Formula 1 drivers will be free to “speak their minds” on controversial issues such as human rights when Qatar hosts its first Grand Prix next month, its motorsports chief said.
The Gulf Arab country has been the target of protests by several national football teams over its treatment of foreign workers, as part of a wave of social activism by athletes.
But Qatar, which will host the World Cup exactly one year from its inaugural Grand Prix race on November 21, will not stop F1 drivers from speaking out, its motorsports chief said.
“We are happy to support the drivers to speak their minds on their platforms,” Abdulrahman Al Mannai, president of the Qatar Motor and Motorcycle Federation, told AFP in an interview.
“We don’t see it as an issue in Qatar because they’re free to say whatever they want to say.”
Reigning F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton is a prominent voice in the Black Lives Matter movement and four-time title-winner Sebastian Vettel is another driver to champion social issues. Other F1 drivers have also supported the cause.
This year, the national football teams of Norway, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands have all held rights protests aimed at Qatar ahead of 2022 World Cup qualifiers.
The Gulf state has frequently been criticised over conditions for hundreds of thousands of labourers who have worked on construction sites including the World Cup stadiums.
It has responded by removing rules that barred workers from changing employers, scrapping exit permit requirements and introduced a minimum wage of $1.30 an hour.
“Qatar has been open… to criticism. Qatar has been working for the past few years to improve things when it comes to labour issues,” Mannai said.
“We have made good progress. Of course, it’s not yet a perfect system but our openness and our partnership with a lot of international agencies has helped us to make improvements.”
The long-time MotoGP host stepped in last month as a late replacement for the cancelled Australian Grand Prix. Qatar has also signed a 10-year deal to hold Formula One from 2023.
The race at the Losail International Circuit is the first of three Middle East races to close the season, preceding Saudi Arabia’s debut Grand Prix and the year’s finale at Abu Dhabi.
Mannai said the Losail track, Qatar’s MotoGP venue, needed only “cosmetic changes” to accommodate Formula One, adding that he was hoping for capacity crowds: “Of course we’re expecting it to be full, because ever since we announced the Formula 1 the demand has been off the charts.
“The current procedures within Qatar allow us to have 100 percent capacity as long as individuals are vaccinated or they have proof that they have the Covid-19 antibodies,” he added.
But like other races in the largely alcohol-free region, there will be no champagne on the podium forF1 drivers, Mannai said: “We have our own values and culture, and we respect the culture of others.
“We will not use champagne or alcohol during the podium but will use an alternative to celebrate the podium for the drivers,” he explained, adding that a capacity crowd for the race weekend.
By a “fortunate coincidence” the race falls on November 21, exactly a year before the country holds the opening game of the 2022 World Cup.
Mannai explained: “We’re trying to maximise the occasion, we’re trying to add more to the F1 event. I think we will see some nice surprises during the weekend of the F1.”