How serious, and how winnable, is Formula 1’s battle against repulsive behaviour from some race-attending fans?
Firstly, let’s quantify ‘some’. It is obviously only a small percentage, but they do say it takes only one rotten apple to spoil the whole barrel.
Clearly, there were enough examples of unpleasant conduct at the Austrian Grand Prix to prompt Formula 1 to issue a statement on Sunday morning saying “this kind of behaviour is unacceptable and will not be tolerated” and that it would be taken up with the event promoter and security chiefs.
Several of the sport’s leading figures have also spoken out. Lewis Hamilton said he was “disgusted” by the reports he heard of what had happened, his boss Toto Wolff told the culprits to “f*** off” and not come back, while Max Verstappen cited excessive alcohol consumption as a factor.
So, identify the louts and stop them from ever entering the gates of a grand prix again. Sounds simple. But is it, and would that in itself be enough to eradicate the problem?
Probably not, because the fear would be that a whack-a-mole scenario would emerge. Ban one idiot, only for another to emerge. Even a limit on the amount of booze sold to a spectator probably only goes so far – they will still find ways to get more down their neck if so inclined.
In terms of how serious a problem this is, it has taken over from porpoising as the sport’s hottest topic. Did we hear about bad behaviour from fans in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia back in March? No. But that does not mean what occurred at the Red Bull Ring is any less important.
— Formula 1 (@F1) July 10, 2022
A single example at a single race is still too many, whether that is a driver being cheered when they crash, racist or homophobic abuse or, as disconcerting reports from Austria indicated, sexual harassment or even assault.
Why should a Formula 1 fan spend a week’s wages, if not more, on attending a grand prix and find themselves the victim of disrespectful remarks – or worse – just because of their gender, nationality, race or even simply the driver they support?
In terms of sporting allegiance, such polarisation has happened in football for decade after decade with some horrifying consequences, e.g. the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985.
Obviously it would be completely unthinkable for anything like that to happen in Formula 1, but equally why should going to a grand prix be anything other than a richly rewarding experience for any fan? One in which they can mix in a free, friendly way with everyone else, whatever their affiliation or persuasion.
So that brings us on to how to win the fight against those who, whether unwittingly or not, whether deliberately or not, spoil the atmosphere.
Formula 1 have taken the first steps by admitting there has been a problem, rather than turning a blind eye. But it also needs tangible action rather than merely a statement confirming awareness.
An insistence upon enhanced security has to be one measure taken, along with a zero-tolerance approach to offenders. Lines of acceptability drawn up and if crossed, it’s immediate ejection from the circuit. It really is not difficult to determine where the boundaries should be.
Perpetrators, and potential perpetrators, would soon get the message.
David Coulthard has suggested an act of unity by Hamilton and Verstappen – who have become the Manchester United and Liverpool, the Real Madrid and Barcelona in terms of F1 tribal rivalry – could help alleviate the problem.
A contrived photo opportunity and accompanying interviews would be unlikely to work, though, in terms of authenticity – they will still be fierce adversaries nonetheless.
F1 fans have always formed factions of support and that is absolutely their right. There is nothing wrong with hoping one driver or team beats another fair and square, and expressing that in a positive way.
Unfortunately, the sport’s current bugbear is also a societal one. The culture of social media has provided the power to say anything at any time to anyone who will listen, and far too often in a negative way.
But a racetrack is the real world with real fans, the vast majority of whom only want to be there to see the thrilling action that drew them into the sport and not feel intimidated in doing so.
That’s not much to ask, is it? Given what Formula 1 has shown it is capable of throughout its 72-year history, ensuring appropriate levels of conduct within its live audience ought not be too hard to achieve.
F1 drivers and officials condemn abusive behaviour
Multiple reports of racism, homophobia and sexual harassment plagued the Austrian Grand Prix weekend.