Ferrari waded into the middle of an international political dispute by displaying the flag of the Italian navy on its cars during practice for the Formula One Indian Grand Prix on Friday, referencing a wrangle over the fate of two sailors held for killing Indian fishermen.
The display was to show solidarity with two Italian sailors who are being held in the country over February’s shooting, when they claimed they mistook the fishermen for pirates. The navy was protecting an Italian cargo ship in the Indian Ocean.
The pair Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Gironehave been granted bail but must remain in India. Italy insists they should be able to return home as the incident took place in international waters.
The Indian government expressed its unhappiness at Ferrari’s move and said that the law of the land would take its course.
“As regards use of sporting events for causes which have nothing to do with sports, it certainly (is) not in the spirit of sports as we deem it,” external affairs ministry said in a statement on Friday.
Ferrari’s display flirted with the sport’s rules, which prohibit racial, political or religious gestures.
Team principal Stefano Domenicali refused to be drawn into the controversy during persistent questioning during a press conference on Friday, ultimately saying it was “not true” that the team was overtly supporting the sailors.
A Ferrari spokesman was quoted by the Indian Express newspaper to say “we have utmost respect for the Indian authorities. We just hope that a solution can be found as soon as possible.”
F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone said the sport was apolitical and that the organizers did not have anything to do with it.
“We’ll ask the national sports organizations to have a look at that,” he told reporters.
Whether Ferrari believed the display was an overt political gesture or not, it was strongly supported by the Italian government. Italian foreign minister Guilio Terzi tweeted: “Congratulations to Ferrari for displaying the navy’s symbol at the India GP. It will show the sailors the whole country is behind them.”
Indian and Italian government officials held meetings in February about the alleged shootings but no agreement could be reached. The naval guards spent four months in confinement as Indian police opened murder charges against them. They were given bail in June but have to make regular court appearances.