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F1: Demand for change after fan abuse at Austrian Grand Prix

July 11, 2022

Reports of abuse and harassment at the Austrian Grand Prix have sparked condemnation from the Formula One community, but fans say it's nothing new and want to see action in making motorsport a more inclusive environment.

Formula One fans watching the Austrian Grand Prix holding Max Verstappen flags.
The Austrian Grand Prix was overshadowed by reports of spectator abuseImage: Manfred Binder/GEPA pictures/IMAGO

"We're not surprised." 

The words of motorsport fan Helena Hicks are damning for Formula One. They come after an Austrian Grand Prix that was less about Charles Leclerc's victory and more about accusations of sexist catcalling, inappropriate touching of female fans, and homophobic and racist abuse.

"It's one of the downsides of motorsport. Things do need to change and the more people speak about it, the more chance we have," Hicks told DW.

Hicks is founder of Females in Motorsport, which aims to increase female participation. She said the group had heard a number of "shocking" experiences coming out of the race in Spielberg.

"We had one case of a fan who had their skirt pulled up, which is absolutely shocking," Hicks recounted. "There have been reports of catcalling, racism, and people called out for wearing anything rainbow or pride related."

The reports have also emboldened fans to speak out about experiences at previous Grand Prix, including Hicks.

"I was at Austria in 2019 and I experienced jeering, catcalling from a large group of Dutch fans. I also had alcohol spilled on my head," she said.

"It's not just Austria, it's definitely a problem at many circuits. But as soon as a few people started coming forward, others got more confidence and weren't as scared. Previously people have spoken out about abuse in motorsport and they'e not always been believed. And I think that's a fundamental problem."

DW reached out to a number of victims, but none of them felt comfortable discussing their experiences.

Demand for stronger stance

Formula One initially released a statement which said it was aware of the reports and that "this kind of behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated and all fans should be treated with respect."

Hicks felt it was a "wishy-washy" statement and wants Formula One to take a stronger stance.

"Formula One has been very behind in taking a stance on things. But now that Formula One has acknowledged it, it's time for change," she said. "If we come together we can make a change. People who witness abuse should have a duty to report it rather than brush it under the carpet."

One sticking point for fans on the receiving end of abuse is that they feel they have nowhere to report it.

"You don't know where to go, you don't know who to report it to," Hicks said.

"And there have been instances where an actual marshal has been involved in the behavior. So it's tricky and it's up to Formula One to work with the circuits and the promoters."

DW asked Formula One for more clarification on ways in which the organization might change things going forward. F1 responded: "Following the statement we made to media yesterday morning after we had been made aware of the reports, we then ensured stewards and security were more visible and available and put messages around stands and fan areas calling for respect for everyone."

Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton walking with his head down.
Lewis Hamilton strongly condemned the reports of abusive behaviorImage: Pro Shots/IMAGO

'Lifetime bans'

Formula One drivers were united in their condemnation of the behavior with seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton left "disgusted and disappointed".

"People should come here, should feel safe, should feel included. It shouldn't matter your gender, your sexuality, or the color of your skin. It should just be everyone here to have a great time," he said.

"It just highlights that it's still an issue all over, and it comes down to education and ignorance. We all have to work together."

Sebastian Vettel called for those responsible to be "banned from racing events for their lives", while defending world champion Max Verstappen urged for better security and suggested limits on alcohol as a possible solution.

"Such things should never happen, not anywhere. I really shouldn't even have to say this," the Dutchman told "Telegraaf".

"One thing can be improved with security around places, keep people more in check. Sometimes when you drink alcohol you can do stupid things. I don't say this as an excuse, but these things can be regulated."

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said F1 needed to "target these guys and pick them out".

"If you abuse, in whatever way, sexist, racist, homophobic, you're just simply brainless, and no alcohol can excuse that," he said. "We don't want you."

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff looking into camera.
Toto Wolff said there was "no excuse" for fan abuseImage: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto/IMAGO

Time for a culture change

Hicks did say that the Formula One environment has become more inclusive in recent years, but that there was clearly a long way to go.

"The sport has been dominated by white men since its inception and things that they considered the norm are obviously unacceptable," she said.

"They have opened their eyes. Formula One has taken a big step forward, it's not so traditional and things are slowly changing. But we need a statement [from Formula One] that says they won't be allowed in this sport. It's not a welcome place for them."

The conversation has at least been started. Now it's up to Formula One, circuit organizers, and fans to ensure everyone feels safe and welcome at motorsport events.

Edited by Jonathan Harding

Janek Speight Sports reporter and editor
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