By Alan Baldwin
BARCELONA (Reuters) – Sebastian Vettel rides a rainbow bike and worries about global warming, Lewis Hamilton is a passionate campaigner for human rights and diversity, while Lando Norris addresses mental health issues .
Modern Formula 1 drivers have moved away from the speedster stereotype and find the strength to discuss topics that the high-octane sport has often found uncomfortable.
“I think we really see a sea change,” Alex Wurz, chairman of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association (GPDA), told Reuters after Vettel’s recent appearance on a British TV show with politicians.
“Four or five years ago, nobody wanted to start a conversation on the topics of racism, sustainability, human rights and those key topics.
“Sport is now political, it is not neutral. It’s impossible to be neutral,” added the Austrian, a former driver for Benetton, McLaren and Williams.
“And they (the drivers) have learned in a very short time to really take responsibility and represent the values that we all want to see.”
Vettel, a four-time world champion, touched on topics ranging from the war in Ukraine to Brexit to energy dependency during his appearance on ‘Question Time’.
The Aston Martin driver says climate change has made him question his job of traveling the world to race cars.
On Friday, during the Spanish Grand Prix, he explained his thinking.
“I often get the question ‘Why is this important to you?'” he said. “It’s not important to me, it’s important to all of us.
“How can you ignore?…You don’t have the luxury of not caring anymore. Because, you know, that’s the basis of everything we do.
“I think it’s up to all of us to think about what we can do to change things to raise awareness.”
Wurz said he noticed the difference in meetings with the GPDA, of which Vettel is director with Mercedes youngster George Russell.
“Sometimes we just give them the forum to talk and you think ‘Wow, we have people here who make a living being tough on the right track, but now they’re talking about the human aspects, how to become better humans and lead by example,” he said.
“I think the last four or five years have totally changed and that’s really essential for the sport. Key for the sustainability of the sport.
Wurz said Hamilton, as a seven-time world champion and the sport’s only black driver, had been a “fantastic accelerator” for change.
The Mercedes driver, with more than 28 million Instagram followers, has used his platform to promote fashion and shine a light on LGBTQ+ issues and rights abuses in countries visited by the sport.
Hamilton and other drivers have taken the knee before races in 2020 and 2021 as part of the sport’s anti-racism ‘We Race as One’ initiative, although that ‘grid moment’ has now been scrapped.
Norris, 22 and with 5.3 million Instagram followers, has been open about his battles with mental health and the pressure he faced as a rookie.
“I think it’s a good thing,” said the environment Briton.
“I have changed 100%. I feel like a much more complete person, I understand things about the sport and about myself much better, so I can also express my opinion better.
“The fact that I can literally say honest words and it can affect hundreds of thousands of people and make them happier…that’s what I find quite amazing.”
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Hugh Lawson)