Saudi Arabia Grand Prix: A race for equal rights

By Christian Hewgill
BBC Newsbeat

Image source, Praga

The world's greatest racing drivers going head to head. 200mph miracles of engineering. More drama off the track than any episode of your favourite Netflix show.

There's so much to love about Formula 1. In fact, there's so much drama F1 was actually made into a Netflix series.

But this weekend's race in Saudi Arabia has stirred different emotions.

"I went absolutely nuclear," motorsport journalist Hazel Southwell tells Radio 1 Newsbeat.

F1 is racing in Saudi Arabia for the first time, a week after making its debut in Qatar - and many have pointed out both countries have faced criticism for their records on human rights, especially towards women.

Saudi Arabia is among the world's major executioners. It put to death at least 40 people between January and July, according to Amnesty International.

But Hazel is among those who think racing in Saudi might actually come with some positives.

Image source, Praga
Image caption,
Richard Morris is good at driving cool cars really quickly

"It was a difficult thing to process. It brought up a lot of conflicting thoughts in my mind," Richard Morris, the UK's most prominent openly gay racing driver, tells Newsbeat.

Driving for change

In Saudi, being LGBT is punishable with floggings and prison.

"We need to accept the reality of the situation," Richard, who competes in the Britcar Endurance Championship, adds.

"Formula One is inevitably going to visit territories that are on the whole spectrum of levels of acceptance and protection for LGBTQ+ people."

Richard thinks having the F1 world arrive in Saudi might send a positive message when it comes to visibility and values.

Already there are examples that suggest he might be right.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Four-time F1 World Champion Sebastian Vettel showing his support for LGBT people at this year's Hungarian Grand Prix

Take Sebastian Vettel for example.

The Aston Martin driver describes himself as an ally, which in this case means a straight person who supports the rights of LGBT people.

Sending a message

At this year's Hungarian Grand Prix, Seb and current world champion Lewis Hamilton criticised Hungary's decision to hold a referendum on a law which includes a ban on the depiction or promotion of homosexuality and gender change to under-18s.

Lewis himself raced to victory in Qatar with a Pride flag on his helmet. He'll be doing the same again this weekend - admitting he doesn't feel comfortable racing in Saudi - describing life for LGBT people there as "pretty terrifying".

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
'These places need scrutiny. Equal rights is a serious issue,' says Lewis Hamilton

Formula 1's boss also said he hoped the sport could drive change in these places.

And Richard Morris agrees.

"It does send a message for outspoken allies of the LGBTQ+ community like Lewis, Sebastian and the Aston Martin team, to go and race in territory like Saudi."

The counter argument - put by human rights organisations - is that by racing in Saudi, F1 is condoning how the country is run.

But Richard disagrees.

"These issues were barely spoken about in motorsport until very recently. Now we've created that situation where we can turn it into a positive platform for education and discussion."

But not everyone is quite as polite as Richard.

Image source, Lou Johnson
Image caption,
Hazel Southwell covering a Formula E event in Saudi Arabia

"I went absolutely nuclear and had a huge go at the sport's CEO in a press conference."

Motorsport journalist Hazel Southwell covers Formula E, the electric racing series, which started holding events in Saudi from 2018.

"My reaction was absolute blind fury," she tells Newsbeat.

In 2018 women in Saudi still couldn't drive and were not allowed to attend any sporting events.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The first time Hazel visited the country for Formula E, she admits to feeling "terrified" after convincing herself she'd be killed there. She now believes her views were naïve.

But Hazel, who's gay, started going there for work and that's when her views began to change.

"I was 32 when I first went to an event in the country. I didn't realise, but that is over the average age of a Saudi Arabian person living there".

Although Saudi is one of the richest nations in the region thanks to its vast oil resources, millions of people still live in poverty.

Saudi is also very secretive.

"There are 34 million people who live in Saudi Arabia. We don't know very much about them," says Hazel - adding that quality of life can be "very poor".

She believes bringing large international sporting events to the country can help improve human rights and increase grassroots sport opportunities.

"To hold an FIA (motorsport's world governing body) sanctioned race, Saudi Arabia had to let women drive," Hazel says.

Reema Juffali has since become Saudi Arabia's first female professional racing driver. While sport is never gong to fix everything, Hazel thinks it can help.

"With the doors completely closed on Saudi Arabia, nothing had improved for 40 years," she says.

"There is, to an extent, more reform happening because the world's eyes are on it."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Hazel says other F1 races don't receive the same level of scrutiny. For example, the US Grand Prix, which is held in Texas.

Hazel also points out Formula 1 races in other countries which have been criticised by human rights campaigners.

"There are children in cages in the United States. They are imprisoned and alone," she says.

"But we know lots of Americans and we know lots of American culture. So we understand why we would take a Grand Prix there," she says.

"But we don't know very much about Saudi. We don't watch Saudi Arabian films all the time."

Hazel says she now has friends in Saudi who will be grateful to see the eyes of the world facing their way.

"Every time I go to Saudi, I do I feel vulnerable as a gay person. But everyone deserves sport. Everyone deserves entertainment."

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