Opinion: Stop baying for blood when a motorsport driver is offensive
This isn't a justification for being offensive, mind. But it's also not a justification for asking the FIA to punish Verstappen on the weekend
I think this is the first time I’ve ever mentioned motorsport in something I’ve written; because to me, sport’s like cooking. Watching it is boring.
I work on a car platform, however, which means I’m aware of what’s going down in motorsport, even in Formula 2 – but I regard it all with a bit of a shallow apathy. Lewis Hamilton’s won again. Don’t like his sneakers or his attitude. Ricciardo? Don’t care how he’s going - happily – but what a legend.
Nonetheless, there’s been two events recently that I do have a more serious-minded opinion on, and which I’d presume to engage the motorsport community about.
The first of which was Kyle Larson’s n-bomb moment: that time he thought his mic was broken during a race and he said ‘You can't hear me? Hey ... [*******]. Turns out everyone could; he was banned from racing and compelled to undergo sensitivity training.
The second? It happened last weekend at the Portuguese Grand Prix, which again, I didn’t watch. But apparently Max Verstappen and Lando Norris lost it on radio at Stroll; in the red-hot tirade, Verstappen called Stroll “a Mongol” and a “retard”.
Of course, he’s been warned by Red Bull to never use that language again, and he himself has expressed regret:
"First of all, I never intended to offend anyone, that’s never what I want. It happened in the heat of the moment, when you are driving at such speeds, things like that can happen. I don’t say that the words I chose were the right ones.
...I know they are not correct. Once again, I never meant to offend anyone. I was swearing at Lance, but then I saw him straight away after and that’s what racing drivers are as well. We can be angry at each other, but in five minutes, when we talk to each other, look each other in the eyes, it’s forgotten.
Sometimes things get a bit heated up. From the outside, I never meant to hurt anyone in particular...”
Right, he had a hot-headed moment on radio. He got warned. You’d assume it could die there.
Instead, yesterday’s headline is that Mongolia’s ambassador to the UN has said he hopes that FIA will do something about it: "I am confident that in order to prevent the recurrence of such unethical behaviour in sports, the International Automobile Federation (FIA) will take actions against Red Bull driver Max Verstappen for his unacceptable behaviour of repeatedly using racist and derogatory language against any ethnic groups."
In other words, let’s drag it out again, beat it up, and beat Max up too – there has to be some punishment and humiliation. Of course, he’s a one-track ambassador for his country. The trouble is, plenty have agreed.
I saw something similar in comments sections regarding Kyle Larson's application to be reinstated as a NASCAR driver. There were, despite a profound apology and despite the fact the single word he uttered was out of character and divorced from hateful intent, those who said NASCAR had no place for him. There could be no forgiveness.
Imagine that. Your career and reputation ended by a word. Not an act, not a strung-together rant that reveals an attitude – but a single thoughtless word. A word, divorced from its meaning, spat out in silliness. One moment you’re a good person. The next, you say the word, and you’re a disgusting human.
No word should have that power. It’s a frightful indictment on our ability to judge if we give an independent word that power.
Of course you’ll ponder, as I have done, what it means when such words are at hand in a vocabulary. Kind of like the suggested words on a phone keyboard; it reflects something, doesn’t it? Except we’ve all surprised ourselves in hot-headed moments. And we’ve all, no doubt at some point in our lives, said a word we’d hate to have piped through loudspeaker.
And you might say – but these guys are celebrities, literally being piped through loudspeaker. A thoroughly public pillorying will not only remind them how inappropriate it is, but also the world – something that sounds meritorious in itself but which I don’t find particularly empathetic. I’d counter that a penalty of being flogged the length of Suzuka would deter – it’s still an unjustified overreact.
So what do I, a normally apathetic spectator in the motorsport field, propose? I’d propose we don’t in any way justify motorsport racers who use demeaning language. But this doesn’t mean we must join a Twitter throng and call them disgusting people who need to bury their racist, Down Syndrome child-hating little heads in the sand – it should be an altogether more balanced response. A response that doesn’t just fixate on the word and divorce the context.
As Lando Norris - the great chap we all appreciate more than ambassadors to the UN, said, referring to his own anti-Hamilton and anti-Stroll outburst:
"At the same time there’s a lot of ways that no matter what you say, people can just take it into a bad context and publicise it in a way to make it look a lot worse than the way you meant it in the first place. It’s just how things are perceived nowadays can be taken both ways very easily and that’s just the world we live in in 2020.”
It doesn’t have to be.