As Sebastian Vettel climbed to the top step of the podium to receive his Belgian Grand Prix winner's trophy, some eagle-eyed observers may have noticed a couple of small banners on the podium targeted against oil-giant Shell.
Greenpeace had carefully planned a protest against Shell’s plan to continue drilling for oil in the Arctic, and the banners that had been planted on the podium were unfurled via remote control.
Before the race, two hang gliders had flown over the circuit trailing similar banners, and protesters also managed to climb up the main grandstand and unfurl a banner opposite the pits with the message: “Arctic Oil? Shell No!”
Boos rang out, although it’s unclear whether they were aimed at Greenpeace or Vettel himself. The latter appears to be a distinct possibility as Vettel has been booed on more than one occasion this season after the incident at the Malaysian Grand Prix.
Formula One is massive business, and it’s unlikely that these protests will have any effect at all. Of course it is good advertising for the Greenpeace cause and the organisation actually issued a press release ahead of the race to explain the reasoning behind the stunt.
This Grand Prix is Shell's biggest day of the year. They've spent millions of Euros plastering their logo everywhere and entertaining scores of VIP guests, but the one thing they don't want to talk about is their plan for Arctic oil drilling. That's why we're here, to let the public and Formula One fans know what this company is really up to.
It should be important to note that Greenpeace are not against Formula One as such, and the sport itself has gone to great lengths to ensure that it is becoming greener. Next season sees the introduction of 1.6 litre six-cylinder turbo engines with energy recovery and fuel restrictions to replace the current 2.4 litre normally aspirated V8s. The chance will mean a fuel efficiency increase of 35 percent and a further cutting of the carbon footprint.
This, of course, goes down well with organisations such as Greenpeace, and an extremely good article on Sunday’s protest by Kumi Naidoo on their official website explains that many employees are indeed fans of Formula One and many attended the race.
I bet there are plenty of environmentalists in the grandstands at the F1 today, just as there are many secret F1 fans in Greenpeace! My interest in F1 started way back when I had a roommate who absolutely loved it—she would sometimes get up at 2 a.m. just to watch it. And before long, she got me hooked, too. So I can certainly respect the technology, sportsmanship and innovation that are at the heart of the Formula One Grand Prix.
But personally, what I struggle with is what the sponsor of the event, Shell, is doing to the Arctic. Shell has been leading the race for extreme fossil fuels all over the world. From fracking in my home country of South Africa, to spilling oil in the Niger Delta, causing upheaval to Indigenous communities in Canada’s tar sands and—last but not least—risking everything to get at the oil that the melting Arctic is opening up.
The message is clear and not one that I disagree with. But Formula One is a multi-million pound industry, and the calendar will continue to grow. Blocked roads and barricades of burning tyres failed to significantly disrupt this year’s Bahrain Grand Prix as anti-government activists clashed with police.
So whilst the Greenpeace message achieved what it set out to do, Bernie Ecclestone will not have batted an eyelid, just as he didn’t in Bahrain as quoted on the BBC at the time.
"I don't think it's for us to decide the politics, good or bad. It's a good circuit, a good race, and we think everybody's happy so we're here."