Ahead of this weekend's season showdown, why has there never been a gay Formula 1 driver? Does it even matter, surely these things are irrelevant in 2016, right? Wrong. It matters...
The greatest sport on the planet has a fan-base rich in diversity. Stretching the four corners of the globe, there are millions and millions of us hanging on every press conference, lap, pit-stop and chequered flag. We live and breathe F1 and without this support it's difficult to imagine the sport existing. But all this fascination hinges on one thing: the driver.
Those two dozen super-humans are the ambassadors of this world we plan our weekends around. Not only can we have unrivalled access to these heroes during grand prix periods, we can follow our idols off the track thanks to the progression of modern technology. Twitter, and more fashionably Instagram, opens the door to the glamorous lives and incredible lifestyles of the modern F1 driver. Lewis Hamilton has been a game changer here, and more recently Danial Ricciardo has allowed the world in with his signature charisma. We can now see images of Lewis and his private jet, or Jenson on his summer break in California.
And because this group of exclusively male human beings command such status and respect from fans scaling all continents and backgrounds, coupled with the 24-hour social media inlet they can use to their, and their sponsors benefit, it is imperative these role models represent every little boy or girl who has a dream of being a racing driver when they are older.
In the sport's 66-year history, just two women have ever started a grand prix. By comparison to their white counterparts there has been only a handful of black drivers and, as mentioned, there's never been an out gay driver. Is this really the best a sport with a reputation of being on the very cutting edge of technology and thrill can achieve, or ever hope to achieve?
Rumours were afoot in the late nineties and early noughties of two drivers in the paddock happily living their separate lives, albeit privately, as gay men. Whereas this article is not intended to encourage a guessing game as to whom those individuals were, it does highlight that in this incredible world of glamour, fast cars, technology and competitiveness, two people at the very pinnacle of their profession felt unable to be authentic whilst maintaining their careers. But that was over a decade ago, and perhaps times were different then. Why is it then circumstances at face value haven't changed in the current driver line-up? Would sponsors feel uncomfortable having their branding, their watches or their headphones being worn on TV screens by men, or women, who are gay? Would a sponsor be prepared to announce commitments to diversity in such a way?
863 of history's most talented drivers have had the honour of experiencing a grand prix in the only position that really matters. In that group you have one Indonesian - Rio Harryenta, although he didn't return after this years' summer recess, one Pole, one Chilean, a Moroccan, two Indian drivers, five Irishmen, six Mexicans, 23 South Africans, 52 Germans, 158 Americans and a whopping 161 Brits. It's quite a geographical spread yet almost all of them are white, two of them women, and none of them comfortable enough to say they're gay.
Political correctness is not needed, nor positive discrimination in promoting drivers through the ranks based on skin colour, gender or sexual orientation. But what would go at least a little way on diversifying the drivers on the grid is some top level down leadership on looking at the recruitment pool of young drivers, and asking the question if people from different backgrounds, in fact, people who are simply different, are being handed the same opportunities to have a shot of a career as a driver? You don't need to be a scientist to see something isn't working. And with the paid driver factor - look at Lance Stroll and the events leading to his seat next year at Williams - where it seems his father has literally bought him his place in the team for about $80m and you see things have the potential to only get worse. But again, does it really matter? Do the sponsors have an appetite to look at this? Does Liberty Media care? Why should anybody care?
If it isn't important enough to signify to a gay 15-year-old karting driver who feels unable to be open about his sexuality - which will ultimately affect his efficiency and output, that his individualism isn't valued and celebrated, it should at least matter to the survival of the sport from a commercial perspective. To suggest, whether deliberately or not, to women, gay or black supporters of the sport that none of the athletes battling it wheel to wheel every fortnight are like them, or are only counted as a tiny minority across the field, will eventually result in those sections of society not feeling an affinity to the sport. It could, and probably should, turn them off. The knock-on effect of less people buying race tickets or being prepared to bolt on the F1 Channel to their Sky TV subscription, which on an annual basis is not cheap, would certainly make Liberty Media, Ecclestone and the team principles stand up and listen.
The sport cannot afford to be the elitist, predominately white middle/upper class, out of reach and unrealistic world it currently is. It has to open up its door to different people; it has to appeal to gay men and women as it does to straight. And the quickest way it can do this is by showcasing diversity in the area it matters most, its drivers.
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