Lewis Hamilton says F1 must recognize human rights issues in host countries

F1 Grand Prix of Bahrain - Previews
Dan Istitene - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton on Thursday urged the global racing series to not ignore human rights violations in the countries where it stages races, an issue that is once again a topic ahead of the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

Bahrain, which has held F1 races since 2004, has been accused of exploiting the series to gloss over, or “sportswash,” its human rights record – by using a high-profile sporting event to project a favorable image of the country. The F1 calendar this year also includes races in Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia, who have been accused of using sports in a similar way.

“I don’t think that we should be going to these countries and ignoring what is happening in those places, arriving, having a great time and then leave,” Hamilton said Thursday, ahead of Sunday’s Bahrain GP. “Human rights, I don’t think, should be a political issue. We all deserve equal rights.”

After last year’s Bahrain GP, the seven-time world champion said he hoped to speak directly with Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa on the subject of the Persian Gulf State’s human rights record.

Asked during Thursday’s news conference if he had managed to speak with the crown prince, Hamilton said:

“At the moment I think the steps that I’ve taken really have been in private, and I think that’s the right way to go about it. So I don’t really want to say too much that may jeopardize any progress.”

But, Hamilton added, “I’m definitely committed to helping any way I can.”

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Before last year’s Bahrain GP in November, the British driver received three letters from alleged torture survivors containing harrowing descriptions of the extreme beatings and sexual abuse they endured.

“(Those letters) weighed quite heavily on me, it was the first time I’d received letters like that along my travels. So, for the last few months I’ve taken time to try and educate myself,” Hamilton, 36, said Thursday.

Hamilton took the knee at every race last year to fight against racism and says he will do so again this season.

“I think what’s really important is that young children are watching what we’re doing, and when they see us take the knee, they will sit and ask their parents or their teachers: `What are they taking the knee for?”‘ Hamilton said. “It sparks an uncomfortable conversation (and) it means parents have to educate themselves, and the kids are getting educated.”

Lewis Hamilton arrives in the paddock for the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix at the Sakhir circuit in Manama (GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images).

But Hamilton acknowledged that he had to learn much more about Bahrain.

“Because coming here all these years, I wasn’t aware of all of the human rights issues,” he said. “I (have) spent time speaking to legal human rights experts, speaking to human rights organizations like Amnesty (International). I’ve seen the UK ambassador here in Bahrain, and I’ve spoken to Bahrain officials.”

One of the letters sent to Hamilton last November was from Mohammed Ramadhan, who is on death row. After supporting Bahrain’s pro-democracy uprising, he was allegedly framed in a murder case and beaten with iron bars to extract his confession.

Ramadhan’s 11-year-old son Ahmed reached out personally to Hamilton, drawing a picture of his F1 Mercedes car and sending it to him last December, along with a personal written plea: “Lewis, Please save my father.”

Mother-of-four Najah Yusuf also wrote to Hamilton, detailing abuses she’d suffered at the hands of officers from Bahrain’s National Security Agency.

The other letter writer, Ali AlHajee, remains imprisoned in Jau Prison – which is located not far from Sakhir’s F1 track – after organizing pro-democracy protests.

“These claims are both misleading and untrue. The cases cited have absolutely no connection with F1,” the Bahraini government’s National Communication Centre said in an email to The Associated Press. “The government of Bahrain has a zero-tolerance policy towards mistreatment of any kind and has put in place internationally recognized human rights safeguards. Any complaints are fully investigated and action taken where any evidence of mistreatment is found.”

On Wednesday, the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) sent new F1 chief executive Stefano Domenicali an open letter co-signed by 61 British lawmakers and 24 rights groups. They asked him to ensure F1 establishes an independent inquiry into abuses linked to the race, and to meet with victims and rights groups to secure compensation.

“We have engaged in detail with BIRD and parliamentarians in recent years and have raised the matters discussed,” Domenicali wrote in his response, which BIRD shared with the AP. “However, it is important to make clear that Formula 1 is not a cross-border investigatory organisation. … Unlike governments and other bodies, we are not able to undertake the actions you request, and it would not be appropriate for us to pretend we can. ”

BIRD also sent a letter to German driver Sebastian Vettel, asking him to carry a message of solidarity with Bahraini political prisoners on his Aston Martin helmet at Sunday’s race. At last season’s Turkish GP, the four-time F1 champion had a message of diversity and inclusion on his race helmet.

“Your helmet (at the Turkish GP) bore the slogans `Together as One’ and ‘No borders, just horizons – only freedom,” BIRD wrote to Vettel via his team. “Yet for many in Bahrain, freedom remains a distant dream.”

Justin Grant prevails over Kyle Larson in the Turkey Night Grand Prix

Grant Larson Turkey Night
USACRacing.com / DB3 Inc.

On the heels of his Hangtown 100 victory, Justin Grant worked his way from 13th in the Turkey Night Grand Prix to beat three-time event winner Kyle Larson by 1.367 seconds. The 81st annual event was run at Ventura (Calif.) Raceway for the sixth time.

“My dad used to take me to Irwindale Speedway, and we’d watch Turkey Night there every year,” Grant said in a series press release. “This is one of the races I fell in love with. I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to run in it, never thought I’d make a show and certainly never thought I’d be able to win one.”

With its genesis in 1934 at Gilmore Stadium, a quarter-mile dirt track in Los Angeles, the race is steeped in history with winners that include AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Gary Bettenhausen and Johnnie Parsons. Tony Stewart won it in 2000. Kyle Larson won his first of three Turkey Night Grands Prix in 2012. Christopher Bell earned his first of three in 2014, so Grant’s enthusiasm was well deserved.

So was the skepticism that he would win. He failed to crack the top five in three previous attempts, although he came close last year with a sixth-place result. When he lined up for the feature 13th in the crowded 28-car field, winning seemed like a longshot.

Grant watched as serious challengers fell by the wayside. Mitchel Moles flipped on Lap 10 of the feature. Michael “Buddy” Kofoid took a tumble on Lap 68 and World of Outlaws Sprint car driver Carson Macedo flipped on Lap 79. Grant saw the carnage ahead of him and held a steady wheel as he passed Tanner Thorson for the lead with 15 laps remaining and stayed out of trouble for the remainder of the event.

“It’s a dream come true to win the Turkey Night Grand Prix,” Grant said.

Kyle Larson follows Justin Grant to the front on Turkey Night

The 2012, 2016 and 2019 winner, Larson was not scheduled to run the event. His wife Katelyn is expecting their third child shortly, but after a couple of glasses of wine with Thanksgiving dinner and while watching some replays of the event, Larson texted car owner Chad Boat to see if he had a spare car lying around. He did.

“We weren’t great but just hung around and it seemed like anybody who got to the lead crashed and collected some people,” Larson said. “We made some passes throughout; in the mid-portion, we weren’t very good but then we got better at the end.

“I just ran really, really hard there, and knew I was running out of time, so I had to go. I made some pretty crazy and dumb moves, but I got to second and was hoping we could get a caution to get racing with Justin there. He was sliding himself at both ends and thought that maybe we could get a run and just out-angle him into [Turn] 1 and get clear off [Turn] 2 if we got a caution, but it just didn’t work out.”

Larson padded one of the most impressive stats in the history of this race, however. In 10 starts, he’s won three times, finished second four times, was third once and fourth twice.

Bryant Wiedeman took the final spot on the podium.

As Grant and Larson began to pick their way through the field, Kofoid took the lead early from the outside of the front row and led the first 44 laps of the race before handing it over to Cannon McIntosh, who bicycled on Lap 71 before landing on all fours. While Macedo and Thorson tussled for the lead with McIntosh, Grant closed in.

Thorson finished 19th with McIntosh 20th. Macedo recovered from his incident to finish ninth. Kofoid’s hard tumble relegated him to 23rd.

Jake Andreotti in fourth and Kevin Thomas, Jr. rounded out the top five.

1. Justin Grant (started 13)
2. Kyle Larson (22)
3. Bryant Wiedeman (4)
4. Jake Andreotti (9)
5. Kevin Thomas Jr. (1)
6. Logan Seavey (8)
7. Alex Bright (27)
8. Emerson Axsom (24)
9. Carson Macedo (7)
10. Jason McDougal (18)
11. Jake Swanson (16)
12. Chase Johnson (6)
13. Jacob Denney (26)
14. Ryan Timms (23)
15. Chance Crum (28)
16. Brenham Crouch (17)
17. Jonathan Beason (19)
18. Cade Lewis (14)
19. Tanner Thorson (11)
20. Cannon McIntosh (3)
21. Thomas Meseraull (15)
22. Tyler Courtney (21)
23. Buddy Kofoid (2)
24. Brody Fuson (5)
25. Mitchel Moles (20)
26. Daniel Whitley (10)
27. Kaylee Bryson (12)
28. Spencer Bayston (25)