Racing Pride… And Prejudice

Can Sebastian Vettel Really Make Formula 1 a Welcoming Place for Queer Drivers?

It’s Pride Month, the Formula 1 racing season is in full swing, and Attitude Magazine has just revealed (beloved straight ally) Sebastian Vettel as their latest cover star — the first Formula 1 driver to do so. He’s also the first Formula 1 driver to grace the cover of any queer magazine ever. To quote Attitude, “history tells us that the gateway to LGBTQ visibility within any sport so often starts with a straight ally who is prepared to speak out. Step forward Germany’s Sebastian Vettel.”

Vettel is a four-time Formula 1 World Champion, known more recently for his casual, cool calm collected attitude to allyship. He shows up for those who need him, and he brings his voice to issues typically unaddressed by people in his industry. In the past few years, he’s been seen amplifying and enabling women’s motor-racing in Saudi Arabia; voicing his support for a woman’s right to abortion; encouraging school children to garden for bees; walking the grandstands picking up litter left behind by fans post-race; wearing rainbow sneakers and “same love” t-shirts in countries where queer people don’t have the legal right to exist. In response to post-race speculation that he was called to the stewards’ office for a penalty due to his outspoken pro-LGBTQ+ activism in Hungary, he famously said: “They can disqualify me. They can do what they want. I’d do it again.”

Attitude is running with the headline that Vettel says Formula 1 is ready for an out gay driver. It’s easy to see why they’re doing it: Though he shares many highly quotable thoughts in the interview —”Homophobia is prejudice, and prejudice is wrong. It really is as simple as that,” among them —that line is catchy, provocative, and hopeful all at once. While I would like to think a queer driver at this height of motorsports would be welcomed (and secretly think there are already a couple of queer drivers on the F1 grid) there’s a lot of evidence to show that it might not be the case. It’s awesome that more engineers, mechanics, publicists, and support staff feel comfortable coming out on the paddock. Unfortunately, to correlate that with a driver’s place in the sport is a different story. It would be a magnificent moment for some of us; celebration would be in order, particularly for families of young, queer Formula 1 hopefuls, and queer fans (who would rally behind them fiercely.)

In the interview, Vettel says that an openly gay driver “would help to speed up the elimination of prejudice and help push our sport in a better direction,” which… makes me feel quite ill. Queer people know that isn’t necessarily true –or fair on the person– in any space. Marginalized folk are often told that now that one of them is here, the work of undoing generations of hurt will magically begin. It’s not that simple; there need to be systems in place to facilitate real change. And there needs to be a genuine desire for inclusivity from the very top of the organisation. This does not seem true of Formula 1. As a person of colour, I know that having one Black driver (Sir Lewis Hamilton) among the 20 has only revealed and amplified the racism in the sport at all levels, even as the most successful driver in F1’s history. 

The “pinnacle of motorsport” only very recently included more drivers who weren’t white —Thailand’s Alex Albon, Japan’s Yuki Tsunoda, and China’s Zhou Guanyu are young, talented, charming drivers who race competitively with the others this year— and even then, only because of aggressive financial backing from their international sponsors. While fans of colour rejoiced at seeing more diversity on our screens, Formula 1’s commentators joked on live broadcasts about pronouncing their names, if they spoke about them at all. For certain drivers of colour, when they made a mistake on the track, their own team bosses made outraged comments in broadcast interviews that turned racist and vicious among fans online.

Marginalized folk are often told that now that one of them is here, the work of undoing generations of hurt will magically begin. It’s not that simple.

Anyone who has been the only marginalized person in the room, office, friend group, or party knows that a) it does not change anything —especially not the power dynamics and culture of antagonism towards them, and b) that it’s not actually somewhere you want to be. It’s always uncomfortable with the unreasonable pressure on you to represent an entire culture and bear the weight of the hate for it, too. 

Matt Bishop, the Communications head at Aston Martin F1 (the team Vettel races for) is openly gay and co-founded Racing Pride, an organisation that does incredible work to bring the motorsport industry into an era that is more inclusive of its queer drivers and employees, so I don’t view the wording in Vettel’s show of support as uninformed or intentionally naive —in fact, it’s undoubtedly good-natured and in line with his optimistic, can-do approach. But the messaging that we’ve moved past homophobia is a strangely rosy outlook. Especially when the gestures Vettel is being celebrated for are constantly tamped down with legislative memos from the new leadership at the FIA (the sport’s governing body). Honestly, I think it does drivers like Sebastian Vettel a disservice to make the Formula 1 world sound like a neutral ground. 

It’s wonderful and important to have straight white cis male allies —and for them to be as outspoken and brazen as Vettel is in his demonstration of solidarity is powerful beyond measure. He knows his value and uses it for good, warmly evident when he made the effort to position himself next to Hamilton when they knelt during the anthems. It’s helpful to have a straight white cis man be the face of something that so many people who look like him and look to him need to change their views on. But there is a disconnect worth noting. A straight white cis man can’t speak with authority on what his environment is really like for marginalised people; He can’t provide perspective on their wellbeing, and perhaps it was unfair of it to be asked of him. 

Formula 1, the “pinnacle of motorsport” only very recently included more drivers who weren’t white.

We can’t be everything to all people, and by no means is Vettel trying to be. After a poignant, impactful period of drivers arriving for the national anthem before the race (and in Sir Lewis’ case, on the podium when he won races, too) wearing t-shirts that bring awareness to social issues including police brutality and marriage equality, the FIA decided that there would be no more protest shirts during anthems, podiums, or interviews; a strong ‘no need for politics in our sport’ vibe came down. While Vettel is optimistic about the future for queer race drivers, he is clear in the interview that he knows there is so much work to be done. He acknowledges that yes, “some Formula 1 people are quite conservative, but that’s surely the case in all big businesses? Formula 1 is a sport, yes, but it’s also a business.”

Just hours before the Attitude cover announcement, the Mercedes F1 team that Lewis Hamilton races for posted that they’ll be using a rainbow holographic edition of their logo on their cars for the month of June, and the TikTok homophobes really showed themselves in the comments. Mercedes responded by tweeting that the homophobes are “proving just why Pride Month is so important,” while Hamilton posted the video to his Instagram stories with the note: “Let’s use this all year.” Ahead of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, Formula 1 team Alpine (for whom Fernando Alonso drives) unveiled the progress Pride flag on the cars in collab with Racing Pride, and most teams are involving their full staff in internal education initiatives alongside their rainbows. 

Most other drivers and teams have been quiet about Vettel’s ground-breaking magazine cover. When fans noticed that Hamilton “liked” the cover story announcement on Twitter, Matt Bishop —who often receives homophobic comments on his own Twitter profile, where he shares #OnThisDay moments in F1 history and photos of his “hubby Angel” when they go for dinner— shared it with this comment: “Nice multiple #F1 champion likes nice tweet posted by nice F1 team about other nice multiple F1 champion,” asking F1 twitter to “please take note: you don’t have to be tribal or negative; instead you can be kind & supportive.”

The Azerbaijan Grand Prix was the first F1 race of Pride Month, and also the first race weekend since the FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem told a media outlet that, essentially, he wishes three of the sport’s most popular drivers of would (unironic Rihanna moment incoming) shut up and drive. “Niki Lauda and Alain Prost only cared about driving,” he proclaimed, incorrectly. Both these historic drivers fought for movements bigger than themselves while racing in F1. He continued, “Now, Vettel drives a rainbow bicycle, Lewis is passionate about human rights and [McLaren driver Lando] Norris addresses mental health. Everybody has the right to think. To me, it is about deciding whether we should impose our believes in something over the sport all the time.” To which I say: booooo, tomato tomato

Then, as part of their Azerbaijan Grand Prix media coverage, F1 invited (or, more likely, accepted a PR request from Matt Bishop) Aston Martin driver ambassador Jessica Hawkins on their ‘Weekend Warm-Up’ show to talk about the LGBTQ awareness initiatives the team has championed. Except…. They clearly weren’t allowed to use any words that explained what those conversations were about. 

So far, the Attitude cover story has only been shared on the F1 Communications Department’s account, with severely cringe wording that reeks of reluctance: “Very thoughtful and interesting interview with Sebastian Vettel in Attitude Magazine – if you haven’t already then take a look.” My favourite reply tweet reads: “post on the main mf.”

Formula 1 is notoriously sketchy about who it celebrates on social media, and which drivers’ racing-adjacent work (and how much of it) to share, so it will be interesting to see if Seb’s cover does make it to main. Many fans are tagging Ben Sulayem under the post, assuming his resistance towards public activism and linking the sport to human rights issues is what’s holding them back from posting.

It’s nothing new for drivers who have been fighting governing bodies and systemic inequality for decades. With age and experience comes a certain level of confidence, and it doesn’t look like anything’s gonna stop or slow down the passionate, joyful, important work that Formula 1’s most socially-committed drivers are doing. In fact, the very next race after the ‘shut up and drive’ interview published, Sir Lewis arrived at the Azerbaijan racetrack wearing rainbow-coloured sneakers, and Sebastian Vettel arrived… riding the very same rainbow bike Sulayem mentioned, like the champion he is.♦

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