Can 2024 be the year young drivers are allowed to make mistakes again?

Sam Cooper
Bianca Bustamente poses for a team photo after signing for McLaren.

Bianca Bustamente: McLaren Academy's newest recruit.

When I was in my early 20s, I decided to dye my usually brown hair bleach blonde.

For context, it was very much in at the time with a number of high-profile footballers doing so, except the difference between them and me was they had a bottomless bank balance and could get it professionally done, whereas I plumped for a £12.99 box of DIY dye from the nearest supermarket.

The result was predictably awful and it took months for my very visible mistake to be confined to the annals of time.

The point of this story is not me trying to crowdsource whether a return to the blonde is a good idea (it isn’t) but more a reminder that we all do stupid things when we are young.

This is a particularly poignant point as we move into a new year – for the final week of 2023 was spent discussing McLaren junior Bianca Bustamante and her liking of an offensive tweet.

I should preface this by stating, I am not condoning what she did and as a 28-year-old male who has no close connection to autism, I am of course sympathetic to those who felt more hurt than I did, but the reaction to the event has been blown well out of proportion.

I first chanced upon Bustamante when F1 Academy held a media round table prior to their opening race in Austria. For context, the competition hosts one before every race and selects three random drivers to face up to the media.

Press conferences are nothing new for a journalist and sports fans but it is important to remember that the average age of an F1 Academy driver is 20.

These young women were being presented as the faces of a new series which, if hopes are achieved, will change the way female drivers get into motorsport.

It is easy to see how some could have shied away from the limelight but back in April, I was struck by how confident Bustamante was, far more than I was at the age of 18. For those unaware of Bustamante before she joined McLaren, she comes from the Philippines which is not known for its racing history.

13 drivers have come from the country before Bustamante and that is not 13 F1 drivers, just 13 drivers in any category. It is 24th in the world on GDP and has a population of 117 million, the 13th biggest in the world.

But despite its sizeable inhabitant number, it is not known for its sporting prowess let alone motor racing. Arnis, a form of martial arts, is the national sport and if seeing is believing, in Bustamante’s case, there was no previous example she could latch onto.

As with most drivers, she excelled at karting before she was picked up by the W Series and then onto F1 Academy for its inaugural season.

It has been a harder journey than most. recommends

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What Bustamante liked was of course wrong but does that warrant a barrage of online abuse? It would not take long to find far more egregious remarks from the world of F1 that have not resulted in such hate.

Of course, Bustamante’s connection with McLaren makes her a prime target and the misogyny behind some users’ attacks is clear to see – but what is an appropriate response for these people? Sacked from McLaren? Banned from F1 Academy? Never allowed to race again?

Bustamante is not the first young driver to find herself in the firing line. Red Bull junior Jüri Vips was rightly fired after using a racist slur but when is he ever allowed to return from the wilderness?

Helmut Marko, the man who most likely informed Vips he was to be let go, is three times his age and yet he survived despite xenophobic slurs made against his team’s own driver.

Sky Sports pundit Danica Patrick appeared to suggest that the female mind was lacking when it comes to being a driver and yet she was allowed to continue in her role on the sport’s biggest broadcaster.

Patrick also recently attend a Republican conference in the US in which she posted images of caps with snappy slogans such as “Make America Great Again” and “I could sh*t a better president” as well as a stand selling “Woke Tears Water.” Patrick justified this by stating on the Instagram post “we do love our country.”

Nikita Mazepin was allowed to retain his Haas seat despite groping a woman and one of the sport’s most powerful people Mohammed Ben Sulayem’s personal website once claimed no woman is smarter than a man and yet he continues in his role.

Every one of the people in these examples has at least six years on Bustamante, if not decades, and yet they have not been met with such relentless bombarding.

The world of social media has made athletes more accessible than ever and while that is largely a good thing, it has given the angry mob a much more direct way to attack someone. But one thing that has seemingly disappeared in the modern era is reason.

Who of us can claim to be perfect? To have never said something wrong or done something stupid? Before picking up the pitchforks, ask yourself how you would feel if it was you with a target on your back.

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