A human rights organization claims that a rule that was implemented this year by the governing body of Formula 1, the FIA, is “suppressing drivers’ freedom of speech.”
The FIA’s dedication to upholding human rights is questioned by the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (Bird).
According to Bird, this prevents “drivers from speaking out on problems like racism and human rights.”
The restriction “appears to be a reaction” to Lewis Hamilton voicing these worries, according to the statement.
This year, a new rule was added to the FIA’s sporting code that prohibits “the general making and display of political, religious, and personal statements or comments, notably in violation of the general principle of neutrality promoted by the FIA under its statutes, unless previously approved in writing by the FIA.” The letter, from Bird director Sayed Ahmed Alwadei, was seen by BBC Sport.
“It looks to be a reaction to drivers, in particular Lewis Hamilton, highlighting their concerns about the venues picked for F1 races, particularly the human rights records of host countries, and making significant interventions where your own organization has been silent,” says Alwadei of the move.
The letter, which is sent to FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem and copied to all the teams and agents of Lewis Hamilton, contrasts the regulation with the choice to terminate the Russian Grand Prix’s contract last year.
Additionally, it highlights what it sees as a discrepancy between how F1 handles Russia’s conflict in Ukraine and the role of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates—all of which host grand prix—in a conflict in Yemen.
Using his platform, Hamilton, according to Alwadei, “expressed support for Black Lives Matter and human rights in nations with questionable human rights histories, including Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.”
None of Hamilton’s comments over the course of his career can be compared to the FIA’s decision to boycott Russian racing last season because of that country’s invasion of Ukraine, according to Alwadei.
You denounced the Russian invasion and expressed’sadness and horror’ for the casualties in Ukraine in your own statement from the previous year. Although I support this statement, it is obviously political.
“When the FIA and F1 choose to award races to some of the world’s most repressive governments, like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, they are aiding sports-washing and allowing these dictatorships to launder their appalling rights records,” Alwadei continued in a statement provided to BBC Sport.
“It is also troubling to see the FIA now copying the strategies of its authoritarian commercial partners by making an effort to silence the voices of detractors and supporters.
“Drivers like Lewis Hamilton stepped up and denounced mistreatment when the FIA and F1 failed, and his outspoken support for political prisoners in Bahrain shed attention on heinous injustice.
“Now, the FIA intends to punish him and others if they dared to speak out and quiet them. Mohammed Ben Sulayem is hearing from us that this policy must be changed right away.
In a meeting with the FIA on March 19, 2021, when Frenchman Jean Todt served as president, Alawadei claims that he received the “encouraging promise that your predecessor was keen for the FIA to implement a human rights policy.”
The meeting was Bird’s “final significant interaction with the FIA,” he continues, and “sadly, Jean Todt’s presidency expired without a human rights policy in place. It is unclear if the FIA is still working toward this under your leadership or not.”
For a response, the FIA has been approached. The new rule, according to a spokeswoman, is intended to codify an already existing agreement.
Instead of general statements in favor of human rights advancement, it is alleged that it is directed at the wearing of clothing bearing campaigning statements on the podium or before the race, like those worn by Hamilton during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd by US police in 2020.
Dispute over comments on F1 valuation
Ben Sulayem has raised concerns within Formula One with a series of tweets that claim the sport is not worth $20 billion (£16.2 billion).
Ben Sulayem’s comments follow a Bloomberg report that stated Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) had attempted and failed to purchase F1 for that sum.
“Any possible buyer is asked to apply common sense, consider the larger benefit of the sport, and arrive with a clear, sustainable plan – not simply a lot of money,” he said, calling the appraisal a “alleged inflated price tag.”
In the event of such a sale, he continued, “It is our responsibility to evaluate what the long-term effects will be for promoters in terms of increasing hosting fees and other commercial charges.”
Saudi Arabia is active in Formula One; its national oil corporation Aramco is a corporate sponsor, and the country organizes a race with one of the highest hosting fees. However, according to information provided to BBC Sport, the PIF of Saudi Arabia has not yet attempted to acquire the sport.
However, Ben Sulayem’s intervention raises a number of concerns about why he saw the need to get engaged in a business transaction that is clearly outside of his purview.
An agreement made with the European Commission more than 20 years ago mandates that the FIA refrain from interfering with F1’s business affairs.
The context of Ben Sulaymen’s statement is the ongoing conflict about how the sport is being handled between the FIA and F1 on the one hand, and the teams and F1 on the other.
F1 was valued at $8.5 billion when Liberty acquired the sport in 2017, and since then, its popularity around the world has dramatically risen.
According to an FIA official, Ben Sulayem wished to provide his viewpoint on the subject.