Max Verstappen from Red Bull and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc confirmed they wouldn’t kneel during the national anthem.
The act has been performed by sports people around the world after coming to prominence in recent memory through NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Sky Sports commentators agreed that it would be a “monumental moment” with all drivers united and it was appreciated by fans although some said that it “wasn’t united” with just six drivers staying standing.
Two of the drivers were Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, two drivers many in the Formula One world believe are the future of the sport.
The two future stars of F1 stood up. Bad look https://t.co/5lNq7QBi5Q— Igor Mello (@SuperIgor) July 5, 2020
Before the first race of the season, Leclerc tweeted: “All 20 drivers stand united with their teams against racism and prejudice, at the same time embracing the principles of diversity, equality and inclusion, supporting Formula 1’s and FIA’s commitment.
“I believe that what matters are facts and behaviours in our daily life rather than formal gestures that could be seen as controversial in some countries. I will not take the knee but this does not mean at all that I am less committed than others in the fight against racism.”
Similarly, Max Verstappen tweeted: “I am very committed to equality and the fight against racism. But I believe everyone has the right to express themself at a time and in a way that suits them. I will not take the knee today but respect and support the personal choices every driver makes”.
But while it was a powerful moment, something Sky Sports commentators agreed was “monumental” for the sport, some pointed out that it was an odd message for six of the 20 drivers to remain standing when 14 were still kneeling.
Respect: Daniel Ricciardo; Romain Grosjean; Kevin Magnussen; Valtteri Bottas; seb Vettel and others for taking the knee alongside Lewis Hamilton. We see you. Solidarity means a lot in the fight against racism and, let's be frank, #f1 is one of the most racist sports around. #blm— Sathnam Sanghera (@Sathnam) July 5, 2020
CBS Sports editor Igor Melo said that all drivers not kneeling was a “bad look”.
“Well, just in the meeting I just acknowledged a lot of the drivers that … obviously there was an interpretation of a message that I had posted, asking for people to speak out and their silence and just saying thank you to those who have said something on their social media platforms,” said Hamilton
“They‘ve got a great voice, a great platform and then encouraging the others that haven’t to say something and I just described the scenario that silence is generally really complicit so there still is some silence in some cases but I think it’s also part of a dialogue of people trying to understand, because there are still people that don’t fully understand exactly what is happening and what are the reasons for these protests. So I continue to try and be that guide, try to influence.”
Drivers’ Association director and Haas driver Romain Grosjean said as a global sport, F1 “have a lot of audience and we can send some very strong messages”.