How Sir Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel are using their platform for good
Activists hailing from public life will always face critics telling them to stay in their lane and quit bothering us with their politics. Thankfully, many ignore those critics – including a rising number of sports stars. For The Drum’s Deep Dive into sports marketing, Lydia Chenhall of agency DRPG looks at the example being set by two leading lights in Formula One (F1): Sir Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel.
Formula One isn’t just a platform for ads, but for activism too / What Is Picture Perfect via Unsplash
“What separates a good sportsman from a great icon of the sport is what they do with their platform,” said Natalie Pinkham, talking to the Sky F1 team in Baku in 2022.
The drama-filled Drive to Survive docuseries brought a new era of fans to F1, placing a magnifying glass on the behind-the-scenes drama like never before.
In a recent interview with Grandprix247, FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem criticized some of the current drivers, saying: “Vettel drives a rainbow bicycle, Hamilton is passionate about human rights and Norris addresses mental health. Everybody has the right to think. To me, it is about deciding whether we should impose our beliefs in something over the sport all the time.”
While separating politics from the sport is a valid argument, this may no longer be possible as consumers look to align themselves with brands that share similar ethics.
So how are Hamilton and Vettel ushering in this new era of racing where what goes on behind the scenes is just as important as what happens on the track?
Hamilton’s fight for equality
Hamilton has always been a voice in F1 for activism, but after that last lap in Abu Dhabi, he’s had the microscope focused on him – and with it, plenty of backlash.
When you reach such a high level of success you will, unfortunately, be scrutinized for everything you do. We don’t tend to focus on the bottom three drivers breaking the rules with their earrings in; our eyes are trained on the top three battling it out for that number one spot and looking for reasons why you should support the other guy.
Hamilton has been vocal about F1 becoming a ‘billionaire boys club’ that’s unattainable for working-class athletes like himself, expressing that “we have to work to change that to make it more accessible, for the rich and for people with more humble origins.”
In addition, he set up the Hamilton Commission to investigate the inequalities of the sport and how it’s failing to facilitate minorities. The commission published Accelerating Change: Improving Representation of Black People in UK Motorsport, exploring barriers to recruitment and progression of Black people within UK motorsport.
The report found that 83% of people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups had experienced racism within the sport.
Unfortunately, Hamilton is included, suffering racial abuse from so-called F1 fans on several occasions. In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, his voice has grown louder; he’s taken the knee, backed the ‘We Race As One’ movement, and regularly spoken up about his experience. This helps to combat racial abuse in sports and create a safe space for minorities suffering at the hands of online trolls and everyday discrimination.
Whether you love or hate Hamilton, you have to admit that he’s using his status to make a real change. It’s easy to just thank the fans and keep your opinions to yourself, but what good does that do?
Vettel’s bid to save the planet
Alongside Hamilton, Vettel has become a comfort character as he’s settled into his Aston Martin overalls. We’ve seen him getting stuck in with litter picking, criticizing certain tracks and rules, and advocating for equality and diversity on the grid.
He became the first F1 driver to grace the front cover of the LGBTQ+ magazine Attitude, where he professed that the sport is ready for “a gay driver [...] to help speed up the elimination of prejudice and help push [it] in a better direction.” Vettel has sported poignant attire in support of the LGBTQ+ movement during races to protest against anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in some countries (and was reprimanded in Hungary for his stance).
He’s recently found himself in trouble over his views on climate change, with some calling hypocrisy while he travels across the globe and takes part in a sport that’s not the most planet-friendly. It does seem he’s trying to counteract this where possible, recently being papped on public transport on his way to Question Time, visiting Feltham Young Offenders Institution along the way.
Vettel is aware of this, and during BBC’s Question Time, he revealed his moral struggle with being in F1 and also advocating for the planet: “I am not a saint but I am very concerned about the future [...] It is my passion to drive a car and I love it [...] but when I get out of the car I am thinking: ‘Is this something we should do, traveling the world and wasting resources?’”
Vettel and Hamilton aren’t afraid to be hated if it means helping make that necessary change, and more drivers are starting to find their voices and help make a positive change – just look at Lando Norris speaking about men’s mental health.
Change takes time, but it’s brilliant to see athletes creating a safe space by initiating vital (and sometimes scary) conversations. They’re welcoming a new era of racing that’s putting key conversations on the podium.
Check out The Drum’s latest Deep Dive, The New Sports Marketing Playbook, and learn the tactics employed by the world’s biggest sports organizations and their star athletes to stay at the top of their game.
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