Friday, 13 March 2015

Women in Formula One

by Tim Bustin

Team Williams’ F1 reserve driver 
Susie Wolff (right) next to a paddock girl
Of the only sport I love, only a few of its aspects do I truly detest. Behind-the-scenes bribery, a stubbornness to fully embrace social media (i.e. Bernie Eccelstone), race seats secured through driver’s bank balances over their talents, and so on, tarnish what is currently a thrilling and revolutionary era of motorsport. And in the twenty-first century, what sullies Formula One for me is its attitude towards female drivers.                                                         
Perhaps you’ve watched a race on TV, but only fleetingly. Still, if you caught any of the pre/post race show, your eye will have been hooked on the glitz and glamour. One long standing tradition is the parading of the race host country’s prettiest women – they’re draped on race number signs before each starting car; successful drivers pass them, weakly applauding, in a long line to the podium, where they usually get drenched in champagne. Automatically this gives off a subliminal message: that women here are part of the sprinkled glamour – for the show and not for racing.

In 65 seasons of Formula One and 916 grand prix, female drivers have collectively scored 0.5 points. Half a point, out of the five women who have actually started a race. For comparison, over 800 drivers have passed through F1’s ranks. So is there a genuine reason disfavouring women from racing? 

The physical strength required to drive an F1 car has never been consistent over the decades, where new safety regulations have pulled back or engine innovations have boosted the rpms. Nowadays, with the iconic noisy V8s ousted for eco-friendly V6 ‘power units’, the g-forces are much less physically demanding (allowing 17 year old Max Verstappen to make his debut in 15 days’ time).

Another genuine reason? Sir Stirling Moss recently said "I think they (women) have the strength, but I don't know if they've got the mental aptitude to race hard, wheel-to-wheel." 

In short there is no reason, except the outdated and tradition – and in the most adapting sport in the world, these will never stand the test of time. In 2014 Free Practise sessions, Susie Wolff became the first female to take part in an F1 race weekend for over two decades, and she is now team Williams’ reserve driver. Simona de Silvestro is an ‘affiliated’ Sauber driver, though her prospects of a 2015 drive were blocked by contractual issues (perhaps something to do with other drivers having £16 million apiece to offer). Maria de Villota was a test driver for the Marussia team until her unfortunate 2012 accident, and death the following year. And just days ago, Carmen Jordá was announced as a Lotus F1 Team development driver (however, more talented drivers were overlooked in her favour – the whole idea is talent, not gender nor bank balance, should determine race seats).

In nearly every global sport, from football and cycling to tennis and boxing, every male tournament has a female equivalent. This is not the case in Formula One, and because of excessive costs (approx. £100 million for a low end team to run two cars for a season), it never will be. Hence, more young girls need encouraging to try their hand at karting, and we need to nurture more of their potential. So much talent is being stamped out simply because half the species is put off from the start. The female drivers mentioned above are beginning to pave the way, and become icons for girls, even though they aren’t racing to promote equality – they are racing for themselves, inspired and motivated to make their mark on history. If women can have the physical strength to pilot fighter jets, the mental tenacity to rule a country, or can run a Formula One team (Claire Williams is currently Williams’ team principle), there’s no reason why one day we can’t see a female Formula One World Champion.

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