Lewis Hamilton stands as the first obvious African descendant to participate in and to win a Formula One World Drivers’ Championship (F1). On Sunday, 23 November 2014, Hamilton, born in England to a white British mother and an African Grenadian father, claimed his second championship. He won his first in 2008. There are many parallels between these wins and the historic burdens of other firsts, such as the election of President Obama in the United States and the many successes of golfing legend Tiger Woods. Of course, a key difference is that F1 is a contact sport. Worse, Hamilton is now the face of perhaps the most decadent sport ever. The real question is whether he can do for this sport what Tiger Woods did for golf, lifting it from looming financial collapse and the coming critique of its excesses.
Support for Hamilton is primarily on account of his obvious ability. He is a brilliant racer and a bona fide daredevil, both courageous and already a legend. And, yes, he acknowledges his Caribbeanness and possibly, by extension, his blackness, his Africanness. Hamilton was dominant in winning 11 of the 19 races of the just completed season, six more than his closest rival and teammate Nico Rosberg. Before Hamilton, I supported European-looking drivers like Damon Hill, Jackie Stewart, David Coulthard and Hamilton’s idol, the Brazilian Ayrton Senna. I looked at their calmness under pressure and their generally ethical behavior on the track: they refused to win easy by endangering the lives of everyone at the track. Senna did have an incident at the Japanese Grand Prix in 1990 that forced out his rival, Alain Proust, and left Senna the champion. But Senna, Hamilton’s idol, was a known campaigner for drivers’ rights and safety. In 1995 Senna crashed and died in a race at Imola, Italy.
Hamilton, a boy at the time, recalled watching the Imola race on TV with his dad, and the profound pain he felt that Sunday and long after. A driver was seriously injured at practice on the Friday and another died while qualifying the Saturday before that race. That weekend reconfirmed the inherent danger in speed, and that death was more possible in this sport than perhaps any other. F1 has claimed at least 30 drivers.
Many sportspeople have been compared to gladiators. Boxing and ultimate fighting (UFC) come close. But not many go to the arena for a performance that generates the force these cars do, and where a collision can quite possibly be their last. Most gladiators of the Roman Empire were slaves forced to fight. Consistent wins and popularity could lead to freedom, and only a few were actually released from shackles. The emperor often had the last say. The greater problem for Hamilton and F1’s current Emperor, CEO Bernie Ecclestone, is not the lives consumed at the arena but those defeated away from the arena. F1 is a symbol of the rape of resources, mainly oil and rubber tied to our car culture and the waste that it produces while masking the danger with shiny machines so fast as to challenge the naked eye.
In a world where so much of the world lives in darkness starved of fuel, global warming and environment activists should be targeting motor sports and making it harder to justify the misuse of fuel for the sole purpose of going fast. In F1 fuel is needed for racing, testing, qualifying and practicing, but also to transport staff and the huge mobile offices and cars to 19 locations around the globe. Motor racing, and particularly F1, is the spectacle of the rich and nowhere this is more true than in the oil rich Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where Hamilton won the 2014 season’s last race and the championship. There is an underside to every extravagance, and in this case a huge carbon footprint too.
The Emirates’ use of foreign slave labour has been well documented but was not visible under the white tents and space age architecture at its Yas Marina track in Abu Dhabi. Men and women mostly from South Asia toil and live hidden in inhuman conditions with few rights and little pay. The excitement of race day occurs far away from the destruction of oil exploration. The insignia for Royal Dutch Shell (Shell) is splashed across a sharp turn on the track but far away from its environmental destruction of Ogoni lands in Nigeria’s delta. This year Shell announced plans to reduce its Nigerian holdings where after decades of exploration the country still suffers regular power failures and Shell has made little effort to clean up the mess. This is as it plans to expand its role in Canada’s tar sands.
In contrast to those that risk their lives for fame and fortune are those whose lives are at risk but without the promise of freedom, let alone fame and fortune. Walk Free Foundation estimated that 35.8 million people are still enslaved worldwide, defining modern-day slavery as ‘possession or control of a person to deprive them of rights with the intention of exploiting them.’ They publish a list of countries, beginning with the worst offenders. India and China head the list, with Russia rounding out the top 5 of 167 countries for the numbers of its people enslaved. All three of these nations host F1 races. Nigeria, number six on the list, and The Democratic Republic of Congo at seven, host no races. There are no F1 races anywhere in Africa.
More and more arable land and forests are grabbed for rubber plantations in Vietnam, Cambodia, Gabon, Cameroun and Cote D’Ivoire. Indigenous populations are threatened and displaced. Modern day slaves work the rubber plantations in Malaysia (32nd), Indonesia (8nd) and supply Singapore (141st). All three locations host F1 races. Mexico, ranked 18th, gets a race next year.
In contrast, F1 sponsors read as the who-is-who in oil, rubber, banking, cars, of course, and technology: they include Mobil, UBS, Pirelli, Johnny Walker and SAP. Only for the Abu Dhabi weekend did F1 suspend alcohol advertising. A few years ago F1 banned cigarette advertising as a bow to some moral code. Teams looked elsewhere for support and worried that they may disappear. But new sponsorships came to this fast-moving engine of consumerism and excess. F1 prides itself on its contribution to the safety and fuel efficiency of our road cars, and to our lives. But it was noticeably late when only this year did it reduce its engines from eight to six cylinders. And the lifestyle of big engines continue off the track.
The leaders of industry attend F1 events to see and be seen, usually with the gratuitous model types for effect. The rich and celebrated watch even faster moving billboards as they go round and round. The shiny yachts and private jets that crowd in for race weekends in Monaco, Yas Marina and Valencia are thumbs in the eyes of the struggling workers and regular Jeans and Joes unable to afford a ticket to the party. Instead, they may watch from grainy communal screens on their one day off, only to then prepare for the plantation on Monday.
It’s this display of glamour and speed that is used to influence consumers in a fast growing, unsafe car culture. The developing world is the fastest growing car market. The UN International Panel on Climate Change estimates the car population will triple by 2050, with 80 per cent of that in the developing world. The WHO reported 1.3 million road-related deaths in 2013, 90 per cent of those in the developing world. These represent twice as many deaths as those attributed to mosquitoes by Bill Gates’ scientists. It would be the ultimate irony to survive collecting rubber in malaria-ridden rainforests and die in a car accident on a dusty street somewhere.
Despite the biweekly displays of excessive wealth at these races, F1 is in financial trouble. It seemed immune from the 2008 global recession. But Emperor Ecclestone recently admitted that the sport has financial problems and he is unsure of how to fix it. It costs US$120 million a season for an average race team, with top teams approaching a few billion. Ecclestone shares monies from advertising, ticket sales and merchandising by secret formula. Big teams like Ferrari and Mercedes demand more while lesser teams need more. The gap is widening in performance and teams are threatening to quit unless this changes. The weakest teams threatened strikes for the last few races in 2014 but they never materialized.
The Spain-based bank Santander is probably the sport’s biggest sponsor and reflects the current plight for F1 and its sponsors. It’s the sixth largest company in the world and continues to expand while it and its officers are almost under constant indictment or investigation for some transgression, such as paying two executives €164 million in a retirement package, insider trading and losing investors money through one of its Ireland-based hedge funds and involvement in the ponzi scheme of Bernard Madoff to the tune of $3.1 Billion. They have been either acquitted or charges been dropped and business is as usual.
Hamilton now stands as the face of all this, though not the head of it. I love Hamilton. He has raised emotions in me that I thought no sport could again. His courage is inspiring. During a 2012 race I stood holding a chair cushion in a chokehold as Hamilton came out of what would be his final turn in the race. At the time, he was leading the Championship point’s table. The chokehold became a deadly vice, as Hamilton was about to exit the turn with Pastor Maldonado in close pursuit. I threw the limp cushion at the television as Maldonado, the brash young Venezuelan, bunted Hamilton into the wall. Hamilton stepped from his wrecked car having lost the race and his lead in the world championship title. The image was not one of defeat, but one of triumph, that of a real gladiator. I took inspiration from it. It reminded me of Amílcar Cabral’s exhortation to ‘claim no easy victories’.
Not surprisingly, media commentators reasoned that Hamilton was leading the world championship race and by allowing Maldonado through he would have avoided the wreck and scored enough points to maintain his championship lead. His tires were worn and damaged, and he could no longer accelerate at his usual speeds. He could not hold off Maldonado. Maldonado was faster at that point. Besides, Maldonado was a lap down. Why risk a tangle, the whole race, when a simple maneuver would have allowed Maldonado through? The status quo would have been maintained. They asked nothing of Maldonado.
Immediately something felt wrong about that position. It did not fit the figure of Hamilton the gladiator and world champion who puts everything on the line, takes it furthest and then some. It is an attitude lauded among the chosen captains of industry, while the rest of us, and now Hamilton, are asked to slow or move out of the way, to let someone through.
Hamilton had forced Maldonado wide going into the right-hand part of the turn. Both had a decision to make: slow or go. Both went. But the law of the sport only permits one to go in those circumstances. And it gives the benefit to the one in front: Hamilton. Why these experienced commentators failed to appreciate the law was proof of their inability to appreciate what has to happen to reach the pinnacle of success, particularly if one is of African descent.
Understandably, commentators say nothing about decadence of motor sport, and F1 racing as the most decadent of all. Several times during the Abu Dhabi race, cameras would pan to the obligatory shiny yachts bobbing in the Yas Marina as in most other race locations. It has made Europe’s economic high-wire act seem a lie. The machines, the drivers, the rubber, the fuel, all cost millions. Each team goes through more tires in a weekend that the average person in a lifetime. Add to that the cost to transport these teams to nearly two dozen countries each season. Then add the lives that make it possible, from those lands devastated by rubber plantations and oil spills, suffering in the dark, thinking of a car as a step up.
Hamilton emerged as a star in a sport reserved for white men. He eclipsed all in daring and talent. We can see that this is no ordinary man of any kind. At the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix, former F1 driver and BBC commentator David Coulthard described Hamilton’s overtake of teammate Rosberg by saying, ‘That was bravery in the extreme,’ and, ‘That is an overtake other drivers will remember.’
Hamilton’s success may be reconciled as an example for ordinary people of courage and achievement. But nothing in the F1 party weekend can be reconciled; nothing in that experience can be reconciled with the lives of ordinary people. His talents and courage cannot mask the socioeconomic and political meaning of a spectacle like the F1 race, and more than likely cannot save F1. In the Abu Dhabi race Hamilton only needed to finish second to win the championship. Second would not be enough for a champion. Even when his closest rival ran into electrical problems, and Hamilton only had to finish and the crown would be his, he instead fought and won. Such a shame that he is champion of something that has probably run its course.