Late on Friday night, Formula 1 drivers, teams and management were stuck in a meeting that reportedly went on for four hours. The matter at hand, should the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix continue despite missile strikes just 10 miles from the circuit. Ultimately, the driver’s concerns were ignored and the racing got underway on Sunday evening. But it threw up an important question, should F1 drivers have more say on the management of the sport?
It’s a question that F1 itself already knows the answer to, yes they should.
For decades, Formula 1 drivers have had a seat at the table of the sport’s governing body through the Grand Prix Drivers Association (GPDA). And that organization has called out some of the sport’s more controversial moments and campaigned for improved safety.
Despite being formed and then disbanded in the 1960s, the GPDA rose to prominence in 1994 after the death of Ayrton Senna at Imola.
Following the tragic loss of Senna and Roland Ratzenberger during the same grand prix weekend, Formula 1 drivers came together in the paddock to reform the GPDA. Under the leadership of Niki Lauda, Christian Fittipaldi, Michael Schumacher and Gerhard Berger, the organization looked to give racers a voice at meetings held by motorsport’s governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA).
Over the years, it has been chaired by active F1 drivers including David Coulthard, Nick Heidfeld and Rubens Barrichello. And currently, its board consists of Sebastian Vettel and George Russell, who sit alongside legal adviser Anastasia Fowle and former racer Alexander Wurz, who serves as chairman.
With Wurz at the helm, the GPDA has pushed for greater safety measures in F1 and said that it felt a responsibility “to never relent in improving safety” following the death of Marrusia driver Jules Bianchi in 2015.
It’s as a direct result of this pressure from the GPDA that F1 cars must now run with the Halo device installed to protect a driver’s head. And, it’s that very device that saved the life of Haas driver Romain Grosjean during his terrifying crash in Bahrain in 2019.
So it’s clear that F1 is prepared to listen to the GPDA when it has concerns about safety in races. But, its reach shouldn’t stop when the checkered flag falls.
Safety during the races is important, but safety and wellbeing of everyone at the track before, during and after a race should also be considered by F1 as it plans its calendar. And that means taking into consideration political turmoil and other factors at play in the countries F1 chooses to race in.
Ever since F1’s Saudi Arabian race was first added to the 2021 calendar it has been under fire. Charity Amnesty International accused F1 of sports washing as it swept human rights abuses under the rug in order to go racing and a small number of drivers voiced their concern about the move.
F1’s response? Well, it said that by racing in such places these issues could be highlighted and discussed. But that argument doesn’t hold up when only Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel are prepared to make a stand and voice their concerns about the matter.
And here lies the issue. If F1 is happy to let its drivers respond to such criticism in their own manner, then it should let them have a say on which global locations they are forced to travel to.
Thankfully, it sounds like F1’s bosses may soon be prepared to listen to drivers — drivers who it banks on to maintain interest in the sport and draw in new fans. Drivers who, thanks to Drive To Survive and a rejuvenated social media strategy ,are at the center of the sport, rather than the teams and constructors.
Following this weekend’s militant attack on the Aramco oil facility near the Jeddah Corniche Circuit, F1 bosses will sit down with its stars.
And while Sky News suggests that the future of the Saudi event is not in doubt, organizers will outline the safety measures that were in place at the race.
But drivers will no doubt also want answers about why F1 can hide its head in the sand while it leaves racers to field questions about the cancellation of the Russian Grand Prix, the sport’s decision to race in Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.
If F1 isn’t prepared to tackle these issues head on, then it needs to give its drivers a say in where they go so that they can be prepared to answer such questions for themselves.