Even by Formula 1’s dramatic standards, the recent Hungarian Grand Prix was a thriller – yet an image captured before it began may prove its biggest legacy.
There was another moment that made headlines around the world, though.
During the pre-race national anthem ceremony, Sebastian Vettel sported a Pride shirt in protest against anti-LGBTQ+ legislation brought in by Hungary’s government.
In a special episode of the BBC’s LGBT Sport Podcast, the four-time world champion explains why he decided to take a stand, and the difference he hopes it will make.
“I wasn’t nervous or embarrassed by the rainbow colours, or of what people think,” Vettel says. “I wanted to send a message, and I was very proud to do it.”
‘It doesn’t matter who you fall in love with’
Vettel’s decision was not an impulsive one.
The Aston Martin driver knew that Formula 1 would be heading to Hungary this summer, and that the country’s government was widely seen as hostile to the LGBTQ+ community, passing a law earlier this year banning the promotion of homosexuality and transgender issues in schools.
In the weeks before the grand prix, the European Parliament voted in favour of taking legal action against the new law; Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban responded by saying school policy was a matter for his country, not “Brussels bureaucrats”.
“I remembered I’d seen in the news that the current government doesn’t have the most progressive views on certain things,” Vettel says when he speaks to the BBC via a Zoom call.
“There was a lot of debate about the laws that prohibit access to all ages getting a wholesome education and leaving some parts out, which I think is completely wrong.
“So the idea was born that we have this moment before the race where we are able to put out certain messages, and I thought it was a good opportunity to send out a small sign.”
That’s exactly what the German did.
There was a rainbow sweeping up the side of his trainers and across his racing helmet; a Pride-coloured face mask as he walked around the track; and that T-shirt bearing the message: ‘Same Love’.
“It’s the name of a beautiful song by Macklemore, and I think it explains in a nice way some of the wrong perceptions people have,” Vettel says.
“It doesn’t matter your skin colour, it doesn’t matter your background, it doesn’t matter where you come from, it doesn’t matter who you fall in love with. In the end, you just want equal treatment for everybody.”
‘It meant a lot to me’
Vettel’s actions resonated with Matt Bishop, Aston Martin’s chief communications officer, a veteran of the F1 world, and a founder-ambassador for the Racing Pride group.
“I joke that, when I arrived nearly 30 years ago, I was the only gay in the F1 village,” says Bishop.
“Now I’m not that, but LGBTQ+ people in Formula 1 are still a rarity. So to have someone like Seb, who is a straight man who completely understands that one should be able to live and let live, and love and make love to whoever you like, is very heartening. It’s what we call allyship, and as I said to Sebastian, it meant a lot to me.”
Following Vettel’s actions in Hungary, messages of support came in from across the LGBTQ+ community as well as from Lewis Hamilton, who posted a message on Instagram promising to “join you next time with the same shirt”.
“I was surprised it was so much of a big deal,” Vettel admits.
“Ideally, there wouldn’t be any reaction because it’s just normal.
“There are countries still arguing about whether gay marriage should be legal or not legal. I think there’s enough marriage for all of us, you know. It makes no difference to straight people whether gay people are allowed to get married or not, but it makes a huge difference to gay people to be able to get married like everyone else.
“So yeah, I was surprised – but it shows that there’s still so much that needs to be done.”
And what about the reaction of those who felt that the Aston Martin driver should stick to racing, and that “politics and sport shouldn’t mix”?
“I get the point,” Vettel says.
“I grew up in the sport, and had lots of discussions with experts and media and communications, and you hear this statement a couple of times. But are we talking about ‘politics’ when we’re talking about human rights? I don’t think so.
“I think there are some topics where you can’t duck or say: ‘It doesn’t belong here, let’s not talk about this.’ Some topics are so big that they belong literally everywhere, and everyone has to be aware.”
‘Just push the door open… you will become a superstar’
Vettel is the latest – and arguably most high-profile – sportsman to speak out in support of the LGBTQ+ community, joining Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson and ex-England rugby star James Haskell as a vocal, visible ally.
“I wasn’t surprised that LGBTQ+ people would take Sebastian to their hearts,” Bishop says.
“But I think it’s particularly important when someone who is well-known as a straight family man takes up the cause.
“And I’ll tell you this. If a gay man becomes a Formula 1 driver, drives for a good team and wins, he will become the biggest and most loved sports star in the whole wide world.
“So if somebody is in Formula 3 or Formula 2 and is nervous, just push the door open. It will spring open for you, and you will become a superstar.”
Vettel believes that showing an inclusive attitude is vital.
“If I can be an inspiration, that’s great, but in the end, the whole environment has to be inviting,” the German says.
“So if small things like what I did help to raise awareness and express support, that’s great. But we have to stop judging people on what they like to do and who they love. We should be seeing the people first, and everyone is different and everyone has a beauty about them.
“Let’s just treat people the way we want to treat them, equally, and not based on who they love.”
Sebastian Vettel and Matt Bishop were speaking to Jack Murley on the BBC’s LGBT Sport Podcast. New episodes are available weekly on BBC Sounds.