Ecclestone plunges Formula 1 into racism row

LONDON - Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula 1 commercial rights holder, has plunged the sport into a PR crisis after he dismissed the racist abuse Lewis Hamilton suffered at the hands of Spanish F1 fans during his successful world championship campaign as a "bit of a joke".

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Ecclestone said yesterday in an interview on BBC Radio 5 Live that any abuse aimed at British driver Hamilton was merely meant as a joke and had been blown out of proportion. He added that the culprits were "expressing themselves".

Anti-racism campaigners have hit back at Ecclestone's comment, with Danny Lynch of anti-racism in sport organisation, Kick It Out, saying: "Displays of racism, overt or not, need to be stamped out wherever they occur.

"Particularly from someone in Ecclestone's position of authority, dismissing this abuse as a bit of fun is very worrying."

Keith Vaz, the New Labour MP, has also stepped into the row after he voiced concerns about the abuse to the Spanish ambassador.

He said: "To talk of killing someone and their family is never a joke and cannot be condoned in any way. Governments and sport organisations need to be very clear that such comments will never be acceptable."

In the run-up to Sunday's title decision Grand Prix race in Sao Paulo, hundreds of abusive and threatening messages towards Hamilton were posted on a Spanish website, many of which were of a racial nature.

It later emerged that the website, which has since been taken down, was created by Omincom-owned advertising network TBWA Group.

The group said it was initially unaware of the comments after it was hijacked by users directing racist abuse at Hamilton.

The website incident followed disturbing scenes at the Circuit de Catalunya, near Barcelona, during pre-season in February when several spectators donned Afro wigs and wore T-shirts emblazoned "Hamilton's family".

Asked about this incident, Ecclestone, said: "That was probably meant in the beginning as a joke rather than anything abusive.

"I think people look and read into things that are not there. I think all those things were a bit of a joke."

Many Spanish Formula 1 fans dislike Hamilton for eclipsing his former Spanish McClaren teammate Fernando Alonso on the track. The two rowed publicly and were not on speaking terms.

Hamilton himself said yesterday: "I didn't see it as a joke. It's something that happened but it's in the past. What's more important to me is I had a lot of support, especially from UK fans."

Last night, Ecclestone attempted to diffuse the row after being approached about his comments by the Daily Mirror.

Describing the Spaniards who blackened their faces, he said: "They are cowards. They are nobodies. You'll never stop them saying and doing these things because that's they way they are."

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