Formula One and its Close Connection to Geopolitics Requires Strategic Safety Escalation

white and brown concrete building during night time

While the Avant Ivy is heavy on Formula One, I majored in government and therefore, I will always try to make connections to politics when appropriate. With that said, a lot of thought has gone into how government impacts Formula One, and vice versa. From direct national security threats as a result of war, to drivers voicing support and opinions on controversial issues, there will always be a role in F1 for politics and government. Most of these issues aren’t sexy “grid talk,” nor are they dramatic Netflix storylines, but they are critical for the sport to continue on its growth trajectory, and for the safety of everyone involved.

At the beginning of the 2022 season, a fire broke out in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia just two days before the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for a drone strike which hit the Saudi Arabia Aramco facility. A spokesperson for the Houthis claimed they also hit the Ras Tanura and Rabigh refineries, but those claims couldn’t be confirmed–according to Reuters. While the attack itself was concerning, the urgency was elevated due to the Aramco refinery being located just 10 kilometers (or six miles) from the track. Clearly the Houthis were using the race as a global opportunity to make their presence and capabilities known, and while damage was minimal, they succeeded.

The attacks were making global headlines, so obviously there was a tremendous response from personnel and drivers about the race continuing because of safety and security issues. After all, how could anyone be sure that the airspace and surrounding vicinity were safe? How could they ensure the fans would be safe from a drone strike or worse, such as a supplies truck in the actual circuit or hotel docking ramps packed with explosives? I have no doubt that F1 and Saudi officials were working with intelligence agencies to assess the threats, and that they made decisions based on they intel they had. But when the public has limited information, uncomfortable questions such as the aforementioned will be asked, and with good reason.

Even the chair of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, Alex Wurz, said that “Before, drivers were seen as sportspeople where the position was: ‘I’m a sportsperson, I’m not getting involved in politics.’ That time has really gone.” The GPDA represents the drivers, and following a late-night meeting in Jeddah, they released a statement saying that “A large variety of opinions were shared and debated, and having listened not only to the Formula One powers but also to the Saudi government who explained how security measures were being elevated to the maximum, the outcome was a resolution that we would practice and qualify today and race tomorrow.”

Everything has to serve as a teachable moment, so the real takeaway from this ordeal begs the question of just how much preemptive research and coordination are made prior to races. Wurz praised the drivers for their maturity and genuine curiosity regarding the details of the incident. However, as Formula One continues to expand into controversial countries, briefing drivers and staff on conflicts beforehand has to become a fixed standard. Parties can no longer rely on the ebb and flow of intelligence on a need-to-know basis. Taking this a step further, these intelligence briefings have to be available months prior to races and remain static as updates occur.

Regarding the Jeddah attack, what we do know is that this wasn’t the first time the Houthis have carried out strikes. There have been thousands of similar attacks in the past in response to Saudi Arabia’s direct military attacks on Yemen, which have killed nearly 15,000 civilians, according to the Campaign Against Arms Trade. Saudi Arabia has also been accused of numerous human rights violations via air raid attacks, which has added to the issues that drivers are now speaking out against. Moreover, the U.K. government has been accused of providing “immoral” aid to Yemen because it also licenses the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia. According to a briefing by Oxfam, the value of the arms the “U.K. has licensed for sale to members of the coalition, principally Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates” is “many times” less than the value of the aid it’s provided to Yemen.

If this sounds contradictory and opportunistic at the governmental level, it’s because it is.

In December 2021 when asked about the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton said “Do I feel comfortable racing here? I wouldn’t say I do. But this was not my choice. Our sport has chosen to be here and whether it’s fair or not, I think that while we’re here, it’s still important to do some work on raising awareness.” Everyone knew that Hamilton was referring to Saudi Arabia’s past human rights violations.

On the contrary, around the same time, FIA executive and former President Jean Todt said “Motorsport has not to be used as a political platform. That is absolutely essential.” I’m not sure who’s been briefing Todt, but motorsport has been and will continue to be used as a political platform, especially as more teams and organizations under the FIA continue to find partnerships in state-owned entities, and as the sport expands throughout the world.

While Hamilton never (or rarely) ignores the elephant in the room, it’s also important to visit the many entanglements that made the race in Saudi Arabia that much more controversial.

For starters, Aston Martin Formula One and Aramco signed a co-title rights deal, in what they described as a “long-term strategic partnership.” Additionally, in 2020 Aramco announced the “company’s first global sponsorship of a major sporting event” when it signed a longterm partnership with F1, which included trackside banners and title rights. Aramco is state-owned by Saudi Arabia. Next, there are seven United Kingdom-based Formula One teams, which include Mercedes, Red Bull, Haas, Williams, and Alpine. To complicate things, Aston Martin is also U.K.-based, and I say “complicate” because the United Kingdom has been been providing aid and arms to Yemen since 2015. So, to summarize this, Aston Martin operates in the country that’s sending aid to defend and support the country that Saudi Arabia is attacking, while Saudi Arabia is a co-sponsor on the U.K.-based team and the most influential sports league in the world with over 500 million fans. Meanwhile, the U.K. also provides arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

To complicate this even further, the Iranian Government announced in June that it has plans to build a circuit dedicated to Formula One on the island of Qeshm, which is just a 175 kilometer flight distance from Dubai. Why is this an issue? Again, Houthi insurgents are supported and armed by Iran, and some of their arms shipments have been intercepted by Saudi-led coalitions, which include the United States Navy, prompting escalated naval responses by Iran.

The Middle Eastern sphere of influence in motor sports.

It’s hard to say exactly how many people work in Formula One who are from countries that are supporting Saudi Arabia in its war against Yemen, but a race in Iran escalates the security concerns. What’s easier to filter out are the women who work in Formula One, from the garages to television, to executive roles, trainers, social media, hospitality, Human Resources, etc.

Iran has compulsory hijab, meaning that all women nine years and older are required to wear headscarfs and loose fitting clothing that covers the majority of their bodies while in public. It’s been a law since 1981, and in since 1995, women who are seen without hijab could be subject to 74 lashes and imprisonment for up to 60 days. The law is in direct response to the rejection of western ideals and beliefs, which is a direct contradiction to the ethos in Formula One that promotes women in all roles and encourages women’s creativity and expression.

In the fall of 2021, race promoters released a dress code for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix that all participants had to adhere to. Women were required to wear garments for the entirety of the event which covered their knees and had modest necklines with long sleeves. Women weren’t allowed to wear excessive makeup, jeans with holes, shorts, swimsuits, or anything that showed their backs, shoulders, or stomachs. Men were also banned from wearing ripped jeans, shorts, or tank tops.

This obviously created a firestorm globally where some criticized the rules, while others defended Muslim customs. The difference here is that since 2019, hijab is no longer compulsory in Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman said in a 2018 interview, “The laws are very clear and stipulated in the laws of Sharia that women wear decent, respectful clothing like men.” He continued, “The decision is entirely left for women to decide what type of decent and respectful attire she chooses to wear.”

Saudi Arabia took preemptive measures, whereas, Iran doesn’t seem to be following suit. So in addition to the wars that are raging throughout the region, women’s rights issues should be very concerning to Formula One executives and organizers. After all, if Hamilton’s physio Angela Cullen gets arrested or publicly beaten for wearing her standard-issue (and highly professional) track attire at the Iran GP, it would become a larger political dispute than anyone in the FIA or Formula One could imagine.

A race in Iran requires serious discussions regarding the protections of women. Will female employees and journalists have to comply with compulsory hijab? Does Formula One have to hire additional security to protect these women? Does an organization such as INTERPOL have to get involved to facilitate international support? What happens if compulsory hijab applies and women are beaten or arrested with the potential to become political prisoners? It would behoove Iran to adopt the same hospitality as Saudi Arabia. But these are all issues that Stefano Domenicali and FIA President Mohammed bin Sulayem have to consider, and make sure an agreement is established with Iranian officials well before the contracts are signed between all parties.

With the FIA allowing and encouraging social media engagement up and down the organization chart, it’s more important than ever to understand the collective thoughts and intentions to preserve the integrity of Formula One’s “We Race As One” slogan.

This also requires Formula One and FIA officials to engage with drivers and everyone under the F1 umbrella through a political lens. It’s easy for spectators to tell athletes and journalists to “stick to sports,” but with the global circus that is F1 intensifying, that is literally impossible to do now. This is especially true for drivers, because the second a driver or a team becomes backed by a state sponsor, that driver and/or team becomes fair game for the political and social matters that state is dealing with.

For example, when drivers like Sebastian Vettel slam Formula One over issues such as climate change, you have to wonder if there’s an underlying point there. Meaning, is Vettel also speaking out against oil in general, knowing a critical sponsor of the team he drives for is associated with an oil war that’s caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, either through direct military engagement or from famine? These things–as uncomfortable as they are–deserve serious conversations.

Formula One might be handling these concerns internally, however, as the sport is expanding, fans deserve to know that executives are acknowledging security concerns and doing everything in their power to preemptively mitigate them. F1 is now the highest earning and paying sport in the entire world. It’s a world run by an elite group of some of the most influential people in the world, who are worth an estimated $146 billion combined. With that level of money and success comes incredible influence in politics and government around the world. This is another reason why Formula One has to prioritize the safety and elevate the urgency to deal with conflicts and entanglements in productive ways that removes the target from F1’s metaphoric back.


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