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The Bahrain flag at the circuit

FIA’s first controversy of 2023 and Hamilton is involved

FIA's first controversy of 2023 and Hamilton is involved The Bahrain flag at the circuit where Hamilton will race

It was never going to take Formula 1 too long to create its first controversy of the 2023 campaign, with car reveal dates set for February ahead of the first challenge of the year in March – the Bahrain Grand Prix in Sakhir.

A new rule change ahead of the coming season is already creating headlines that the FIA would no doubt, prefer to avoid.

With March fast approaching, the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (Bird) has recently called out the FIA’s commitment to human rights as they have stated they believe that the new rule introduction is ‘suppressing drivers’ freedom of speech,’ ergo, taking away a drivers ability ‘from making their voice heard on issues including human rights and racism’.

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The group has further suggested that the rule introduction is simply a kneejerk reaction to Lewis Hamilton previously raising such issues in recent times and if 2022 is anything to go by, the next potential controversy is only around the corner and will be as reliable as an online casino in Japan spinning its next roulette wheel.

The comments are attributed to Bird director Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei and they have been made in a letter that was supplied to BBC Sport wherein the newly introduced rule adds a provision to the sporting code forbidding ‘the general making and display of political, religious and personal statements or comments notably in violation of the general principle of neutrality promoted by the FIA under its statutes, unless previously approved in writing by the FIA.’

From the letter seen by the BBC, which was addressed directly to president Mohammed Ben Sulayem and copied F1’s commercial rights holder, all the teams and Hamilton’s own representatives, they quote Alwadaei as saying the rule introduction ‘appears to be a reaction to drivers, in particular Lewis Hamilton, raising their concerns about the locations chosen for F1 races, including the human rights records of host countries, and making powerful interventions where your own organisation has been silent.’

F1 drivers in Bahrain last year called for peace

Hamilton says no war-f1 drivers protest unite FIA's first controversy of 2023 and Hamilton is involved bahrain

He further points out that it seems a contradictory introduction given the FIA’s own decision last year to cancel the Russian Grand Prix following their invasion of sovereign state Ukraine.

Stating further that there is an additional massive contradiction at play given the races in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates that continued, despite their own involvement in the war in Yemen.

Alwadaei also then contrasts Hamilton using ‘his platform to express support for Black Lives Matter and human right in countries with problematic human rights records, including Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.’

“Throughout his career, none of the statements Hamilton has made can be considered any more political than the decision by the FIA to withdraw from racing in Russia in the last season due to its invasion of Ukraine. In your own statement last year, you condemned the Russian invasion and expressed ‘sadness and shock’ for victims in Ukraine. While I applaud this statement, it is clearly a political one.”

In a statement supplied to the BBC by Alwadaei, he further clarified: “When the FIA and F1 choose to grant races to some of the world’s most repressive regimes, like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, they are facilitating sports-washing and allowing these dictatorships to launder their horrifying rights records.

“It is seriously disturbing to see the FIA now mimicking the tactics of its despotic business partners by attempting to muzzle the voices of critics and advocates. Where the FIA and F1 failed, it was drivers like Lewis Hamilton who stood up and called out abuse, and his vocal support for political prisoners in Bahrain shed light on appalling injustice.

“Now, the FIA wants to silence him and others, and punish them if they dare to speak out. We are saying to Mohammed Ben Sulayem that this policy is wrong and it must be reversed immediately.”

Whilst the FIA are yet to publicly respond to a request for a full statement, a spokesperson had previously said that the new rule was simply a direction on wearing clothing bearing any campaigning statements on the podium or prior to a race taking place – as opposed to a blanket ban on more general comments about such issues.

It will be interesting to see how they respond, as many would suggest if that was their aim, then the rule itself would be far more specific and far less general in application and reading.