CONTENT WARNING: The following post contains accounts of sexual assault and racist language. Please, heed with caution and look after yourselves – Dre

This is a strange one. Normally, when I do the sports writing I do, there’s an overall point that I want to make, and the piece is the journey to get to that destination. This one isn’t really like that. This is going to be one of those posts where I’m just going to lay all my thoughts down in a post and see what sticks. Hopefully, something decent comes out of it.

I remember when the End Racism presentations first happened in F1 last year, Lando Norris was the first to defend the fact his colleagues were probably going to piss people off, despite the fact he kneeled himself. He knew that drivers like Leclerc and Verstappen were not going to kneel and he didn’t want his colleagues to get dragged over social media. I probably gave him too much credit then, but I think he’s always tried to have a diplomatic approach to how his fellow drivers are perceived. That’s understandable. 

Last night, Lando was Twitch streaming and rewatching highlights of the Bahrain Grand Prix last weekend. A clip went semi-viral on Twitter when he mocked his audience as Mick Schumacher spun on the Safety Car restart. Lando said; “Make it even” amongst other things, in comparison to his teammate, Nikita Mazepin, who had spun multiple times that weekend.

A lot of people were very quick to jump on Lando for this one. He’d already had another clip leak a fortnight prior when he was very clumsy in talking about a girl he wanted to hook up with. The language he used could have easily been perceived as misogynistic. I don’t know if Lando really understands the nuance behind the Mazepin mockery NOT being primarily because of his spins, but because of his sexual assault. 

Most reasonable people, do. It was the biggest story of F1’s 2020 off-season. Mazepin, what he did last December, and the lack of action from everyone else accountable was the personification of everything we as fans hate about this sport. 

Alienation, given the massive rise of new, more educated and socially aware fans who could relate to being on the receiving end of Mazepin’s assault. Privilege, knowing that Mazepin probably wasn’t good enough to make F1 on merit alone without his Oligarch billionaire father. The fact he could buy his way in and take advantage of a struggling Haas team who less than a year ago was talking about leaving altogether. The lack of accountability from his team who kept his discipline private, and the sport itself, who supported Haas publicly but did nothing themselves. Even FIA President Jean Todt was like: “They’ll be serious consequences… if it happens again.”. And let’s not forget, Nikita himself deleted his public apology and later admitted he hadn’t apologised to his victim too. 

A lot of people had to sit there and swallow that. We’re not stupid, at least not as individuals. We probably knew that despite every use of the hashtag #WeSayNoToMazepin that was being used, deep down, we knew nothing would happen. We knew Haas would keep it moving because they had to in order to survive. A lot of us would be having a referendum in our own heads as to whether you want to employ someone who’s done a horrible, sackable act, or potentially make the 200 people Haas employ redundant. We know that sometimes, “doing the right thing”, can be very difficult indeed. We know the nuance, just sometimes, we don’t really want to apply it because… and I’ve said this many a time, we know how the sausage is made.

Seeing Nikita Mazepin have a terrible opening weekend, littered with spins and struggles… this was our karmic justice. We mocked, we moaned, we tapdanced on his beached car at Turn 3 on Sunday. Because deep down, we knew of everything in the previous three paragraphs and we realised, this was all we had left. The only real outlet for the pain, the anger and frustration that the last four months have given so many fans who love the sport. Again, it’s understandable.

I don’t write this because I feel like I’m above it. You can dig my tweets up from Sunday, I was one of those people too. As soon as I knew Mazepin was alright, it was open season on what was the biggest walking target for F1 fans to dunk on via social media, that we’ve ever seen. We know it’s futile, it’s why we do it. And who doesn’t like a few extra likes on that tweet? Releases a little serotonin after all.

But then I’ve looked back on the last few days and the discourse on social media, the clips from Lando’s stream, friends and journos and people whose opinions I respect, and it’s… overwhelming. F1 Twitter is a symptom of an overall interaction problem on social media and how we handle outrage from anything. From Mazepin’s nature, to “cancel culture” as a whole. We’re incredibly binary in how we talk. Either 1 or 10 on the scale. Little room for nuanced discussion in between. 

I dealt with that first-hand last week. West Ham footballer Jarrod Bowen had a tweet from 2012 dug up by people with too much time on their hands. In it, was the n-word. He was 15 at the time. I publicly said that it wasn’t as simple a matter to just bury the man for it. Of course, using that word is and always will be unacceptable. But do we as a society at large want to taint someone for life, for a stupid tweet he put out when he was still a child? I’d rather the energy that was out there was used on education, informing and trying to look for the deeper roots of the problem than “cancelling” Jarrod for a mistake he’s apologised for. I had this open conversation with Niran, a mixed-race YouTuber who you probably better know as FNG from Team Quadrant…

It’s been cropped to not include the person’s profile or username. They’re lucky I gave them that much dignity.

….We were both called coons by a black member of “dudebro” Twitter. Another scale used to describe the spectrum of the sport’s fans from the “uwu/DTS stan” to the gatekeepers who can’t stand the fact there are new folks impeding the “culture”. I and Niran had to deal with the same language racists use for not taking a strong enough stance against it. That in itself is fucking baffling.

This is what it’s like being in F1 Twitter in a nutshell, and is the symptoms of a larger problem.  And I think Mazepin’s another version of that problem.

Two flashpoints that got me to this state of reflection. A tweet a couple of days ago talked about the potential damage to Mazepin’s mental health. Of course, given the sharp uptick in talking about mental health in recent years, it was almost being used as a shield to try and diminish what he’d done in the past. And it’s hard to juggle that with the fact that I’ve often struggled with it myself and the last thing I’d ever want anyone to do was to tell me I was using that important topic as a weapon.

I’ve had backlash before for showing empathy towards social media admins like Haas and Ferrari, who are just trying to do their jobs and create content, regardless of the decisions of their employers. Logging in to seeing horrendous abuse, while you’re just doing your job, must be incredibly draining. They’ve not written a cheque big enough to take on that kind of job.

On a deeper level, Suicide is the biggest killer of men in the UK under 50. Over 70% of suicides in the country are men. We don’t have the justice system to properly deal with sexual assaults and violent crime, especially domestically, regardless of how we identify. 

It makes you think twice. I’ve not spoken about this publicly before, but I too am a victim of sexual assault. I’m not a social butterfly by any means, but I’ve been to work functions and parties and have been groped and had my crotch touched and grabbed inappropriately in the same way Mazepin did. Without consent, in the same way, countless others have. I almost feel guilty talking about it because I know as a cis-gendered man, I’m a big part of the overall problem (90% of aggressors in all violent crime are men) and that nearly everyone who identifies as a woman has a story similar to mine, and the vast majority of the time, a man was the aggressor. That’s horrifying, and it makes me want to be a better ally where I can. 

I remembered Hazel Southwell’s powerful piece on Motorsport Magazine talking about how Mazepin was only a symptom of a bigger issue. That the sport would be complete hypocrites to make an example of Nikita without cleaning up its own house. About how she’d been reached out to by many women in the paddock and in the sport at large, and how the paddock was described as “A playground for sexual advantage”. Energy could be spent there trying to improve it… Instead, we’ve given him the Vettel spinning meme treatment. I totally get Hazel’s frustration.

We can’t be talking about we as men needing to do better, then get off the pot the moment the red mist obsession of standing out on social media descends. Or when the likes dry up. 

But that’s the foundation of which F1 Twitter has been built. Entire journalistic entitles have been built on the back of being creative with jokes, it’s opened up jobs, opportunities and monetization we’d have only dreamed of when this community was an embryo a decade ago. We saw it with Pastor Maldonado, Sebastian Vettel once he started spinning, any paid driver that didn’t have a glistening junior record. And it took a near-death experience from Romain Grosjean for us to realise, “Shit, he’s actually a really likeable, funny and charming human being.” And we rinsed him for years for having the odd crash in a sport where we focus on human error to a stronger degree than any other I can think of.

Again, I’m not above this. I’ve indulged in that style of humour many a time and will probably continue to. And I’m not going to suddenly become a member of the sensitivity police. There’s always going to be room for jokes, and there should be. The other flashpoint I had involved text messages from friends worried about the feeling they may lose that very right, and the reality that it’s always going to be difficult in determining where that “line” is. That’s the moral “1-10” scale in full flow, as we struggle to deal with the difficult nature of Mazepin, what he’s done, the lack of consequences, we on Twitter becoming the moral judge, jury and executioner, and what he represents.  

I haven’t got the answers. I’m well aware that if you read this, you’ll happily forget it by the time Imola comes up, or sooner if a new meme hits Twitter. If we played Jackbox’s “Split The Room”, we’d never lose. We’re tribalistic, we lack nuance and we piggyback off each other. We’re a big, bloated, ugly mess of a community on social media and we’re too far gone for that to drastically change. Most of us aren’t “1’s” or “10’s”. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, and I hope we all think a little deeper and a little differently about how we conduct ourselves and how we deal with the world around us. I think if we all did that, we’d all be a little bit better for it. At least I hope.