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Lewis Hamilton indicates discomfort with Formula One’s return to Saudi Arabia

<i>Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>Seven-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton has indicated his unease about the sport's return to Saudi Arabia at a press conference on March 16.
AFP via Getty Images
Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images
Seven-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton has indicated his unease about the sport's return to Saudi Arabia at a press conference on March 16.

By Sammy Mngqosini, CNN

Seven-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton has indicated his unease about the sport’s return to Saudi Arabia at a press conference on Thursday.

The Mercedes driver along with Red Bull’s Sergio Perez, Lance Stroll from Aston Martin, Alpine’s Esteban Ocon and Kevin Magnussen of Haas were the second group to be interviewed at an official FIA press conference as part of Thursday’s media day a head of the Saudi Arabia Grand Prix this weekend.

Drivers were asked about their thoughts on being back in Jeddah after last year’s race was marred by a missile strike on an oil refinery.

Speaking last, Hamilton was reluctant to share his thoughts at first, simply saying “not much really to add. All the opposite to everything they said.”

This was after Perez said he was “happy to be back” while Stroll and Ocon expressed “trust” in the safety measures in place and Magnussen opened with “there’s a ceasefire between the two parties that were involved as last year, and I think that gives some confidence.”

When asked to elaborate on his comments, Hamilton acknowledged they were “open to interpretation.”

The 38-year-old was asked if not racing in Jeddah was an option and he said: “Well, the thing is, if I’m not here, Formula One will continue without me. So what I try to do is just try to learn as much as I can.

“When I’m going to these different places, I still feel that as a sport going to places with human rights issues, such as this one, I feel that the sport is duty bound to raise awareness and try to leave a positive impact.

“And I feel like it needs to do more. What that is, I don’t have all the answers, but I think we always need to try and do more to raise awareness for things that the people are struggling with,” Hamilton said.

Human rights group Reprieve said in a statement shared with CNN on Friday that F1 “has never seriously engaged with human rights.”

“For all the talk of “positive values” and “accelerating change, Formula One has never seriously engaged with human rights and the way the sport is used to whitewash abuses by some of the world’s most repressive regimes,” said Reprieve Joint Executive Director Maya Foa.

According to Reprieve, there have been at least 13 executions in Saudi Arabia in the last two weeks.

“Carrying out these executions on the eve of the Jeddah Grand Prix is a brazen display of impunity by the Saudi authorities, confident that the sport and its commercial partners will stay silent, and that the pageantry of F1 will distract from the bloodshed.

“Drivers are being put in the impossible position of wondering how many more will be executed over the four days of qualifying and racing. The sport’s human rights problem has never been more glaring,” Foa added.

CNN has reached out to Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Sport for comment.

Last year, Saudi Arabia executed 81 men on one day, including seven Yemenis and one Syrian, for terrorism and other offenses including holding “deviant beliefs,” authorities said, in the biggest mass execution in decades.

The number dwarfed the 67 executions reported in the kingdom in all of 2021 and the 27 in 2020

Critics have decried the kingdom for “sportswashing,” an attempt to burnish one’s reputation through sport.

“I think Saudi Arabia has recognized a couple of years ago that to be a powerful nation internationally, you cannot just rely on hard power,” Danyel Reiche, a visiting research fellow and associate professor at Georgetown University Qatar, recently told CNN.

“You also need to invest in soft power, and the case of Qatar shows that this can work pretty well,” he said, adding that Saudi Arabia is following in the Qatari approach with sport, but with a delay of around 25 years.

In response to criticism about racing in Saudi Arabia, Formula One told CNN Friday: “For decades Formula 1 has worked hard be a positive force everywhere it races, including economic, social, and cultural benefits.

“Sports like Formula 1 are uniquely positioned to cross borders and cultures to bring countries and communities together to share the passion and excitement of incredible competition and achievement.

“We take our responsibilities very seriously and have made our position on human rights and other issues clear to all our partners and host countries who commit to respect human rights in the way their events are hosted and delivered.

“We are proud of all our partnerships and look forward to building on those in the years ahead,” the statement read.

Meanwhile Hamilton said he was “looking forward to driving the car” in Jeddah.

“The track is pretty awesome. And I’m looking forward to the challenge of trying to figure out whether or not we are closer this weekend or whether we are further behind. So that part of my job I’m excited about,” he added.

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