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- British racing driver
Lewis Hamilton has called for Saudi Arabia’s “pretty terrifying” laws on LGBTQ+ and women’s rights to be changed, admitting ahead of this weekend’s grand prix that he does “not feel comfortable” racing in the country.
The seven-time world champion, who has come under pressure in the build-up to the race from groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, both of whom have accused Formula 1 of “sportswashing”, said he felt the sport was “duty-bound” to speak up when it visited countries where groups were discriminated against on the basis of gender or sexuality.
The 36-year-old said for his part he would continue to wear the rainbow-striped helmet he wore in Qatar a fortnight ago, in support of the LGBTQIA+ community. And he urged his fellow drivers to speak up in support of human rights.
“With the utmost respect to everyone who is here, so far I’ve had a warm welcome,” Hamilton replied when asked whether he was comfortable racing in Saudi Arabia. “I can’t pretend to be the most knowledgeable, or have the deepest understanding, particularly compared to someone who has grown up in the community here, who is heavily affected by certain rules and the regime.
“Do I feel comfortable here? I would not say I do. But it’s not my choice to be here. The sport has taken the choice to be here. And whether it’s right or wrong, while we’re here I feel like it’s important that we try to raise awareness.
“For the last race, for example, you saw that helmet that I wore. I will wear that again here, and at the next race [in Abu Dhabi]. Because that is an issue that is a law. If anyone wants to take the time to read what the laws are for the LGBTQIA+ community, it’s pretty terrifying. So there are changes that need to be made.”
Formula 1 has come under pressure in recent days from groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International while the Codepink group sent a letter to Hamilton signed by 41 organisations requesting he speak to Saudi leaders to highlight five specific issue areas: women’s rights, labor rights, prisoners of conscience, the war in Yemen, and democracy.
The letter noted that Hamilton had been a vocal advocate for Black Lives Matter and had expressed concern for Bahraini torture victims when the sport traveled to Bahrain in the 2020 season.
'Our sport needs to do more'
Hamilton, who trails Red Bull’s Max Verstappen by eight points heading into the season-ending double-header, seemed reticent at first to get involved in the issue in his press conference on Thursday.
But he clearly came prepared, highlighting the plight of Saudi women who helped to bring about a recent change in the law regarding female drivers. It was illegal for women in Saudi Arabia to drive until midway through 2018.
“There are changes that need to be made,” Hamilton said. “For example, women’s rights. They were only permitted to drive in 2018. But why are some women still in prison for driving many years ago? There are a lot of changes that still need to happen and I think our sport needs to do more.”
Other drivers were also vocal on the issue of human rights. Mick Schumacher wore a rainbow wristband while Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel wore shoes sporting a rainbow stripe. The German arrived in the paddock fresh from a karting event for Saudi women yesterday morning, which he described as “memorable” and “inspiring”.
Saudi authorities are keen to play up the fact that Saudi women are now involved in motorsport, naming Jeddah-born Reema Juffali, who competed in the British F3 Championship this year, as the official ambassador for Sunday’s race.
Other drivers were less comfortable. McLaren’s Lando Norris said Hamilton was in a unique position and drivers should not have to speak up if they were not comfortable doing so.
“I think it is tricky because he wasn't doing that in his first 10 years in Formula One,” said Norris, who is one of the drivers who does take the knee alongside Hamilton before a race.
“I don't think there should be any large expectation for me to suddenly turn into this person. I don't believe that's correct. But he's experienced now and he's in a position where he can do this and and say these things and he obviously has a massive following as well. So he can have a much bigger impact even than what I can.”
Norris added: “I try and do what I can and I'll stand by him and stuff like that but I'm at such an early point in my career, there's a lot of focus on doing my own things but when there is an opportunity to stand by and agree on subjects and points then I will agree to stand him when I believe that is correct.”