With winter testing finally over and the launch of the 2008 racing season imminent the hot topic in the British press is still friction between two of Formula One’s most talented drivers.
The last few days have seen a stream of stories based on remarks made by Fernando Alonso following accusations of racism towards Lewis Hamilton among his Spanish fans.
It all started, as regular readers may recall, during testing at the Circuit de Catalunya at the beginning of February when Hamilton found himself the subject of boos, jeers and racial abuse.
While British fans can still display an unpleasant degree of racism towards black athletes, especially on the football terraces, the behaviour of the spectators in Barcelona went vastly beyond what would be tolerated in this country.
It featured a small group who thought it would be amusing to don black make-up and wigs and to wear t-shirts reading: “Hamilton’s family”. View The Times story and picture here.
Alonso reacted initially by playing down the row and saying the abuse was insignificant and should be forgotten about, with his comments later echoed by Bernie Ecclestone. However, Alonso has recently come dangerously close to saying Hamilton deserved everything he got.
His remarks were widely reported – here are some quotes from a Guardian story
Alonso: Hamilton’s comments led to abuse
British driver Lewis Hamilton should have expected the taunts he received from Spanish fans during testing earlier this month, according to former team-mate Fernando Alonso.
In an interview last month, Hamilton said Alonso showed him “just how not to behave as a world champion” when the two were team-mates at McLaren last season.
But Alonso has told Cadena Ser radio station that Hamilton had no right to say such a thing and that these comments led to the abuse. “The very next week they whistled him in Spain for saying that,” the Spaniard said. “That’s the other face of the situation. If you talk, it’s normal that they whistle.”
“If in the end it has been done, then you have to condemn it sharply,” Alonso said. But he claimed the reports of racist behaviour had been exaggerated, adding that he was treated harshly by fans in Monza after winning the Italian grand prix last year. “When I did my lap of honour, people were [making obscene gestures],” Alonso said. “That’s sport.” Read full story here…
What all this smacks of most of all is a clash of cultures. Behaviour that would have most likely seen the blacked-up fans marched off by the police and ending up in court in Britain does not seem to carry anything like the same significance in Spain.
It is rather reminiscent of the racial insults aimed at Thierry Henri by the Spanish national football coach Luis Aragones – remarks that saw him fined a mere day’s wages by the Spanish Football Federation, which initially declined to take any action at all.
Aragones justified his behaviour by saying that he was obliged to motivate his players. That is, to put it politely, not an excuse that would have saved his career in Britain, nor in the United States, that great untapped market for F1.
The idea that anything is fair game in sport, up to and including racism, is one that sporting authorities over here have been battling for years – notably through campaigns like Kick it Out, which focuses on football and is backed by the Football Association and other bodies.
The FIA seems to realise only too well how badly the Barcelona incident could hurt international sensibilities.
It has leapt into action with such uncharacteristic decisiveness with its threat to cancel the Barcelona Grand Prix and its Racing against Racism drive that you could almost believe it had been expecting something like this to happen.
If that’s true it’s a sad and chastening thought. It’s also possible that Alonso himself may finally have cottoned on to the seriousness of the situation, given his remarks in an interview reported by the BBC today.
In it, he says that he has respect for Hamilton’s speed and self-confidence, that he believes he could possibly become world champion and that racist taunts must stop.
However, with the sport’s first driver with black heritage blazing such a trail, and more grands prix than ever taking place outside Europe, learning to respect the cultural sensitivities of other nations is going to become increasingly necessary.
The sport has managed to do it, for example, by not spraying alcoholic drinks around on the podium in Muslim countries. Now it’s time for that lesson to be applied elsewhere.
And one might reasonably expect ambassadors for the sport such as two-time world champions to lead the way.
An afterthought: who’s the winner in a Hamilton-Alonso spat? Well, as Kimi Raikkonen has been quoted as saying in the past, let them get on with it, and he’ll just concentrate on the driving…