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More than just a checkered flag: racism in Formula One

Sofia Barrera
Mercedes Petronas AMG 2021 F1 car sits at the USA Grand Prix in Austin, Texas

I follow just about every sport. I rarely miss Sunday night prime-time football, or a Yankees versus Red Socks match up. In fact, I cannot remember a year when I did not watch the entire weekend of the Masters (thanks, Dad).

But above all, there is one spectacle I sacrifice every Sunday morning for and get to see in person each May–Formula One. 

There is something unique about the prestige and drama combined with intense competition that is unlike any other sport on Earth. Almost every weekend of the season, ten teams and twenty drivers travel to 23 countries in the span of nine months to battle for the World Drivers Championship and the World Constructors Championship

Becoming a driver or even briefly involved in the sport is extremely expensive; unsurprisingly, most drivers come from wealthy families or receive heavy financial backing from investors. Unfortunately this means that F1 is a sport in which minorities are largely underrepresented. 

Despite efforts to curb racism through activism, Formula One remains a sport in which minorities exist in small numbers with only one black and few Latin American drivers. 

F1 must adapt to present new opportunities to a wider range of drivers who face disproportionate racial discrimination and wealth inequality. 

People of color deserve the opportunity to demonstrate their talents in the world of motorsports in an environment where they feel welcomed and celebrated equally with their white competitors. 

For instance, Sir Lewis Hamilton is arguably the best Formula One driver alive today. He is tied for the most world championships won by a single driver (7), and holds the records for most races won and total laps led in the history of the sport.

It is safe to say that he is a remarkable talent. 

However, one fact seems to somehow overshadow all of his incredible achievements–he is the first (and only) black F1 driver. 

Lewis grew up in a home with divorced parents in Stevenage, England, and his father maintained three jobs to finance his son’s dream of racing. At a karting race when he was only a child, Lewis fearlessly approached McLaren’s boss and told him he would race in Formula One one day. He was right. 

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Lewis described the discovery of his talent as learning he had a “superpower”.

“I couldn’t be Superman, but that was like your cloak. When I got in the car, I put a helmet on, and I wasn’t seen any different. You can’t see my skin color. You just see me as a driver. And I was able to do things that others weren’t able to do. And it didn’t matter how big the other kids were, I could still beat them.”

But at the beginning of his career in F1, while he was praised for his talent, he was simultaneously shunned because of his race and background. 

“I did not feel like I was welcome,” he said, “In the 70 years of our sport, no one’s ever stood up there for anything but themselves.”

In addition to black drivers, Latin American drivers also face increasing prejudice.

Sergio “Checo” Perez is currently the only Mexican driver in Formula One, and his story is one of determination that lives up to his motto “never give up.”

Perez grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico with his family, where he expertly raced go karts for much of his youth on a tight budget. 

“After the race we had to drive back home, sometimes a 10-hour drive,” he said in an interview with Red Bull. “I would sleep in the car in my uniform to go to school. It’s funny to think back that on Monday mornings, my dad would always have to drive me back to school.”

At the age of 14, Perez moved to pursue racing full-time in the continent where it was most prominent–Europe. Being financially supported by Mexican investor Carlos Slim, Checo arrived in Munich, Germany with a one-way ticket all by himself. Despite his loneliness, he never gave up.

Now, almost ten years later, Checo Perez has won six races and has stood atop 35 podiums in his career in F1. He currently races with Red Bull Racing Oracle, which is arguably the best racing team at the moment as they are the reigning World Champions. 

However, this year was particularly difficult for him. Due to changes in his race car, Perez had occasional issues in his performance over the season.

Helmut Marko, a prominent Red Bull Racing consultant on the team and a previously well-respected symbol of Formula One, made a claim that Checo’s deficiencies in his racing this season were because of his ethnicity. 

“We know that he has problems in qualifying, he has fluctuations in form, he is South American and he is just not as completely focused in his head as Max [Verstappen] is or as Sebastian [Vettel],”, said Marko on the Red Bull television station.

Not only is Sergio Perez not from South America, but Marko’s willingness to blame where he is from to validate his statement is inherently racist. 

To be sure, Formula One has taken measures to promote racial equality in the past. However, these efforts were artificially performative and quickly forgotten. No real effort was made to ensure the sport’s future would have any long-lasting diversity, and to stop individuals like Helmut Marko from making racist comments towards a driver from his own team.

In order to ensure ethnic diversity in the sport, more money should be invested towards communities of people of color in order for more people to compete in motorsports in its preliminary stages. 

Even with the proper funding, it is hard to get an F1 seat in the first place. And, the feeder leagues of Formula One (F2, F3, IndyCar, FormulaE) have few black drivers and limited Latin American ones. Competing in these leagues allows for drivers to be recruited into Formula One, so fewer people of color in F2 translates into an even more trivial amount in F1. This can be solved with the proper investments from Formula One as an administrator.

Moreover, Formula One must begin to enforce pre-existing measures to stop racism from perpetrating within the community. As we strive to achieve racial equality within different sports around the world, F1 should be no exception. Representation matters now more than ever, everywhere. 

Maybe one day in twenty years or so, I will wake up early with my son or daughter and watch the Grand Prix every Sunday just like my dad and I do. Hopefully then, a driver’s support will be determined by their skill and not their skin. 

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About the Contributor
Sofia Barrera
Sofia Barrera, Opinion Editor
Sofia Barrera is the Opinion Editor for The Beat and was formerly a staff writer for two years. Covering Carrollton policy debate and global opinion topics, Sofia is passionate about promoting student journalism in an educational atmosphere. She was awarded an honorable mention last year at the Journalism Education Association Convention in San Francisco, California. Apart from journalism, Sofia is also the shadow president of Model UN, a business manager for the Solar Car Racing Team, and an alto in the school choir.

Comments (6)

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  • S

    Sunné ClarkeJan 10, 2024 at 8:29 am

    Wow, this is an amazing well written article! And I never knew about F1 and how the sport of car racing worked until now. Very informative and I hope in 20 years we will all see the change! Great job!

  • D

    Daniela de LopeJan 9, 2024 at 5:57 pm

    I hope so too Sofia! Very thoughtful article. Thank you

  • M

    Monica CassabJan 9, 2024 at 4:37 pm

    Bravo Sofía!!! Muy buen documental, con mucha información importante !!!
    Felicidades !!!
    Que sigan los éxitos!!
    Suerte !!!

  • P

    Paulina RosJan 9, 2024 at 4:18 pm

    Insightful article! You highlighted the harsh reality that exists in the sport and the socioeconomic gaps there are in support and funding. Loved it Sofi!

  • G

    Gloria SanchezJan 9, 2024 at 2:38 pm

    Thank you for this fascinating article about a topic I knew nothing about.

  • D

    Daniella RoosJan 9, 2024 at 2:26 pm

    Wow, this is so well written. SnoFlo award incoming!