When I arrived in Formula 1 25 years ago, as editor of F1 Racing magazine and also the only gay in the Formula 1 village – or the only one who was out – no one in the sport ever used the word ‘inclusion’. Yet the word is commonplace in a sporting context today and, alongside ‘diversity’, it is one of the pillars of Formula 1’s #WeRaceAsOne campaign.
I applaud #WeRaceAsOne. But although the proliferation of social media has enabled minorities to speak out and be heard in a way that mainstream media had not facilitated even in the relatively recent past, so also has such social media activity begun to be seen as an end in itself rather than a means to accomplish more concrete goals. All Formula 1 has achieved in terms of inclusion and diversity so far is… a hashtag.
Lewis can be pernickety, sullen and unpredictable, yes, but he is also warm, kind and thoughtful
Is that fair? Bear with me please. I am not – repeat not – criticising #WeRaceAsOne. Neither am I against #EndRacism or #PurposeDriven or any of the other such social media slogans that have cropped up in and around Formula 1 recently, but it is important that we walk the walk as well as talk the talk.
That aphorism leads inevitably to Lewis Hamilton. Sadly, whenever we either praise or blame him, we must brace ourselves for a social media bashing, for not only is he the greatest racing driver of our age but he is also ‘Marmite’ – people either love him or hate him.
Having worked very closely with him during the initial half of my time as communications director of McLaren (2008-2017), I am very definitely in the first group. Lewis can be pernickety, sullen and unpredictable, yes, but he is also warm, kind and thoughtful.
When my mother died of cancer on July 4, 2013, which was the Thursday before that year’s German Grand Prix, I telephoned Martin Whitmarsh, McLaren’s then team principal, to tell him that I would have to cancel my attendance of the race to sort things out at home.
At just after 10pm that evening, as I was sitting with relatives in my mother’s house, her body yet to be collected by the undertakers, my mobile rang. It was Lewis.
“I’ve just this minute heard that your mum died today,” he said. “She was a great lady. You and your family have my sincere condolences. If you’re sitting with them now, please tell them that I’ll remember her in my prayers tonight.”
I told them. They were moved. Lewis was racing for Mercedes in 2013. He and I were no longer part of the same Formula 1 team. There was therefore no possible benefit for him in his being so gracious to me. He called me because he is a good man, and for no other reason.
He is currently the foremost racing driver in the world, both on track and off track. His championing of inclusion and diversity goes a lot farther than hashtags, although of course he uses and popularises them. But he does a great deal more than that.
Last week the members of a new commission that he will lead alongside Hayaatun Sillem, the chief executive officer of the Royal Academy of Engineering, were revealed. The objective of which will be “to identify the key barriers to the recruitment and progression of black people in UK motorsport” and “to provide actionable recommendations to overcome them”.
Lewis will be walking the walk.
But he is not concerned solely with racial equality, although understandably it is the cause closest to his heart, just as LGBTQ+ equality is the cause closest to mine, hence my involvement as a founder ambassador of Racing Pride, which was set up last year in conjunction with Stonewall, the largest LGBTQ+ organisation in Europe, and whose aim is to promote LGBTQ+ inclusion within the motorsport industry.
On August 5, 2020, I wrote a blog for Openly, Reuters’ LGBTQ+ news website. When it was published, I tweeted a link. Lewis retweeted it.
Just think about that for a moment. He retweeted a campaigning tweet written by a white middle-aged homosexual, knowing that he would be slated for doing so by those who are always ready to berate him – the ‘Marmite’ factor – but he did so because he stands for inclusion and diversity in all its forms and manifestations.
On the Mugello podium just over two weeks ago, he famously wore a T-shirt that bore the slogan “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor”. He was both praised and criticised for it – ‘Marmite’ again.
Prior to last weekend’s Russian Grand Prix, the FIA issued a directive that henceforth drivers “must remain attired only in their driving suits, done up to the necks, not opened to the waist”. Third in the race, his chances of victory ended by a 10-second stop-go penalty, on the Sochi podium Lewis did as he was told.
I am sure he will not be stilled for long. Over and above his record-breaking exploits, his recent inclusion/diversity activism has given him a purpose that merely breaking records is no longer able to confer, even though he still breaks them with proficiency as ruthless as ever.
He is becoming one of international sport’s great multi-taskers. This week is #NationalInclusionWeek in the UK. Feel free to tweet in support of it, if you like. Feel free to talk the talk.
But also, please, have a think about what concrete things you can do this week, and perhaps every week, to make life better for minorities. Walk the walk, in other words. Or, to adapt an advertising slogan that won many prizes for O2 in 2013, Be More Lewis.
Matt Bishop is the Communications Director of W Series. His new novel, which tackles LGBTQ+ issues, was published on 18 August 2020. You can buy it here.