Jean Todt, the president of motor racing’s governing body, the FIA, says Formula One should not be concerned about racing in countries with human rights issues.
The introduction of the Saudi Arabia to the 2021 race schedule has been controversial and raised questions from human rights groups. F1’s Bahrain Grand Prix has also previously raised concerns, as have races in China, Russia and Abu Dhabi.
Former F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone used to say the sport should stay out of politics. Todt, who works with the United Nations on road safety, agrees with that mindset.
“It’s something which is very dear to my heart,” he said. “And since now five years I’m very much involved with the UN as secretary general special envoy for road safety.
“If you see the high level panel I made on road safety, you have Michael Ellison, a former high commissioner for human rights.
“You have Michelle Bachelet, who is the actual high commissioner for human rights. You have Filippo Grandi, the high commissioner for refugees. So in a way, it’s a privilege I have to be discussing with them.
“Yesterday [F1 boss] Stefano [Domenicali] came to visit me, and I had Jacques Toubon, former justice minister who has been until last year in charge of human rights in France, and I spoke with him about that.
“And everybody is in favour of having races wherever around the world. I mean, we are a sport.
“It’s also something I discussed very often with the International Olympic Committee, with Thomas Bach. Because they have the same problem. And clearly we consider that sport should not be involved with politics.”
Reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton has been increasingly outspoken about F1 needing to make an impact on the places it chooses to race in.
Speaking ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix this year, he said: “There are issues all around the world but I do not think we should be going to these countries and just ignoring what is happening in those places, arriving, having a great time and then leaving”.
Todt said he wants to always have an open dialogue with human rights groups.
“We need to engage with NGOs [non-government organizations],” Todt said. “And I mean, good NGOs, like Human Rights Watch, who are proper people, to try to say, what kind of contribution we can give? So we are working, we’re working on that.
“You can interpret the way that it helps you. In my opinion, going in those countries gives also the chance for people who are negative about the country to speak, which probably they would not have otherwise.
“So, as I said, it’s a lot of question of interpretation. But, for me, I feel right.”