International Automobile Federation chief Jean Todt has hailed Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton's strong anti-racism stance, but said that all drivers must be free to decide whether to demonstrate their support.
Jean Todt told AFP in an interview that he had a long video call this week with Hamilton, who has issued stinging criticism of F1's organisers, saying the sport is "lacking leadership" on anti-racism efforts.
"I have a lot of esteem for anyone who has a calling, an engagement," Todt said, referring to Hamilton.
He also insisted that the FIA has been "engaged for a long time (to ensure) diversity, gender equality", pointing to the governing body's recent pledge to give over $1 million to the sport's new 'We Race As One' diversity foundation.
The initiative was launched in June by Formula One's chief executive Chase Carey, who put in $1 million of his own money.
But Hamilton, the only black driver on the grid, earlier this week complained that the campaign had made no progress since its pre-season launch, saying it was not coordinated enough.
Following another hurried pre-race anti-racism protest in Budapest on Sunday, during which several drivers took a knee while others stood, arrived late or remained absent, Hamilton said he would write to Todt and Carey.
- 'Apolitical' -
Todt said the world of motorsport was happy to provide a platform to address grievances about inequalities and racism, but said that such demonstrations must remain "apolitical", and that people must be free to choose whether or not they will participate.
"There are those who may want to take a knee, (and) there are those who may have the same beliefs but not wish to express them in the same way," he pointed out.
"That is freedom, that is democracy, (and) we must ensure that (those principles) are absolutely respected."
The 74-year-old former Ferrari boss spoke to AFP following a ceremony at the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Geneva late Wednesday.
At the event, he handed over 2 million euros in part raised during an auction of Formula One paraphernalia to help in the global fight against COVID-19, stressing the importance of the FIA playing "a societal role" in the crisis.
He said the pandemic had created unprecedented challenges for the sport, as for the world in general, but defended the decision to resume racing.
"Until there is a vaccine, we have to learn to live with this virus," he said.
"We had to resume life, resume the sport," he said, insisting that "imagining remaining indefinitely confined at home" was "impossible".
- Road accidents down -
But he said all precautions were being taken to ensure the events can happen safely, with more than 4,000 tests conducted around each of the three F1 competitions held since the restart.
F1 reported its first two positive coronavirus tests of the delayed 2020 season at the Hungarian Grand Prix last week, out of nearly 5,000 drivers, teams and personnel tested there.
Todt insisted the low numbers indicated that the meticulous preparation before, during and after the events had paid off.
"But this remains very fragile. We cannot declare victory, because we are at the mercy of this virus... Until a vaccine is found," he said.
Todt, who also serves as the United Nations' top envoy on road safety, meanwhile said there was a small sliver of silver lining to the crisis in terms of fewer road accidents.
"There can be some positives in every crisis. Obviously, once there were fewer vehicles on the roads, fewer pedestrians and fewer two-wheelers, there were fewer accidents."
However, he warned, the accidents that did happen had often been at higher speeds, since people finding themselves basically alone on the roads felt freer to circumvent the rules.
"That is dangerous."
Hamilton raised a fist after winning the Styrian Grand Prix
Todt, pictured with Lewis Hamilton, said people must be free to opt out of taking part in anti-racism gestures