Lewis Hamilton has said he is not comfortable competing in Saudi Arabia given its repressive laws regarding the LGBTQ+ community. Speaking before this weekend’s grand prix in Jeddah, Hamilton described the laws as “terrifying” and once more called on Formula One to do more to address human rights issues in the countries it visits.
On Wednesday a range of human rights groups wrote to F1, accusing the sport of being complicit in Saudi Arabia’s sportswashing by competing in the country. They highlighted women’s rights activists who risk imprisonment for their actions, with Human Rights Watch citing “Saudi Arabia’s brutal crackdown on peaceful dissidents”. Amnesty International called on drivers to speak out, drawing attention to the plight of Saudi LGBTQ+ people who live in a country where same-sex relations are illegal and punishable by flogging or imprisonment.
F1 has attracted considerable criticism for racing in Saudi Arabia and Hamilton, who has been a strident supporter of equality and diversity, admitted he did not feel at ease with the regime.
“Do I feel comfortable here? I wouldn’t say I do," Egli ha detto. “But it’s not my choice to be here, the sport has taken the choice to be here.”
Hamilton goes into the meeting, the first to be held in Saudi Arabia, in a tightly fought battle with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen who leads the championship by eight points with two rounds remaining. Yet much as the world champion is focused on this nail-biting finish, Hamilton, as he has been in the past, was also insistent that he would play a part in trying to make a difference.
“Whilst we are here it’s important we do try to raise awareness," Egli ha detto. “In the last race you saw the [rainbow] helmet that I wore. I will wear that again here and in the next race [in Abu Dhabi] because it is an issue. If anyone wants to take time to read what the law is for the LGBT+ community, it is pretty terrifying. There are changes that need to be made.”
Hamilton’s words will be hammer blows to the Saudi authorities who have invested heavily in attracting sporting events to the country and whose sovereign wealth fund recently succeeded in a takeover bid for Newcastle United. He is the sport’s biggest, most recognised global star and this is the first time he has spoken so bluntly about being uncomfortable to be competing in a specific country because of its repressive regime.
At the last round in Qatar, where same-sex relationships are also illegal, Hamilton wore a helmet with the rainbow and coloured chevrons in support of the LGBTQ+ community and will do so again here. “The sport and we are duty bound to make sure we try to raise awareness for certain issues we have seen, particularly human rights in these countries that we are going to," Egli ha detto.
The four-times world champion Sebastian Vettel will also be demonstrating his support this weekend, wearing rainbow-adorned trainers. He organised a karting session at the track on Thursday for women and girl drivers to show solidarity with them, given they were given the right to drive only in 2018.
The Williams team principal, Jost Capito, will not be in attendance at the race after testing positive for Covid-19 before flying to Saudi Arabia and will remain in the UK.
Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK’s CEO, welcomed Hamilton’s stance.
“It’s extremely encouraging to see Lewis Hamilton speaking out on women’s and LGBTI rights in Saudi Arabia like this," Egli ha detto. “It’s high-profile interventions like Lewis’s that help undo some of the sportwashing effects of Saudi-hosted events such as the Jeddah Grand Prix.
“Coming after the purchase of Newcastle United, the hosting of big-money boxing bouts and numerous top-tier golf and tennis tournaments, the Jeddah race is clearly Saudi Arabia’s latest bid to once again sportswash its dismal human rights record.”