Did Bernie Ecclestone condone racism?

I didn’t have the time to blog about it when the story originally blew up, but I have a few thoughts on the issue. Late last week Bernie Ecclestone gave an interview to BBC Radio 5 Live where he made comments that were interpreted by some as condoning racist behaviour in the grandstands at Formula 1 circuits.

I actually heard a little bit of that interview when it was originally broadcast, and I heard the controversial comments. I was initially surprised, because I saw how the comments would be interpreted by many. I was just surprised because I would have thought Bernie Ecclestone was savvy enough not to give an ambiguous answer to such a question. Sure enough, it became a bigger news story.

But while the comments were unfortunate, I don’t think they really deserved the reaction they got from some quarters. Ex-footballer Paul Elliot, speaking on behalf of Football Against Racism in Europe, even called on Ecclestone to resign.

This is a completely over-the-top reaction. I understood the nature of what Ecclestone was trying to say, even if he didn’t manage to articulate it very clearly on breakfast radio.

Formula 1 has only ever had one publicised incident of racial abuse, when a small clutch of Spanish spectators blacked up at a Barcelona test session before the 2008 season started. The pictures at were shocking, and I criticised the participants at the time.

However, in the discussions that ensued it became clear that many Spaniards were perplexed at the shocked reaction from Brits. I doubt that this is because Spain has a problem with racism. That was despite what some in the media tried to make out, without a hint of irony of course (read Richard Herring for a good take on this). It seems as though blacking up simply does not have the same connotations in Spain as it does in places like the UK and the USA. (And let us not forget, too, that it was only a few short decades ago that blacking up was totally acceptable in the UK.)

That is not to excuse the behaviour. We all must be sensitive to other cultures, and all decent people should take great care not to offend others’ sensibilities. Clearly, a widespread interpretation of the behaviour of those people at the Barcelona test was that it was racial abuse. Indeed, that was my interpretation of it, even if it was not the intention of them to cause offence.

The fact that it is not obvious that the people deliberately set out to cause offence is, I believe, the origin of Bernie Ecclestone’s comment that it was a “joke”. I noticed many Spaniards saying that it was something to do with a carnival which involves dressing up, and I saw at least one person saying it was intended as a friendly gesture towards Lewis Hamilton rather than a malicious one.

The wonderful thing about improved communications and increasing globalisation is that we can more easily learn about other cultures. In that regard, it is notable that there has not been a repeat performance of the behaviour from Spanish supporters. There were two grands prix in Spain this year which, as far as I am aware, went off without any hint of trouble.

There was some booing in Brazil which Anthony Hamilton criticised live on ITV. I did not spot Anthony Hamilton implying that the booing was of a racial nature, although he may have thought that. It was certainly the spin that some in the media attempted to apply to the booing. But I saw absolutely no evidence that the booing was of an abusive or racial nature, and most accept that. In sport, you will have a partisan crowd, and this is understandable and should not be criticised.

Following on from the reporting of Ecclestone’s comments, news bulletins spoke of Lewis Hamilton “hitting back” and “blasting” Ecclestone’s stance. Going by the reports, you would have thought Hamilton had been mortally offended. In fact, Hamilton’s comments were quite measured:

I didn’t see it as a joke. It’s something that happened but it is in the past.

What’s more important to me is that I had a lot of support, especially from UK fans. As long as I have my country behind me, it makes me very proud. I’m proud to see my fellow countrymen holding up the flag. All the other stuff I need to put behind me.

I don’t generally keep up with what’s being said and I haven’t read what Bernie said. I know Bernie and have a huge amount of respect for him. I can only assume he said positive things.

It is unfortunate that Britain’s excitable media has distorted the reporting of this issue so much that I know of at least one person who was under the impression that Hamilton was subject to a barrage of abuse across all three days of the Spanish Grand Prix, which is not the case at all. The fact is that a small group of people did a stupid thing which was a one-off incident at a test session. In fact, the very reason it was so shocking is because it was so unknown in Formula 1.

Formula 1 can be proud of the fact that racism is as small a problem as it is. That is certainly a lot more than can be said for certain other sports. Barely a month goes by without reports of racial abuse at a football match, sometimes even coming from the players themselves. In comparison to the world’s most popular sport, Formula 1 is highly civilised.

David Coulthard is absolutely right in his comments supporting Bernie Ecclestone:

It is trying to be built into something much bigger than it is. What happened in Spain because of those four guys, I’m sorry, but it hardly represents a nation of racists.

I’ve seen some people having a pop at Bernie for trying to play it down, but what would you expect him to do? He is the ringmaster, the guy that has created this amazing foundation of business success that enables all of us to earn our pennies.

We’re all talking about Lewis being the first billion dollar sportsman, well that is on the foundations of what Bernie has created. To turn round and try to get Bernie to offer an apology to Lewis is just ridiculous.

F1 may have many failings, but it does not come close to the racism you see in people’s first love, and that’s football.

Ecclestone’s claim that he pulled the South African Grand Prix in 1985 because of apartheid may be spurious. But it is worth remembering that Bernie Ecclestone played a pivotal role in Formula 1 having its first black driver.

No, not Lewis Hamilton as the media may sometimes have you believe, but Willy T. Ribbs. The then-Nascar driver was given a test at Ecclestone-owned Brabham. Ribbs became the first black person to drive an F1 car, and although it was only a test and not a race drive, it hardly represents the actions of someone who would condone racism. For that reason alone, the calls for Bernie Ecclestone to resign are wide of the mark.

The media seriously needs to calm itself down over the colour of Lewis Hamilton’s skin. The civil rights activist Martin Luther King dreamt of a time when people “will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” I agree, and that is why I find the obsession surrounding Hamilton’s colour so distasteful.

It is true that Lewis Hamilton has achieved amazing things, and he has undoubtedly broken barriers by becoming the first black race driver in Formula 1. But time and again the media keeps on making comparisons with people like Tiger Woods and even Barack Obama. And while I am not in the best position to judge, in my view, that is just crass.

Lewis Hamilton is not “Lewis Hamilton black man”, “Lewis Hamilton mixed race man” or “Britain’s Lewis Hamilton”. He is “Lewis Hamilton racing driver”. My understanding is that Hamilton sees himself as a racing driver who happens to be black rather than a black racing driver. This report on the celebratory McLaren press conference very much suggests that:

Questions included his thoughts on Barack Obama’s victory in the US presidential election that very morning and how he feels about his position as a black role model. Hamilton shifted uneasily in his seat and swerved around the ‘race’ question as best he could. He just sees himself as a racing driver, nothing more, nothing less.

I very much think it’s time to get over Lewis Hamilton’s skin colour. That goes for anyone who may racially abuse him, but it also goes for the media which constantly makes his colour the story. His colour was notable at first, but now it is not the story. His driving is.


  1. “The media seriously needs to calm itself down…”

    you could probably end that sentence right there. and “excitable” is by far an overly polite phrase to describe the behaviour of the media in this country recently.

    nice, measured post though vee.

  2. I heard a great quote last week in the wake of the Obama victory. I am parrot-phrasing a little here but it was along the lines of

    “I dream of a world where our children wonder what the big deal was with having a black man as president, as in their lifetime race has simply ceased to be an issue”.

  3. Blacking up or the slant eyes gesture means nothing in Spain. Something that some people can’t or doesn’t want to understand.

    Said that, it’s not hard to find racial insults against Hamilton in some spanish forums if you look for them(usually those which aren’t F1 specific).