The sport's governing body FIA stepped in yesterday after Lewis Hamilton suffered racist abuse from Spanish fans during a test session at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona on Saturday.
The warring 2007 McLaren team-mates, Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, may have agreed to go their own ways with no hard feelings, the former staying with the team and the latter returning to Renault, but the 23-year-old Briton was booed and insulted by supporters whenever he made his way to the pits. The daily sports paper Marca reported that shouts of "puto negro" (black bastard) and "negro de mierda" (black shit) were clearly heard.
Hamilton is the first Afro-Caribbean driver to make his mark in Formula One, and to win races. Sources within the team said that he took the abuse in his stride as he set the fastest time. He has always played down his colour, which until now has been his least remarked-upon attribute. Formula One, which can often be an insular and bigoted sport, has accepted him without blinking.
Speaking in 2006, while he was dominating the GP2 championship, he was much more conscious of his progression tothe top echelon than his growing status as a racial role model.
"That's an issue for the media," he said. "I don't really take much notice of the idea of being a ground-breaker. I feel normal, I don't feel any different to the others drivers apart from having a certain level of confidence in what I can do. I've got an ambition, and that's to get to Formula One.
"If anything, I think my colour's a positive, and hopefully in the future it can open doors for other cultures. It's great to see Narain Karthikeyan, and the Japanese drivers. It doesn't have to be a white-dominated sport, it can be open to all of us. The sooner that happens, the better it is for F1."
Yesterday, a statement from McLaren which clearly sought to play down the incident, simply said: "Vodafone McLaren Mercedes have raced and tested on Spanish circuits for many years, and everyone connected with the team regards Spain and the Spanish people with great affection, Lewis included."
The FIA took a harder line and is likely to levy a heavy financial penalty if there is a recurrence. A spokesman said yesterday: "The FIA is surprised and disappointed at the abuse directed at Lewis Hamilton. Abuse of this kind is a clear breach of the principles enshrined in the FIA statutes and any repetition will result in serious sanctions." Spain has two grands prix this year, in Barcelona and Valencia.
Circuit director Ramon Pradera reportedly ordered fences to be put up around the McLaren garage and removal of banners opposite the team's base. He reminded fans of their obligations. "We would like to make a plea to them to behave correctly, no type of offensive behaviour can be tolerated," he said.
Hamilton has become a hate figure to some Spaniards because of the intensity of his rivalry with Alonso, whom he challenged on even terms throughout a gripping 2007 season despite his rookie statuswhile Alonso was the reigning world champion. They each finished the season with 109 points and four victories, but Hamilton got the nod for second place behind title winner Kimi Raikkonen with five second places to Alonso's four. Incidents of racism have been rife in Spanish sport recently years, particularly in football.