There have been countless remarks triggered by the Daniel Abt case in the world of motorsport. If press and fans were divided between favourable and extremely dissatisfied views on Audi’s choice, the drivers lined up on an almost unanimous front of support for the German racer. The solidarity of Abt’s colleagues surprised (and even genuinely shocked) many. It was precisely these reactions that made the absence of a professional drivers’ protection body all the more obvious and painful. drivers unionise
The drivers’ freedom of personal expression is always the talk of any paddock. Those directly concerned have no difficulty in defining themselves as “gagged”, imprisoned in the role of brand ambassadors and relegated to spokesmen for their sponsors. This writer has never shared this kind of narrative, too often abused with the sole purpose of completelyfreeing drivers from the responsibility coming from attitudes and stances that would be a cause of dismissal in any other workplace. However, it would be really obtuse to deny that drivers often end up being victims of the whims of public opinion and the subsequent “damage control” manoeuvres of teams and sponsors, with usually inauspicious consequences. And it is equally obtuse to deny that drivers are currently completely defenseless.
In order to avoid the foreseeable objections, it is important to point out that the problem goes well beyond the Abt case, on which the writer does not intend to make a value judgement in this instance. The reasons of the Ingolstadt outfit are evident, as well as the sincere and justified regret of the driver. One could object that those who live a life of privilege and enjoy lavish compensation cannot possibly need union representation. This would be a very simplistic view on these protection bodies, whose battles go far beyond wages and include defence against contractual abuse of the corporate environment, greater representation in decision-making processes, and protection of individual and collective interests. Something that the lucky and privileged drivers still lack, despite courageous attempts.
Active in Formula 1, the Grand Prix Drivers Association achieved the important goal of gathering under its wing all 20 drivers on the grid in 2017. Despite having achieved some results of (little) practical impact, the association has been reduced to a mere pressure group, sporadically consulted by the FIA and never addressed by the teams. 1996 World Champion Damon Hill had initiated a laudable attempt to extend protection beyond F1 with the Professional Racing Drivers Association, which soon became an empty vessel.
Hill’s heartfelt appeal highlighted the depth of the issue, but went unheard. So he told Motor Sport Magazine a few years ago: “It could be a pressure group, a lobbying group or it might in future be able to give protection and representation to professional drivers and might be able to take on specific issues. I felt the need for this throughout my career in F1. There was no protection there from forces more powerful than us. It’s been a glaring omission. A few exceptionally talented individuals have managed to transcend all that, but they are exceptional. Their talent has made them sufficiently powerful that their wings are not clipped in the same way. But they’ve had to fight bloody hard to do that. Is that right? Is that healthy for the sport?” drivers unionise
A paradigm shift
Where is it, then, that previous attempts have failed? The answer lies in their greatest merit, as well as their greatest flaw: they stemmed from those directly concerned, and never expanded further. As skilled as they are at driving, professional drivers do not have the necessary know-how. to deal with the corporate environment on an equal footing, without asymmetric information. Evident is the need to surround themselves with experts and lawyers who are able to bring the demands of these athletes to the right places, in the right way. This is not a job that can be entrusted to agents and sports attorneys individually: history teaches us the strength and importance of collective agreements. Whether by nationality, discipline or objective, professional drivers need unionism more than ever. So that never again misunderstandings, miscommunications, abuse and genuinely naive good faith cause these athletes the (avoidable) loss of their jobs.