Long-term readers know the only television I watch is Formula One racing. Before I knew I had PTSD, it helped me through some rough times and continues to do so today. I don’t know the latest popular television shows, bands, or movies, but I can describe to you in detail how Carlos Sainz’s car caught fire last weekend. Over the past two years, F1 has become more popular around the world, due in part by owners Liberty Media and the Netflix series Drive to Survive. One of the problems with any sport growing in popularity is the unsavory elements seeping in, creating problems most people condemn, but do little to change.
Last weekend at the Formula One Austrian Grand Prix, there were multiple reports of sexual harassment, as well as racist and bigoted comments toward drivers and other spectators. The vast majority of people – from fans to drivers t0 the governing body of F1 (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile) – condemned the behavior. There is, however, a segment of fans who appear to be dismissive because “it’s only a few people” who are harassing others.
The reports of misogyny and hate were coming from a small group of fans of Red Bull Driver Max Verstappen. Because the bad fans seem to be relegated to one group, others don’t feel a responsibility to do anything else.
It bothers me because some people still do not see where their inaction harms others. The following comment is typical of the last few days on Reddit.
Gonna add my two cents here as me and my father was at Spielberg the whole weekend. My dad flew from the UK to join me in Austria for the race and both of us were wearing Mercedes caps and my father was wearing a Mercedes jersey. On Friday when Russell and Hamilton crashed we were surrounded by Dutch fans who did cheer loudly but we never encountered any violence they simply laughed at and with us. In fact we never recieved [sic] any hate from any Dutch fans, we had a drink with a group on Sunday whilst we watched the race in the General Access Area (At Turn 4) and had a great time.
What we definitely did witness was whistling and cat-calling in the stand next to us at Turn 4 whenever a woman passed the stand on the path below…
…In general our weekend was awesome and something I will never forget and whilst there were a few fans that were drunk and loud, we never encountered any violence. Saddens me to hear that it wasn’t the same for everyone and that most Dutch fans are being painted with the same brush……….
I’m happy they had a great time, but if you witness sexual harassment and all you can say is you are sad about it, you’re part of the problem.
Women the world over have to deal with these situations daily. If others truly find this behavior abhorrent, they need to speak up, too. When one stands up to say demeaning someone else isn’t right, another stands with them, then another and another.
Another user reported homophobic abuse while on a pit walk, saying she felt that she felt scared. Another posted screenshots sharing the racial abuse one Lewis Hamilton fan faced. A user named Thijs confirmed that one grandstand dedicated to Max Verstappen fans was filled with rampant sexual harassment that included men singing the phrase “daar moet een piemel in,” which translates to “there needs to be a dick in it” to any woman who passed by in 2021. And another fan confirmed that similar harassment was happening in 2022.
Those in charge, including the FIA, Liberty Media, and track promotors absolutely need to do more to condemn such behavior. They were quick to act this weekend with press releases. Mercedes Team Principal Toto Wolff said, “You need to report them [the perpetrators] to the security if you can and [they should] read my sentence – ‘we don’t want you, f*** off’.”
Excuses have been made online, including people forgot how to act after being pent up during Covid, it’s not their responsibility to say anything, they’re just “ultras” (hooligans) who joined the sport after watching Drive to Survive, and this has always been part of the sport “so stop bitching.”
None of these excuses are acceptable. It is true in the past there were problems, such as grid girls and drivers needing police escorts from the tracks to be protected from fans. The sport as a whole has tried to move past these situations because society no longer accepts this kind of behavior. To dismiss repugnant behavior now, blaming a pandemic or hooligans is disingenuous and repulsive.
When the Mercedes team learned a Lewis Hamilton fan was harassed, having her dress lifted by drunk spectators, who told her she didn’t deserve respect because she was a Hamilton fan, the team invited her into their garage during the race. No one said anything contrary to the perpetrators, nor did they attempt to stop the actions.
If you are willing to look the other way when someone puts their hand up the dress of a woman, what else are you willing to excuse?
Sexual harassment is already difficult to report and prove, which is why it is our individual responsibility to step up and stop it when it is happening and before it turns to something worse. I understand you need to consider your own safety, but when you stand by and watch, and do nothing, you are part of the problem. Fortunately, the “good” prevailed this past weekend.
But I was deeply moved to see so many people mobilizing after fans started sharing their stories. Sarah Levenson of the GridClique Instagram page put together a group chat for women at the Austrian GP, which provided a sense of community and safety for people who were otherwise feeling alone. Other people like Matt Amys directed fans to find first aid areas, where circuit staff were prepared to provide care and safety to fans in need. Toni Cowan-Brown continued to push for the growth of solo fan hospitality areas and other safe spaces for women during a Grand Prix. And Formula 1 itself, along with other members of the media, condemned the harassment (though there’s still more work to be done than just making a statement).
The culture of motorsport has slowly been changing for the past several years, but there’s still so far left to go to create a hospitable atmosphere for race fans from all corners of world and all walks of life — and it starts with condemning and preventing this kind of behavior at the race track.
Formula One can’t change all their problems overnight. It is still a male-dominated sport, but it has changed since I began following F1 in 1998. There are many women working behind the scenes and on pit crews, and efforts have been underway for several years to develop female drivers.
Do venues need more security? Yep. Do they need to enforce some zero tolerance policies? Absolutely. But individuals also need to step up and let people know this behavior isn’t acceptable.
Change starts with you. When people say, “yeah, I saw women being treated like shit, but I had a good time,” or “tutt tutt” and do nothing, they have given tacit approval to others to treat another human being like garbage.
“If you deny peoples existence and humanity then committing acts of violence against them is much easier,” one Redditor said. It’s time for everyone, not just the drivers and organizers to say enough. We are all better off when we stand up together and say “no.”
As Toto Wolff said, “If you are a real Formula 1 fan, whatever team, whatever driver, you can’t be a racist and you can’t be homophobic, you can’t be sexist because you don’t fit to F1, and we don’t want you.”