Racing Chief Says Formula One Shouldn't Get Involved in Politics as Sport Faces Heat Ahead of Saudi Grand Prix

Dan Istitene - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images
  • Motorsport shouldn't be a political platform, the head of Formula One's governing body told CNBC.
  • The remarks by FIA President Jean Todt on Tuesday came as the the sport faces criticism for holding a grand prix in Saudi Arabia this weekend.
  • F1 star and seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton has called Saudi Arabia's repression of LGBTQ people "terrifying."

It isn't the role of motorsport to "get involved with political issues," the leader of the top international auto racing organization said as Formula One faces criticism for allowing a grand prix to go ahead in Saudi Arabia this weekend.

"Motorsport has not to be used as a political platform. That is absolutely essential," said Jean Todt, president of the FIA, which is Formula One's governing body.

Human rights groups have urged F1 to use its power to challenge abuses in Saudi Arabia, accusing the sport of ignoring its commitment to equality and diversity. Activists also accuse Formula One of being complicit in "sportswashing" for the Saudi regime.

The penultimate grand prix of the 2021 season takes place on Sunday in the coastal city of Jeddah. It will be the first in a long-term contract for Saudi Arabia to host F1 races. One of the sport's biggest stars expressed his unease about racing in Saudi Arabia.

Seven-time F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton, who is vying for an eighth title against current championship leader Max Verstappen, said Thursday that he was uncomfortable racing in the country due to its human rights record. But he conceded that "the sport has taken a choice to be here."

"And whether it's right or wrong, while we are here, it's important we do try to raise awareness," he said, describing the country's repression of LGBTQ people as "terrifying."

Saudi Arabia, citing Islamic Sharia law, forbids homosexuality, and LGBTQ people face persecution there. The topic remains highly taboo across the Middle East. Hamilton has vowed to wear a rainbow helmet in Saudi Arabia, and in the season's final race in Abu Dhabi. The Mercedes driver wore the helmet for the first time at the previous race in Qatar, to protest against anti-LGBTQ laws in the country.

The Saudi government and the Saudi embassy in the U.K. did not immediately respond to CNBC requests for comment on Friday.

Jeddah, SAUDI ARABIA: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP talks in the Drivers Press Conference during previews ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia at Jeddah Corniche Circuit on December 02, 2021.
Hassan Ammar - Pool/Getty Images
Jeddah, SAUDI ARABIA: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP talks in the Drivers Press Conference during previews ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia at Jeddah Corniche Circuit on December 02, 2021.

Todt taped his remarks with CNBC on Tuesday, before Hamilton's comments. The executive defended Formula One against criticism in his interview, which aired Friday.

"Saying that, going in certain countries where there are some doubts about the way things are occurring, we give the opportunity for people to talk, and I think we give some more visibility to the countries," Todt said. "There is full freedom to anybody who wants to speak, who wants to demonstrate — they can do it."

Other drivers have stood up for LGBTQ rights, such as Aston Martin driver and four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel. He wore a rainbow-colored shirt during the national anthem at the Hungarian Grand Prix, for instance.

On Saudi Arabia specifically, Todt contended that a lot of progress had been made in recent years.

"Saudi Arabia until 2018 could not host one international event because women were forbidden to drive, now women can drive, so changes are occurring, but we should not get involved in political matters," he said.

As the only black driver in the history of F1, Hamilton has also been a passionate advocate for racial equality. Since the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent global protest movement last year, a number of drivers have joined the British racer in taking a knee before races to draw attention to racial injustice.

Todt told CNBC's Geoff Cutmore that he respected and admired Hamilton's leadership on diversity and inclusion issues, which he called a "global problem which needs to be addressed."

"Before each start of the grand prix, we give space to the drivers to be able to demonstrate their attention for the problem, but of course, more needs to be done," he added.

Todt's reluctance to take action on issues around human rights and freedom of expression stands in stark contrast to the approach of Steve Simon, chairman and CEO of the Women's Tennis Association.

Simon announced this week that the WTA would suspend all tournaments in China over the Chinese government's treatment of tennis player Peng Shuai, after she made a sexual assault allegation against a top government official. He accused Beijing of censoring Peng and failing to prove that she is "free and able to speak without interference or intimidation."

"None of this is acceptable nor can it become acceptable. If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the basis on which the WTA was founded – equality for women – would suffer an immense setback," Simon said in a statement Thursday.

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