Stefano Domenicali interview: New Formula 1 chief urges drivers to lead by example – BBC Sport

Drivers take the knee before an F1 race in 2020
Drivers took the knee before each race of the 2020 calendar to highlight the fight against racism

New Formula 1 boss Stefano Domenicali says he will urge the Grand Prix drivers to “lead by example” as role models for the sport.

The 55-year-old said he had written to all the drivers to point out their importance as “positive ambassadors for F1”.

“They have big responsibility because they are the face of our sport,” said Domenicali, who became F1 president in January.

“We have a huge potential to reach new fans who will engage with their faces and behaviour and how they act as a man.”

Domenicali singled out Lewis Hamilton, who has promoted anti-racism, diversity and sustainability in recent years, as “a massive ambassador for F1”.

“He is very important for F1 as he is embracing other values into the discussion and giving his face to a lot of points that are outside normal sport.”

In his first news conference since taking his new role, the former Ferrari team boss covered a wide range of topics.

These included:

  • His confidence that F1 can run a full calendar this season despite the pandemic
  • Prospects for new races
  • A revision to plans for sprint races on Saturday afternoons
  • His hopes for Hamilton’s contract talks with Mercedes to come to a conclusion

The drivers’ public responsibilities

Stefano Domenicali on the grid at the Portuguese Grand Prix in 2020
Stefano Domenicali (wearing the orange mask) says F1 drivers have a “big responsibility” as the face of the sport

Domenicali said he expected other drivers to follow Hamilton’s example of speaking out on important issues.

F1 last year started a campaign promoting diversity, in which Hamilton was at the forefront, and has made sustainability a key issue for the future, setting a target for the sport to be net-zero carbon by 2030.

“We never had in F1 so many fantastic drivers – young, talented, very strong – and we cannot lose the opportunity of making sure they are more than drivers,” Domenicali said.

“They need to understand their relationship with the F1 world is essential.

“It is an area I would like to invest a lot of time on my side to keep discussing, not only on the sporting side with them, but to share how I believe we should work together in using our platform and their role model to push points that are important for our society.”

Grand Prix Drivers’ Association chairman Alex Wurz told BBC Sport: “It’s no secret Stefano and I have already spoken. He made it clear he wants to engage with us and have a close co-operation for a better future.

“We talked through how we can co-operate. Like any relationship, there will be aspects where we agree and aspects where we disagree, but I really welcome the openness and approach and we will engage and continue the trend from the last few years of working together.”

Domenicali addressed the controversy around new Haas driver Nikita Mazepin’s conduct in a video posted online last year in which the Russian novice appeared to inappropriately touch a woman in a car.

“It is pretty clear what he did was not acceptable – very straightforward,” Domenicali said.

“But he was apologetic and we need to make sure in the discussion we are going to have that they understand that we cannot joke on certain things – not possible. They are too important not to understand their role model they have to embrace.”

The challenges of Covid

Domenicali said he was “totally confident” that F1 could fulfil its record 23-race calendar this season, although he admitted it was “a challenge” and that the sport would have to be “fluid and flexible”.

After publishing one calendar F1 has already had to draft a second, postponing the planned opening race of the season in Australia until November and removing the Chinese Grand Prix, for which it is still hoped a new slot can be found.

There is also uncertainty over the proposed third round of the season, scheduled for 2 May. Until recently, this was expected to be run at Portugal’s Portimao track, but travel restrictions have raised doubts about the viability of a race there.

Domenicali said that having two races in Bahrain to open the season was “one of the possible plan Bs, but it is not confirmed”.

And he emphasised that F1 would not be pushing to have drivers and team members vaccinated early.

“The priority is the most vulnerable,” he said. “We don’t want to jump the line of vaccination.”

The prospect of new races

Domenicali also reiterated F1’s plans to have more than one race in America.

He said negotiations over extending the contract of the US Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, had started; that work was ongoing on a race in Miami and that there was “big interest from both parties to be there”; and there were other possible venues in the US with whom negotiations were not as advanced.

Vietnam, whose debut race in 2020 was cancelled because of Covid and which has been dropped for 2021, was “still on the table for a future event”.

And he said there were discussions about races in both “north and south Africa”.

Hamilton’s contract

Lewis Hamilton
Lewis Hamilton won his first F1 championship in 2008

Hamilton will be going for an all-time record eighth drivers’ title this year but first he has to finalise a new contract with Mercedes, as his existing deal expired at the end of last year.

Domenicali said he understood the delay in concluding negotiations between Hamilton and Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff.

“I am sure Lewis wants to understand a lot of points about his future,” Domenicali said. “I don’t think it is only related to his salary; it is more related to what they have in mind to share together in the future.

“What he will fight for this year from the sporting perspective is incredible. And I can imagine the pressure and dynamic of how he reaches this record would be an incredible story to tell.”

Rejection of sporting gimmicks

Over the past two years, F1 had been pushing to try out new approaches to racing, in particular a reverse-grid sprint race in place of qualifying on Saturday.

Domenicali is open to the idea of a shorter race on Saturdays in addition to the main Grand Prix on Sunday and said this “could be tested this year”, but he said the idea of a “reverse grid is over”.

He pointed out that “when we were changing qualifying every couple of days, it burned our fingers” – a reference to former boss Bernie Ecclestone forcing through a change in qualifying format at the start of 2016 which had to be abandoned after one race.

Plans are in their infancy, but it is understood that the sprint race would not have an effect on the way cars lined up for the main event.

Domenicali said: “It’s important to think of new ideas of being more attractive or interesting but we don’t have to lose the traditional approach of racing.”

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