While Lewis Hamilton continues with his campaign of anti-racism and the Black Lives Matter movement, his use of the black power salute after winning the recent Styrian Grand Prix may be having an impact beyond what he intended.
Hamilton is already jousting on social media with grand prix legends Mario Andretti and Sir Jackie Stewart over the politicising of Formula One, but the potential impact from his podium campaign could be more serious.
There are rumours in Malaysia that Petronas, the Mercedes-AMG team’s title sponsor and the contributor of around $90 million a year, is not happy about the campaign and also about the cars being re-painted in black from their signature ‘Silver Arrows’ scheme for the recent races in Austria and Hungary.
Race relations is a highly-complicated matter in Malaysia, which is a melting pot of different ethnicities and cultures involving Malays, Chinese, Indians and indigenous groups.
It is a very diverse nation and there are also affirmative-action policies that grant a special status and special privileges to the so-called ‘bumiputera’, the Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak, and that is not something that they are keen to give up.
Things have been complicated in recent months with Malaysia getting a new Prime Minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, in March after the 94-year-old Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who had returned to power in 2018, resigning unexpectedly.
Mahathir was the man who led Malaysia into Formula 1 back in the 1990s and has long been an advocate of Petronas using the sport to grow its global business.
He was also behind a huge bid to revive the Malaysian GP last year, although this was rejected by the Formula 1 group, apparently because it did not want to disrupt F1’s relationship with Singapore.
The two nations have a long history of friction.
Since Muhyiddin took power he has fallen out with the president and CEO of Petronas, Wan Zulkiflee, over the question of how Petronas spends its money and Wan resigned in June after five years in the role. Muhyiddin has since appointed a new boss for Petronas in Muhammad Taufik Tengku Aziz, who took up the position a couple of weeks ago.
Petronas has been Mercedes’ main sponsor since 2010 and it was Wan who agreed the most recent extension to the deal.
In recent months Mercedes-AMG Petronas has also been taking on new sponsorships, notably with the British chemicals company Ineos, in order to try make the team cost-neutral to its parent Daimler AG in Germany.
The team’s phenomenal success in Formula 1 has been very valuable to all the companies involved but the word is that some of them want to discuss the livery change and Hamilton’s campaign as they are not entirely comfortable with what is going on.
This does not mean that they are necessarily opposed to what Hamilton believes, but race relations is a complex and troublesome subject and is not something that they wish to focus upon.