Analysis: The day F1 went tabloid

The incidents at Barcelona a fortnight ago in which a small minority of Spanish fans hurled racist abuse at Lewis Hamilton caused a media backlash in the British press and led the FIA to introduce a new global anti-racism campaign. Christopher Hayes talks to Lino Uruñuela, webmaster of the Spanish Fan Site, and assesses the reaction to events in Spain.

I realise the irony of criticising the media frenzy surrounding the race row by producing yet another article on the subject; but there are still some serious questions to be asked about the events in Barcelona.

Background: The Day F1 went tabloid

I will not revisit all the events during testing (see s own report here for more information). Suffice to say that during the three three-day test session at the Circuit de Catalunya, Barcelona, Lewis Hamilton was booed and had racist abuse hurled at him by a small minority of fans. The abuse was at its worst on the second day when the chanting was instigated by a small group of Spanish fans wearing, dark curly wigs, black make-up and T-shirts with the words “Hamilton s family” written on them.

It did not take long before local reports of racist abuse were being seized upon by the big news agencies. Motorsport journalists, who up until this moment had had their revenue making potential constrained by the unnewsworthiness of winter testing, leapt on the chance to get F1 onto the mainstream news agenda and a media barrage ensued. Chief suspect was the Sun which had front page spreads devoted to the headlines “A LOAD OF PRIX” and “Vile Taunts at Circuit”.

Did the British Press go too far?

I think most people would agree that racism is unacceptable, period. I broadly support the criticism levelled at those involved, though in contrast to some commentators taking the this was blown out of proportion angle, I think that the FIA was absolutely right to publicly condemn the actions of those involved. My concern is that the British press did little to separate out the small minority of people involved in racist abuse from a rowdy Spanish crowd involved in booing, jeering and in my view, entirely healthy non-racist abuse.

Talking to, Lino Uruñuela, webmaster of the Spanish fan site, explained that the vast majority of Spanish F1 fans were outraged at the events at Barcelona and welcomed the level of criticism. This is an important point which was lost in the British news reports.

“Regarding racist abuse in sport events, there are no excessive critics, these people deserve them all. We should not allow, let alone ignore these facts and this reality. It is not only a problem in F1, these kinds of things happen in football, basketball and so on,” says Uruñuela.

What interested me however was not so much the reporting of the racist attacks themselves, but the reasons the British press gave for them. In almost every single news report which covered the story, the same lines were used again and again, almost word for word: “Spanish fans believe that Fernando Alonso was treated unfairly by Mclaren and blame Lewis Hamilton for Alonso s failure to win the world championship”.

These are bold statements to make about a population (they also highlight the extent modern news is reduplicated with minimal effort for financial gain). I spoke to Uruñuela and some other Spanish F1 fans to explore these claims in more detail and get a better feel for how Hamilton and McLaren are viewed in Spain.

“Hamilton acted as a spoilt rich kid”

The aversion towards Mclaren and Hamilton runs strikingly deep in many sectors of the Spanish F1 community. When I asked Uruñuela about whether or not he felt McLaren had treated Alonso unfairly in 2007 he responded, in almost disbelief, that I should have thought otherwise: “That s clear, don t you believe so?”.

“Hamilton took advance thanks to several team decisions,” he added.

“He also benefited from the moral support that Alonso didn t receive. There were occasions in which Dennis gave his public support to Hamilton. It is very difficult for a driver to bear this kind of situation.”

On Hamilton s role in the row over team-orders in 2007, Uruñuela was even more scathing: “Hamilton acted as a spoilt rich kid, and he didn’t show any respect for his team mate. It is a logical thing this feeling about Hamilton, since everybody could see that Alonso was very respectful with the whole team (including Hamilton), and afterwards he was treated in such a way.”

But based on observation of discussion within Spanish F1 forums, it is not true to say that all Spaniards hold this view, or that this is by any means the majority opinion.

Much was made of the slogan “Hamilton s Family” emblazoned on the T-Shirts of the fans wearing wigs and black make-up. Key to understanding the bigger picture in my view is also what was written on the back of their T-Shirts: “Alonso s number one fan”. There are thousands of fans who are simply devoted to their man Alonso; he quite literally put F1 on the map in Spain. The resentment towards Hamilton is an inevitable upshot of this alliance. It is a sporting fact of life. Just as Arsenal would not expect to be welcomed with open arms at White Hart Lane, so, Hamilton should not expect to be given an easy ride in Spain.

The row over team favouritism in 2007 no doubt adds fuel to the anti-Hamilton fire in Spain, but even if there had been no such controversy, the hatred towards Hamilton would continue to exist by simple virtue of the way he upstaged Alonso on several occasions. How many of us have jeered and sledged other drivers that threaten those we support, in the comfort of our own living room?

The press on both sides of the Mediterranean also played their part in fuelling the rivalry. As Uruñuela explains:

“The British media have also created and nourished the controversy [over team favouritism], in such a way that even the Spanish fans were happy when Hamilton and McLaren lost the championship.”

Quite. Uruñuela touches on an important point here. It is not so much, in my view, that Spanish fans blame Mclaren and Hamilton for Alonso s failure to win the championship. But rather that Hamilton s failure was, in the context of Alonso s disappointment, the next best thing, something to celebrate and get happy about. It is a natural sporting reaction. Again, how many of us have celebrated the retirement of a rival driver?

Does F1 have a racism problem?

To come back to the events at Barcelona, I have to agree with Circuit de Catalunya boss Ramon Praderas when he said that incidents had been “taken out of context”. The vast majority of the so-called abuse was in my view nothing more than entirely healthy sporting sledging motivated by an intense rivalry between two ultra competitive drivers. Hamilton is more than mature enough to deal with this and may even thrive on it.

As for the few individuals who took it upon themselves to black-up , they have since claimed they were merely readying themselves for a carnival. While their actions are not to be condoned, I can t help but feel there is a thread of truth in this. There was definitely an element of stupidity rather than real racist intent. It reminds me of the row over photos of Prince Harry wearing a Nazi uniform at a party.

I don t believe Formula One has a racism problem in the same way that some other sports do and the FIA should avoid pandering to the actions of a minority. The governing body should think twice about just how much impact an anti-racism campaign could have.