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Marko's xenophobic comment reveals F1's diversity challenge

September 15, 2023

Formula One and Red Bull should be talking about Max Verstappen's imminent third-straight championship. Instead, they are dealing with a xenophobic comment from a team leader.

Helmut Marko talks to Sergio Perez in Italy
Helmut Marko's comments about Sergio Perez show how much work F1 still has to doImage: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto/picture alliance

For all of the work being done to increase Formula One's diversity and inclusion, the week building up to the Singapore Grand Prix was a stark reminder of how much more is left to do.

Red Bull motorsport adviser Helmut Marko recently explained the reason Red Bull driver Sergio Perez, who is from Mexico, has struggled this season was because "he is South American and so he is not as focused as Max Verstappen or Sebastian Vettel was."

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner told Sky Sports that the comments "weren't right," while Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, the only Black driver on the grid, said: "This is not something that you just apologize [for] and it is all OK. I think there needs to be more done."

Marko, who has made comments about Perez before, has since apologized. Perez has also accepted the apology, saying: "I took his apology because I know Helmut from the personal relationship that we have that he doesn't mean it that way."

Hamilton, though, doesn't believe a simple sorry is enough.

"To have leaders and people in his position making comments like this is not good for us moving forward," Hamilton continued. "There are a lot of people in the background that really are combating these kind of things, but it is hard to manoeuvre if people at the top have mindsets which stop us from progressing. We still have a lot of work to do to make this a more inclusive environment."

Sport is changing, but not at the top

Two years ago, 'The Hamilton Commission' revealed just how lacking in diversity motorsport is. It highlighted that less than 1% of those working in F1 were from Black backgrounds, as well as the barriers preventing access to education and opportunities for underserved communities. Mission 44, Hamilton's own charity, has worked hard to change this but Marko's comments are a reminder that perhaps the biggest challenge for F1 will be changing the culture.

Sporting Equals, a UK independent body established to promote ethnic diversity in sport, believes Marko's comments highlight the extent of that challenge.

"The overtone of the comment Marko made is that South Americans do not have the right temperament to succeed," a spokesperson for the organization told DW.

"If that is his attitude to drivers, what would his attitude be toward senior leadership roles in F1? We see that the more diverse the leadership teams, the more diverse the workforce and athletes. It is a top-down approach if you want to see real change on a structural level."

Two years on from Hamilton's report, Formula One has still only ever seen two women in the team principal role and has never had a Black team principal. Given that the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) oversees 245 motoring and motorsport club members across 146 countries, which represent 80 million individual members, it's clear that even the diverse world of motorsport is not being represented in leadership roles.

"These comments show that the sport is not yet truly welcoming to ethnically diverse people," Sporting Equals continued. "Even with an apology we can be confident these behaviors will continue until there are consequences and real steps taken to address attitudes. F1 needs to show it is proactively inclusive… If policies are not correct, behaviors won't be correct."

Last year, Red Bull fired reserve driver Juri Vips after the Estonian used a racial slur on a Twitch stream. This year, after Marko's xenophobic comments, the team did not release a statement, because, as Red Bull team principal Horner explained, Marko "is not an employee of Red Bull Racing... He's part of the Red Bull wider group."

 A statement from the FIA said Marko had been "reminded of his responsibilities as a public figure in motor sport in line with the FIA code of ethics."

'We need to see a united approach from the grid'

Hamilton has said before that the most valuable achievement in his career would be to change the diversity of motorsport, but it's fair to ask why so often he alone, especially since the retirement of supportive Sebastian Vettel, is taking on this task.

"Sir Lewis Hamilton should not be alone in facing this," said the Sporting Equals spokesperson.

"He has been very brave to do this while remaining one of the absolute best drivers to have ever lived and be a consistent winner and champion. To be both an activist and an active athlete is not easy. But he does this very much on his own in the spotlight… We need to see a united approach from the grid that comments like this are not acceptable. It cannot simply fall to the one lone Black voice on the grid."

Until that changes, Formula One's attempt to be as diverse and inclusive as it claims will likely stall.

Edited by: Martin Kuebler