Formula One: Hamilton demoted to fifth on grid; drivers split as Leclerc and Verstappen don't kneel

Lewis Hamilton observes a minutes' silence prior to the Austrian Formula One Grand Prix race in Spielberg, Austria, on July 5, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

SPIELBERG, AUSTRIA (AFP, REUTERS) - Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen confirmed a split among Formula One drivers over an anti-racism stance on Sunday (July 5), when they said they will not be taking a knee on the grid ahead the belated season-opening Austrian Grand Prix.

Both tweeted ahead of the race adding that they were committed to fighting racism.

Six-time world champion Lewis Hamilton, who was demoted from second to fifth, and the other 13 drivers knelt.

The sport's only black driver, an outspoken campaigner against racial injustice and for greater diversity, wore a black T-shirt with "Black Lives Matter" on the front and "End Racism" on the back.

He appeared to be the only driver with Black Lives Matter on his shirt.

Television images showed six drivers standing behind those kneeling, including Red Bull's Verstappen and Ferrari's Leclerc.

The Mercedes driver's front-row slot was cast into doubt shortly before the race when Red Bull called for stewards to review a decision to take no action against the Briton in qualifying.

The 35-year-old's demotion meant Verstappen, winner in Austria for the past two years, moved up to the front row with Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas in pole position.

McLaren's Lando Norris will start third and Red Bull's Alex Albon fourth.

Leclerc said his refusal to kneel did not signal he was any less committed than others. The Monegasque wrote: "I believe that what matters are facts and behaviours in our daily life rather than formal gestures that could be seen as controversial in some countries.

"I will not take the knee but this does not mean at all that I am less committed than others in the fight against racism."

Dutchman Verstappen tweeted: "I am very committed to equality and the fight against racism.

"But I believe everyone has the right to express themselves at a time and in a way that suits them. I will not take the knee today but respect and support the personal choices every driver makes."

The BLM campaign gained global momentum following the death of black American George Floyd under the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis.

Six-time world champion Lewis Hamilton has been an outspoken supporter of the movement and last month launched his own Hamilton Commission to identify causes of motor sports' lack of diversity.

Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton kneels before a race at the Red Bull Ring, in Spielberg, Austria, on July 5. 2020 PHOTO: REUTERS

Hamilton is the sport's only black race winner and champion and on Saturday revealed he had addressed his fellow-drivers at a meeting on Friday.

He said he told his rivals that "silence" on the issue of racism "is generally complicit".

The Grand Prix Drivers' Association (GPDA) said Saturday that they were united against racism and the drivers had agreed to wear "End Racism" t-shirts on the grid.

Jean Todt, president of Formula One's ruling body the FIA, told reporters at Spielberg, however, that sport should be wary of allowing itself to be used by political influences.

"Sometimes there is a tendency to use it as a weapon and we have to be very careful of that, but I admire people who have conviction and do as much as they can," he said.

'A first step'

It is believed that some of the drivers have been upset by Hamilton equating "silence" with a supposed level of unconscious racism in the F1 paddock.

Haas driver Kevin Magnussen said: "I intend to kneel - not so much because I support the Black Lives Matter organisation, but more because I want to support the worldwide movement against racism and discrimination.

"I hope no special group or organisation takes ownership of it."

The debate over taking a knee comes as FIA pledged to give €1 million (S$1.57 million) to the sport's new "We Race As One" diversity foundation.

FIA chief Todt said it was "a first step - and more will come".

"We should fight any form of discrimination and notably on account of skin colour, religion, ethnic or social origin."

The FIA's cash will go to boost the programme established by Formula One's chief executive Chase Carey who launched the initiative with US$1 million (S$1.39 million) of his own money.

The foundation is designed to help finance internships and apprenticeships in F1 for under-represented groups by ensuring there are opportunities for them to fulfil their potential.

"We must promote diversity in motor sports and that is why we decided to give one million euros in contribution to the new dedicated foundation created by F1," said Todt.

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