SPIELBERG, Austria (Reuters) - Six-times world champion Lewis Hamilton and a majority of Formula One's 20 drivers took a knee on the starting grid before Sunday's season-opening Austrian Grand Prix in a stance against racism.
The sport's only Black driver, an outspoken campaigner against racial injustice and for greater diversity, wore a black T-shirt with 'Black Lives Matter' on the front and 'End Racism' on the back. The others wore ones declaring 'End Racism'.
The knee protest was popularised by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016 and has gained steam following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis in May.
Television images from the Red Bull Ring, closed to spectators due to the COVID-19 pandemic, showed six drivers standing, including Red Bull's Max Verstappen and Ferrari's Charles Leclerc, while 14 knelt.
Hamilton said he had decided his own position only the night before.
"Ultimately nobody should be forced into a scenario where they have to kneel," the Briton told reporters after the race. "I never requested or demanded anybody to take the knee.
"It was brought up by Formula One and by the GPDA (Grand Prix Drivers' Association). When we did the drivers' briefing Seb (Vettel) and (Romain) Grosjean both brought it up and asked the drivers.
"I am really grateful for those who did kneel along with me. I think it's still a really powerful message but ultimately whether you do or do not kneel, that's not going to change the world. It's a much, much bigger issue."
Verstappen and Leclerc had both explained their positions on social media ahead of a race that was the first major global sporting event since countries emerged from the coronavirus lockdown.
"I believe that what matters are facts and behaviours in our daily life rather than formal gestures that could be seen as controversial in some countries," Leclerc said on Twitter, while emphasising his commitment to the fight against racism.
Verstappen said he believed "everyone has the right to express themself at a time and in a way that suits them."
Formula One posted a clip of the drivers on Twitter with the words: "End Racism. One cause. One commitment. As individuals, we choose our own way to support the cause. As a group of drivers and a wider F1 family, we are united in its goal."
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London; Editing by Toby Davis, Ken Ferris and Pritha Sarkar)