Brilliant Race, Corrupted Sport – 30/12/2021

An article originally written for The Oxford Blue earlier in December…

I don’t watch much Formula One. Too fake and flashy for the refined tastes of this writer. Fortunately, the distinguished editor of these columns – Squire J. Reid – is a keen F1 disciple. His unusually excited jabberings persuaded me that the final race of this year’s season might be worth a watch.

Britain’s Lewis Hamilton (36, Stevenage, now Monaco), the seven-time world champion (and two time sports personality winner) had fought his way back to points parity with the as-yet uncrowned youngster, Max Verstappen (24, Bree, now Monaco).

Like all great rivalries, the relationship between Hamilton and Verstappen is built on a firm foundation of mutual loathing. They hate each other. Their bitter, crash-strewn tarmac duels have made the 2021 season one of the most exciting in the sport’s history. Each arrived in Abu Dhabi with 369.5 points. So now – as if the season was scripted by Spielberg, Hanks or Tarantino – one last petrol-powered shootout would decide the winner. To deploy the first of many sporting clichés, it was winner take all.

That sounded quite exciting enough for a Sunday afternoon. So at about midday on the 12th of December, your writer yawned, stretched for his dressing gown, lurched out of bed, and padded from his sleepy cloister to the sofa, where he languidly arranged his remarkably supple, muscular limbs, and pressed the button which sparked the television into vivid, Arabian colour.

How I’ve missed landmark sporting events. They all follow the same reassuringly familiar pattern. First, at least an hour of cliché-laden punditry from a selection of grizzled talking heads. The final showdown, they’ll fight right to the line, the most exciting race I can remember, history in the making, both of them deserve the title, but only one can take it. Each phrase slips out as a pre-programmed gobbet, while every ‘expert’ limps slightly from the weight of the enormous Rolex shackled to one arm.

A few pre-race interviews next. Martin Brundle did a fantastic impression of an awkward dad at a school sports day, attempting to make conversation with an array of celebrities who all managed to tower over him. First came Usain Bolt and Chris Gayle, the latter of whom was unable to end a sentence without a Caribbean ‘yeaahhh maan’. Bolt wondered about finding Hamilton to give him a pep talk, one fast dude to another. ‘I think he’s probably trying to get in the zone,’ said a bewildered Brundle. And then Stormzy rocked up. Astonishingly, Brundle managed to quote the titles of some of the rapper’s tracks, asking him if the themes of his music could relate to the day’s racing. Stormzy almost leapt backwards in surprise.

But the best moment came when Brundle sidled up to Mercedes team-boss Toto Wolf. The ruthless Austrian did a superb Bond villain impression when asked what his race strategy was:

‘Veelll,’ he drawled, ‘vee are planning massive attack.’ What that means on the track, I have no idea.

Then the montages. Where would a sporting occasion be without the hastily cut-together collections of slow-mo clips? The screeching tires, screams of victory, scorched rubber, fluttering chequered flags, lights going green, spinning debris, clenched fists, reckless overtakes, attractive female fans, shots of superyachts in the marina, more crashes, more sparks, more screams of pain and delight, visors being lowered, gloves being donned, team directors looking pensive, another hot spectator, and all set to pounding techno music, probably interspliced with Eminem, Joan Jett, Fort Minor or Pavarotti.

I do like a good montage. Done well, they can remind us of what’s happened, and introduce a new pitch of excited, portentous gravitas. This is the place to be. Don’t move from your sofa. This is history.  

What I can’t stand is the love – apparently universal amongst broadcasters – for spoken word poetry. Sure enough, just as the cars were arranging themselves on the grid, we cut to the venerable Benjamin Zephaniah, delivering a piece which seemed to be constructed entirely from clichés (the greatest of all time, young pretender, clash of titans, one for the ages, write your name in history).

Zepheniah can be a powerfully original wordsmith. But not when he’s asked to tee-up a Formula One race. That’s just degrading. You wouldn’t ask Carol Anne Duffy to set the scene for the WWE. 

Still, it was worth sitting through it for the racing. It was spectacular.

Verstappen started on pole, with Hamilton in second. That didn’t last long. At the first corner, Hamilton fired himself into the lead. And then, within a handful of turns, the Red Bull and Mercedes drivers went wheel to wheel, inches from colliding. 

Verstappen had attempted an overtake, slicing through the inside line. It was well executed. Within the rules. But he forced Hamilton wide. So wide in fact, that the British driver cut off an entire corner of the track, and so rejoined the tarmac with his lead increased.

Surely he’ll have to give the place back, said the squawking pundits. Surely the stewards will investigate. The verdict came back: No investigation necessary. Hamilton stays in front.

And then the kid from the ‘slums of Stevenage’ put down the hammer, stretching out a substantial lead on his only rival for the world championship. Verstappen was given hope by the heroics of his team-mate Sergio Perez, who took first position after Hamilton pitted, and then held off the Mercedes driver long enough to allow Verstappen to close the gap. Hamilton whinged about ‘dangerous driving’ from Perez. That was nonsense. It was breathless racing, fantastic to watch. I was hooked.

Nonetheless, as soon as he’d managed to force his way back into the overall lead, Hamilton began to grow his advantage on Verstappen again. It moved out to above ten seconds. With about eight laps left in the grand prix, Sky interviewed the Red Bull team principal, Christian Horner. They asked him what it would take for Verstappen to win. His reply was not confident:

‘We need a miracle from the racing gods.’

Horner asked, and he received.

With only five laps left in the 58-lap race, Canadian driver Nicholas Latifi crashed into the wall at the narrow, treacherous 14th turn, his rear end slewing around to rip into the barrier. With countless smashed components littering the tarmac, the safety car was deployed. This neutralised the race, but didn’t stop the laps from counting down. It was possible, likely even, that the grand prix would end while under the safety car. If so, Hamilton – as race leader – would become world champion.

Latifi’s wrecked car was cleared from the track, but by then only three laps remained. Verstappen’s path to overtaking Hamilton, his path to the world championship, was blocked by five lapped cars. Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso, Esteban Ocon, Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel all found themselves caught between the two men fighting for overall victory. For Verstappen to have any chance of beating Hamilton, these drivers would have to get out of his way.

In the penultimate lap, that was exactly what happened. After some regulatory dithering, the race director, Michael Masi, ordered those five lapped cars to overtake and skedaddle. That they did, and now Hamilton, having enjoyed a double-digit time advantage over his rival, found Verstappen right up his chuff. And there was only one lap left. The whole championship, millions of pounds worth of prize money, glory, prestige, fame and fortune, all boiled down to 3.2 miles. Bloody exciting.

But controversy was bubbling. Convention stipulates that if some lapped cars are permitted to overtake – and so restore the real race order – then every lapped car must overtake. This would have taken too long, leading the GP to finish under the safety car, with Hamilton crowned champion. Toto Wolff wasted no time reminding Masi of the rulebook, the Mercedes team principal was spitting with rage:

‘No Michael, no no no! This is so wrong!’

Masi’s defence of his rule-bending was curt but truthful:

‘We wanted a race.’

If he had enforced the letter of the law, then the championship – this most exciting of seasons – would have been decided amidst neutered regulatory banality. Instead, Masi tried to make sure the 2021 season got the ending it deserved. Sounds fair enough to me. 

Hamilton stayed ahead until turn five, but there Verstappen made his move, lunging for the inside line, seizing first place. Hamilton wasn’t beaten yet. Down the long, back straight, he found the Dutchman’s slipstream, and then tried the overtake. At 200 km/h, he inched along the body of the Red Bull. He was alongside Verstappen’s rear wing, then his rear wheels, his cockpit. For the briefest of moments, they were completely level, both cars screaming on the limit, both throwing sparks from their rear. It was the best of motor-racing. The best of sport. It was magnificent.

But then Verstappen’s better line took him to the lead, to the chequered flag, to the world championship at only 24. When Hamilton won his first world title in 2008, Verstappen was 11 (the age-comparison cliché, now I feel like a proper sportswriter). To his credit, Lewis was exceptionally dignified in the aftermath of his defeat. On Wednesday he was made a knight of the realm by Prince Charles. That won’t be a consolation, but it’s well deserved.

*********

So the racing was fantastic. Yet I couldn’t shake the unease I’d felt at another of the pre-race rituals: a sinister ceremony of virtue signalling.

After the punditry, montages and poetry, we cut away from the expectant track once again, so that we could be shown each F1 driver, filmed in sombre black and white, spouting an avalanche of right-on catchphrases. Diversity, Inclusivity, Sustainability, Change is for the better, #WeRaceAsOne. Then we were back trackside, to be shown an overhead shot of some complacent looking sheiks applauding a big black carpet daubed with the same phrases.

This grand prix was taking place in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. In fact, this season finale completed a Gulf tour. The previous two races were in Qatar (Lusail), and Saudi Arabia (Jeddah). The season opener was in Bahrain (Sakhir).

Are the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia places where all this talk of ‘diversity and inclusion’ is taken very seriously? Err…well…no.

The UAE comprises seven ‘united’ hereditary sheikdoms. Those seven rulers choose the country’s president. And no, none of them are women. Because, well… you know why. There are no democratically elected government institutions in the UAE. None.

Saudi Arabia has a monarchical ruler with a nasty penchant for chopping dissident journalists into teeny weeny bits. It’s a country where amputation and execution are still very much in-vogue. Speaking out against the regime will earn you jail time and a taste of the lash. It is illegal to hold a Jewish or Christian religious ceremony on Saudi soil. So much for ‘diversity’.

The situation is similar in Qatar and Bahrain. These are oil-rich statelets governed by uber-powerful, uber-wealthy hereditary clans. They brook no dissent. They torture, jail and kill those who oppose them. They are thugs in fancy robes.

I almost forgot. There’s an amazing geo-sexual anomaly in these countries. There are no gay people there. No, not a single homosexual. Weird. Then again, that might have something to do with all the stoning and hanging.

To hold races in the Gulf, and then precede each race with a ceremony of pro-tolerance, pro-diversity hashtags, is the Everest of hypocrisy. It is institutional doublethink. Hosting an F1 grand prix gives a country publicity and credibility. If the Formula One franchise genuinely believed in these values, then they would not provide this succour to states which are diametrically opposed to those values.

If you think about this moral corruption too much – and the F1 organisers and their autocratic Arab chums are hoping you don’t – it starts to look more and more disgusting. Just imagine all the imprisoned pro-democracy activists rotting in jail, all the gays in line for lashes. Their plight constitutes the real state of ‘tolerance’ and ‘diversity’ in the Gulf.

But for a relatively small financial outlay, these regimes are given – by the F1 franchise – the chance to broadcast a totally false reality to the world. One where Lewis Hamilton proudly wears his sparkly rainbow helmet, and progressivism is applauded. By participating in the painting of a veneer of toleration, Formula One actually does harm to the very principles it claims to support.

That races are held in places like the UAE is only proof – not that proof was needed – that this is a sporting franchise utterly without ethics. From when Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley took over, the only guiding principles have been financial. Lucre, dough, cash, loot, bucks. This is what makes F1 tick. Not any slogan approved by Harry and Meghan.

Taking the money of the Qataris, Emiratis, Bahrainis and Saudis – and then pretending that these countries are governed by lovely tolerant chaps – epitomises capitalism at its very worst, twisted into money grabbing opportunism, helping to prop-up regimes that should be facing unrelenting criticism.

The negation of just, tolerant principles. Formula One corrupted into the autocrats’ favourite PR weapon. That’s a high price for sporting spectacle.

The racing was jolly exciting. If only it did not come at such a cost. 

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