Formula One and the Messy Ethics of International Human Rights Campaigning

by Nash Rougvie

What you can do

  1. Join efforts to encourage Cornell and other institutions to divest from Aramco and other Saudi-based organizations.
  2. Attend and participate in protests and boycotts against authoritarian regimes and oil conglomerates.
  3. Be critical of and actively point out hypocrisy in corporate human rights campaigns.

The end of 2010 saw the beginning of one of the most consequential and large-scale regional uprisings in modern history: the Arab Spring. Millions of protests across a plethora of countries in the Middle East revolted against authoritarian governments in an attempt to replace them with more democratic alternatives. These protests famously occurred in places such as Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, and in some cases led to radical changes in the governmental systems employed  by the countries. [1]While these events stole the headlines, one of the earliest and most overlooked of these attempted revolutions, and one of the ultimately unsuccessful ones, occurred in Bahrain.

The protests initially centered around the broad goal of achieving more political equality for the majority Shia population living under a Sunni monarchy. Protestors set up camp at the Pearl Roundabout in the capital of Manama on February 14th of 2011. They would stay here until government intervention on the 17th, which would later become known as “Bloody Thursday” among locals. On Bloody Thursday, 4 protestors were killed and hundreds more were injured. This event raised the stakes of the protests, and led to a shift in focus from broad political equality to absolute abolition of the monarchy. [2]

Less than a month after the start of the protests, the first race of the 2011 Formula One season – the Bahrain Grand Prix – was scheduled to take place. The president of Formula One at the time, Bernie Eccelstone, warned ahead of the race that if the protests continued, that the event would have to be cancelled. Following the cancelation of a GP2 race and Formula One testing scheduled prior to the race, Ecclestone followed through on his warning and cancelled the event. [3][4]

The same suspicions arose surrounding the race scheduled for the start of the 2012 season. While the 2011 decision to cancel the event appeared straight forward and generally uncontroversial, the continuation of protests into 2012 made the argument over whether or not to hold the race very heated. Many international human rights groups advocated for the event’s cancelation, as the government of Bahrain had used violent and lethal methods to quell protests. In addition to this, a group called the February 14th Youth Coalition wrote a letter to Bernie Ecclestone threatening harm onto the drivers and teams if the event were to follow through. [5][6]

At the same time, however, many Formula One insiders wanted the race to go on as a symbol of unity and peace in the heavily contentious environment.  Ecclestone stood firm on the race taking place, and his sentiments were echoed by former World Champion Sir Jackie Stewart, one of Formula One’s greatest ever drivers. [7]

In the year leading up to the race, 3 journalists were murdered in Bahrain. [8] Despite this, Formula One went through on the event, and ultimately held the race on April 22nd. This decision was the first in a long line of shady and immoral decisions taken by Formula One executives, and marks a trend that would be reflected in the decade that followed. 

The 2021 Formula One calendar currently has three races scheduled to take place in the Middle East. The first race of the season will take place at the Sakhir International Circuit in Bahrain, with the last two races of the season scheduled for Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, and the debut of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. The race will take place in a placeholder street circuit in Jeddah for 2021 and 2022, before moving to the purpose built Quiddiya Circuit in 2023.

The Saudi Government and Formula One have already received backlash for the scheduling of this event, as many see it as an effort to “sportswash” the country’s questionable human rights record and portray an inaccurate image of the country to the outside world. [9]

The announcement of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix was not the Saudi government’s first experience with motorsport, however. The Monarchy has hosted the cross-country Dakar Rally for years, and has also recently held a race in the Formula E series – Formula One’s 100% electric companion championship. 

Not only does the Saudi Government have experience in hosting other motorsports events, but they also got their foot in the door with Formula One last season. The Saudi State oil corporation, Saudi Aramco, became one of Formula One’s title sponsors, alongside mainstays such as Rolex, DHL, and tire supplier Pirelli. Current Formula One CEO Chase Carrey said that the organization was “delighted to welcome Aramco to the Formula 1 family as a long-term Global Partner,” and Aramco CEO Amin Nasser described the partnership as something that was important for “reaching our ambitions.” [10]

Aramco sponsored the opening event of the 2020 season, at the Red Bull Ring in Spielburg, Austria, and would go on to be the title sponsor of the Spanish and Hungarian Grand Prix, and planned to sponsor the ultimately cancelled United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas. 

The 2020 Austrian Grand Prix also saw the unveiling of three social justice initiatives from Formula One: “We Race as One,” a campaign of solidarity with those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and; “End Racism,” a campaign for racial equality; and its new plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030. [11][12][13]

The broad “We Race as One” initiative is explicitly preformative and symbolic. It is represented by a rainbow, which “has been chosen as it has become a symbol used internationally in the recent crisis to bring communities together”. Formula One identified the “two major problems facing the world” as COVID-19 and Inequality, which it wanted to address with this initiative. “We Race as One” was generally well received, and there was no backlash from the drivers or teams in incorporating the rainbow logo into liveries, helmets, and trackside advertising. 

The “End Racism” campaign was not necessarily brought about by Formula One, but rather by one of its drivers: World Champion Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton is the only black driver in the sport’s 70 year history, and has always been vocal about the sport’s lack of racial diversity. Hamilton came from a working class family in London, and had to battle economic barriers to entry in the motorsport for much of his youth before eventually being sponsored by British racing team McLaren – a rare rags-to-riches story in a sport dominated by millionaires and white Europeans. [14]

Per Hamilton’s request, a demonstration was held before the first race of the season in Austria, which took place just over a month after the murder of George Floyd and amidst global protests against raical injustice. The demonstration, which saw all 20 drivers wear a shirt with “End Racism” written in bold font, was met with mixed reactions from both drivers and fans. While Hamilton and many other drivers such as Daniel Riccardo knelt in solidarity, superstars Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen both announced prior to the race that they would not be taking the knee. [15] Many suspect that this was at the request of their sponsors, as their rationale for not kneeling was broad and inconclusive, but no explicit reasoning was ever given. 

Formula One’s sustainability plan was announced at the end of the 2019 season, and was not released to as much fanfare as the “We Race as One” initiative. There was no visible marketing about the plan present at any of the races this past season, and there are currently no indications that there will be. Rather, Formula One has been somewhat subtle about the plan, which focuses on the footprint of both the cars and events, in an effort to promote sustainability solutions to the world through the global series. 

The plan as it exists right now is not empirically-based, but rather broadly targets carbon neutrality by the year 2030. Currently, the goals are most explicitly laid out in this section of the press release: 

“Being at the forefront of automotive innovation gives Formula 1 a global platform to accelerate progress and develop technologies that reduce and eliminate carbon emissions from the current internal combustion engine (ICE). The hybrid power unit will play a key role in the future of the automotive industry.

The current F1 hybrid power unit, delivering more power using less fuel than any other car, combined with advanced sustainable fuels and energy recovery systems presents a tremendous opportunity to deliver a net-zero carbon hybrid power unit. With over 1 billion of the 1.1 billion vehicles in the world powered by ICEs, it has the potential to reduce carbon emissions globally.

In addition to the plans to eliminate the carbon footprint of the F1 car and the on-track activities, initiatives will include action to ensure F1 moves to ultra-efficient logistics and travel and 100% renewably powered offices, facilities and factories.”

Less than 4 months later, Formula One announced its global partnership with Aramco, on March 10th, 2020. In Aramco’s press release on the partnership, a shared sentiment for the excitement of the potential innovation the partnership could provide was echoed. [16] However, the innovation mentioned in Formula One’s press release on their sustainability plan is likely quite different from the one implied by Aramco, the world’s largest polluter of Carbon Dioxide. [17]

The timing of the announcement of this partnership reveals a hypocrisy to Formula One’s activism that one could easily predict based on the response to the protests against the 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix. Formula one has a long history of shady sponsorship deals, with previous ties to the cigarette industry and other oil companies such as Shell having dominated team sponsorship for much of the 1990’s and 2000’s. However, these deals came before Formula One took any strong stances as an organization. The agreement to the Aramco partnership despite their explicitly stated commitment to sustainability reveals that this trend will continue, regardless of how much marketing and PR resources Formula One puts into trying to convince the public otherwise. 

This is not only true of Formula One’s sustainability efforts, but also of its efforts for social justice. At the opening round of the 2020 season in Austria, “We Race as One” banners and advertisements could be found all over the track, most notably in a massive display draped over the main grandstand lining the pit straight, with portraits of all 20 drivers all surrounding a bold and highlighted “We Race as One” sign. 

Despite the efforts to emphasize this message as much as possible, the ever-present Aramco sponsorship boards reveal the ultimate intentions of the globally influential racing series: a foundational commitment to profit over people.