'Lewis Hamilton is still the only Black driver': The dads fighting racism in F1

Lewis Hamilton is unarguably the most famous racing driver in the world. He has achieved a record-breaking 156 F1 podiums and is worth around £40 million.

He has transcended the sport itself to the point where people around the world – even those with zero interest in or knowledge of racing – know exactly who he is.

But, as with so many elite institutions, having a Black mixed-race athlete as the most successful and most recognisable face of the sport, doesn’t mean it is a haven of racial equality and equal opportunity. Far from it. And children at the grassroots level of the sport are experiencing racism and hostility from officials, parents and other drivers.

The founders of the BAME Motorsports Foundation want to change this. They want to shake up the world of motorsports by making it more diverse and providing opportunities for children from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds to give it a try.

Created by three Black dads – Mike Bugembe, Peter Alleyne, and Francis Mensah – who all wanted their children to have access to motorsports from a young age, the Foundation aims to uncover the realities of racism in the sport and remove the barriers to accessibility for ethnic minority children.

The fact that Lewis Hamilton has smashed every record and reached the highest possible point of success doesn’t change the fact that he is a complete anomaly – he is the only Black driver who has ever managed to break through to the top level of this overwhelmingly white, elitist sport – which is astounding when you consider that Formula 1 has been running since 1950.

Mike’s 10-year-old son Joshua idolises Lewis Hamilton, but when Mike looked into finding a way for Joshua to follow in his hero’s footsteps, he was shocked by the barriers and the small-minded attitudes in the community.

‘When we got into that world, we realised there are no Black people. None,’ Mike tells Metro.co.uk.

‘We are an “event” when we walk into those spaces. It is that feeling where you can still feel people staring at you.

‘I began to dig into this a little bit more, and I realised that it is a very closed industry. If you look at the racing circuit, Lewis Hamilton is the only Black driver… ever, in Formula 1. Ever.

‘I think in NASCAR in the US, there have been maybe two Black drivers. So this is a problem around the world.

‘In a Formula 1 team there are 600 people. There is marketing, HR, finance, sales, IT – even across all of these disciplines, there are still hardly any Black people. The path to any one of those careers, within the world of motorsports, is incredibly opaque and hard to break in to.

‘And you start to wonder – why?’

Mike began speaking to the other Black parents he encountered on the circuit with his son. There weren’t many, but the dads he spoke to all had similar stories to tell, and identified the same problems.

‘You know the spot-the-Black-man thing where you find each other in crowds?’ explains Mike. ‘I remember, Josh’s mechanic asked me – “do you know each other?” – and I had to explain that this is just what we do when there aren’t many of us in a space, we acknowledge each other.

‘But speaking to these other dads, we very quickly realised there are a few big barriers to getting into motorsports for people of colour. Cost is one. It is ridiculously expensive. £50,000 per year for a 10-year-old, is a lot of money. That immediately shuts out 99% of the population.’

This eye-watering cost is for a lawnmower engine for a go-kart. Kids who want to get into motorsports have to start with karting, but it is an extremely competitive market and many parents will buy their children multiple engines to try to give them an edge in competition – making the likelihood of success dependent on parental income rather than talent.

The most competitive parents will have up to eight different engines for the children, to allow for indoor, outdoor, wet and dry conditions. There are also costs involved with the kart itself, repair work after crashes and detailed data analysis – even at the child level of the sport.

‘Another barrier is exposure,’ continues Mike. ‘No one knows about motorsports in Black and minority communities. So people have to try to even understand what it is before they get involved with it.

‘There is an attitude that it is “not for people like me”. There seems to be a collective feeling that motorsports just isn’t something that is “for us”. I don’t know the full answer to why this assumption exists, but I do know that when you don’t see people who look like you in those worlds, it’s very hard to imagine yourself in those spaces.’

Beyond the practical barriers, there are the problematic attitudes and discriminatory treatment that people of colour face in the world of elite racing, as Mike alluded to earlier.

And this is isn’t a problem that is reserved for grassroots or junior competitors, earlier this year, Lewis Hamilton was candid about the overt racism he has experienced over his entire career.

The F1 star revealed that children would throw objects at him when he was karting as a kid, and that ‘fans’ would taunt him in blackface at the beginning of his career.

In an interview with the Sunday Times, Hamilton said that he is treated differently in the F1 community, and that ‘only one type of person is truly welcome in the sport, one who looks a certain way.’

He added: ‘Even now, the media ask me different questions than they do my competitors and make accusations directly and indirectly — you’re not British enough, not humble enough, not loved enough by the public.

‘Being the first Black “anything” is a proud and lonely walk.’

It was a sad and damning indictment of the sport by its brightest star, and an experience that Mike and his son Joshua are, unfortunately, all too familiar with.

‘Joshua does notice it,’ Mike tells us. ‘You can’t not notice it. We can feel people staring when we are at events.

‘The other two dads in the charity have the same challenges. We all have to work hard to make sure our children our emotionally robust, because they do become targets.

‘We have had a few incidents where parents would tell their kids to run Joshua into the wall. They were told that if they let Joshua get ahead on a certain corner then he would win – so they were instructed to run into him. The hard thing is that when your kid hears that as well, then he is worried the other kids are coming after him – and then they do.

‘When that happened, we had to speak to the marshals and they dismissed it as a “racing incident”.’

Realising that the burden of proof was in him to show that the incident was racially-motivated – as is so often the case when you try to call out racism – Mike took a different approach. At the next race, Mike told the marshals in advance, and provided video evidence of parents instructing their kids to specifically target Joshua.

‘We placed all our phones in different areas where this kind of interaction was most likely to happen,’ explains Mike. ‘Purely so that if it happened again it couldn’t be dismissed as a “racing incident”. We had a couple of marshals who actually listened, admitted that it had happened before, and the children who did it were sent home. But others could see it happening clearly but just wouldn’t admit what it was.

‘A child was staring right at Joshua, and instead of going around him or driving straight, he just drove straight into him. There was no intention to race, the intention was to take him out.’

It was Lewis Hamilton’s bold actions this summer – his willingness to risk his position and personal security to speak out in support of Black Live Matter, despite being completely isolated – that spurred Mike, Peter and Francis to take action to make a change.

‘With systemic bias and racism really coming to the forefront during lockdown and everyone suddenly paying attention to it, it became really clear that our sport is so far from diverse,’ explains Mike. ‘And Lewis Hamilton himself sticking his neck out for the cause. He is on his own there. We were inspired by his bravery.’

At the end of the year, the charity is aiming to host a karting event in central London that will allow for members of the Black community – from age 10 and above – to give karting a go.

Karting normally costs around £50 for one session for a child, but this event will have the cost significantly reduced, so more children will get to try it out.

‘We want to begin exposure that way,’ says Mike. ‘We also want to take children to some of the car manufacturers, so they can see what else happens in that space. That even if they’re interested in IT, they can still get into the world of motorsports.

‘We want to expose children to this world that otherwise would have been completely hidden.’

And this is just the beginning. Exposure is the starting point, beyond that, the charity aims to help with intentional talent identification and development and support for children with potential.

‘There is another Lewis Hamilton out there, but all of the barriers that exist will mean that it is just not going to happen for them,’ says Mike. ‘We want to make sure they get those opportunities, and begin to level the playing field.’

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