Lewis Hamilton co-chaired the Hamilton Commission on diversity in motorsport. © Mark Thompson/Getty Images

From its inception, Formula One has proclaimed its global character. Most people in the sport would agree, however, that it has historically featured white, mostly European, men.

But that was before Sir Lewis Hamilton burst on to the scene. F1’s first and, to date, only black driver is also its most successful competitor with 103 grand prix wins and seven world championships.

And, in 2020, in partnership with Britain’s Royal Academy of Engineering, Hamilton established the Hamilton Commission: a project to identify barriers to the recruitment and progress of black people in motorsport.

Accelerating Change, its report published last summer, recommended ways to make motor racing more diverse and inclusive.

Change should be about equity but also self-interest, Hamilton says.

“The benefits of a diverse workplace are well documented and sport is no exception,” he points out. “In fact, it’s even more important, because sport has the power to promote and lead change.

“Through this research, we not only identified the barriers that young black people face in entering the sport, but also within the wider Stem [science, technology engineering, and mathematics] education journey.

“I am hopeful F1 can be a leading example on how working together, committing to action and not just words, leads to positive change.”

Lewis Hamilton (third from left) and other F1 drivers take a knee on the grid in support of the Black Lives Matter movement
Hamilton (third from left) is a vocal supporter of civil rights, from the Black Lives Matter movement to minority representation in F1 © Dan Istitene/Formula 1/Getty

Accelerating Change urged immediate work to improve the representation of ethnic and other minorities in F1. This included calling on motorsport organisations to implement a diversity and inclusion charter and to expand apprenticeship and work experience schemes. It proposed scholarship programmes to help black engineering graduates obtain roles in motorsport.

Other suggestions focused on the causes of educational underachievement among black people and other minorities. Proposed solutions included funding programmes to reduce the high rate of exclusions from school of black students — Hamilton was expelled from his secondary school — and efforts to increase the number of black teachers in Stem subjects.

Hamilton has been supportive in trying to get rid of narrow and outdated perceptions of what engineering is and who engineers are, says Hayaatun Sillem, chief executive of the RAE and co-chair (with Hamilton) of the Hamilton Commission.

“The academy elected Sir Lewis as one of our honorary fellows a few years ago because he is such a great advocate for engineering and, perhaps quite unusually, he’s always talked about the role his race engineers have played in his own success,” she explains.

Sillem says F1 has been receptive to the issues raised by the commission: “These are people who greatly value and understand the importance of the talent base that they need to help them achieve [success]. Engineering, as a whole, has a very longstanding diversity deficit, but we know these challenges need to be addressed more quickly than we have been doing.”

Hayaatun Sillem, chief executive of the RAE and co-chair (with Hamilton) of the Hamilton Commission. © RAE

The workplace culture of organisations can be a significant barrier to greater inclusivity, Sillem says. “One of the most uncomfortable parts of reviewing the evidence we received was hearing the experiences of black engineers who had made it into motorsport: unfortunately a universal thread was the experience of racialised banter,” she notes.

Aston Martin is one of the F1 teams seeking to address these issues with internal training alongside apprenticeship programmes for marginalised or less privileged members of society. It will include students at an inner-city school in Miami, Florida, as well as detainees at the Feltham Young Offender Institution in London, says Debbie Wall, the company’s environmental and society consultant.

“We’ve done a lot of work on a programme of education, underlining the importance of understanding that we’ve all got unconscious biases, but it’s how we manage them,” she says.

“Part of building that culture includes incorporating ‘allyship’ into our LGBTQ+ Pride Month. People need to know that they can bring their whole selves to work. They shouldn’t be scared to be who they are. Having allies within the business is really important.”

Previous initiatives on diversity in F1 had been hampered by a lack of information. But the work of the Hamilton Commission has started to change this, says Otello Valenti, human resources and legal director of the Scuderia AlphaTauri F1 team.

“The commission has been very helpful in involving all the teams, collecting data and insights, and providing a big picture of the diversity topics,” Valenti says. “In a data-driven environment like F1, this has been useful also to start a conversation and share best practice across teams.

“Since the establishment of the team in 2006 [as Scuderia Toro Rosso], we have been focused on recruiting from very diverse environments to find the most talented candidates. Today, we have people from 36 nationalities of whom more than 15 per cent are female, employed in engineering, manufacturing and operations.”

“No progress is ever going to be good enough or quick enough”, says Daniel Gallo, chief people officer at McLaren Racing, stressing that his team’s programmes are a 10- to 15-year effort.

The team’s initiatives include mentoring school students from diverse backgrounds and helping them to develop an interest in Stem topics and related careers.

A priority is to ensure that the recruitment focus is not confined to elite universities. “When you’re looking for very specific disciplines like aerodynamicists, there’s not a big pool,” Gallo says. “It’s about broadening where you seek your talent from. I can certainly say that after a couple of years it is paying dividends. That’s what drives performance: the more diversity we have, the better that translates into our capabilities.”

The debate over diversity in motor racing has taken place against the backdrop of the global Black Lives Matter movement, to which F1 responded with its We Race as One initiative, which underlined the sport’s commitment to tackling racism and inequality.

In 2020, Hamilton’s Mercedes team sent out a message by switching its silver livery to black. It also launched its Accelerate 25 initiative, which committed to 25 per cent of new hires coming from under-represented groups by 2025. It, too, has launched partnerships to attract students from diverse backgrounds.

In the scheme’s first year, Mercedes says, the proportion of recruits from under-represented groups rose to 38 per cent, albeit including business support as well as engineering and Stem-related roles. Overall, the proportion of employees from minority ethnic groups doubled to 6 per cent.

“I’m looking forward to the day when anyone, no matter who they are, has an equal and inclusive opportunity to succeed,” Hamilton says.

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