Why Formula 1 should help W Series race in Saudi Arabia
The news that the W Series will join Formula 1 for eight races next season brings with it an interesting question – could we see women racing in Saudi Arabia next year?
F1 courted controversy recently by confirming an agreement to race in the Middle Eastern country, despite it being heavily criticised for human rights issues, including the oppression of women.
For decades, women have not been allowed to make decisions without the permission of a male ‘wali’ - an official guardian - but recently Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto leader, has moved towards change.
In 2017, the country’s national stadium welcomed its first female spectators, albeit in their own section of the normally male-only venue, while a year later women were granted the right to drive.
Despite these moves, however, the statement last year from the state security agency declaring feminism, homosexuality and atheism as “extremist ideas” punishable by jail and flogging suggests a different idea.
In a world in which the push for equality in all forms is making headlines every single day, F1 has been trying hard to deliver the right message.
Its ‘We Race as One’ campaign got off to a shaky start, with the drivers misaligned over ‘taking the knee’ in the opening race, but it has since become a united machine with statement line-ups before every grand prix.
At its launch, F1’s organisers stated: “As a member of the global FIA motor sport family, we acknowledge its Fundamental Principles Statutes, including the fight against any form of discrimination.”
The W Series was launched last year in a bid to help female racing drivers progress up the racing ladder, but it received mixed reviews with some drivers embracing it and others suggesting the segregation was opposed to equality.
Despite this, the first season proved a success and the series was due to appear alongside F1 at six events this year until Covid-19 tore things apart and forced those plans – and the W Series - to be cancelled for 2020.
The promised support slot will be renewed for next year – Covid-19 restrictions withstanding – but it has yet to be confirmed at which of the eight races it will support.
Lewis Hamilton praised the decision for the series to race alongside F1 as he said: "It's definitely very important they are here on a global scale. At the moment it is a male-dominated sport and that does need to change.
“The sport does need to do more, and that is a good step in the right direction.”
But if the W Series is one small step for women, racing in Saudi Arabia would be a giant leap for humankind.
Women in the country still have to “limit the amount of time spent with men to whom they are not related” according to a report in The Week – and that includes the segregation of public transport, parks and beaches in most areas.
Until last year, families and women had to enter restaurants through different entrances to men and, once inside, were usually cut off and separated from men on their own.
The country has been accused of ‘sportswashing’ to legitimise the still repressive regime and wash over its human rights abuses, detention and torture of human rights defenders and women’s rights activists.
Formula E has already raced there, in Riyadh, and Mercedes boss Toto Wolff was present, describing it as a “wonderful weekend without any sign of inequality – women and men enjoying the sporting spectacle together”.
At the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, a race that followed the announcement of the Saudi Arabia F1 race, Hamilton wore a Black Lives Matter t-shirt with the additional phrase ‘women’s rights are human rights.’
And if F1 truly wants to deliver its ‘We Race As One’ message, perhaps Saudi Arabia should be pursued as one of those race slots so that next year the winner of the W Series race gets the chance to do the same as Hamilton.
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