Saturday, 21 May 2016

F1: Where are the Women Drivers?

When John Oliver ripped into FIFA prior to the 2014 World Cup, he gave us the Sausage Principle: If you love something, don’t find out how it’s made.” Detail after detail of the murky workings of football’s top body, it turns out, are clearly at odds with the pure, emotional surges of passion that define the global devotion to the war-substitute ‘beautiful game’. John Oliver certainly did nothing to kill anybody’s passion for football (not even his own), but I must confess to being left embittered. Which, all said and done, is a rather mild reaction compared to the scale of injustice one is aware of.
Corruption in sport is disillusioning to various degrees and takes away from the discipline and toil of the people who make competitive sport great. The shining stage which the talented young athletes of the world occupy exists against the background of a ruthless, wealthy business class that has found the best way to milk our love of real-life drama for their financial gains.
It doesn’t help, then, when you realise that in addition to the financial murk that operates behind the scenes, the most popular sports are also the site for a far more fundamental, viscerally offensive endorsement of sexism.
I’ve been a Formula 1 fan for sixteen years now, and as I write this I realise that makes up about one-fourth of the sport’s 65-year history. In that time the sport has built a bigger footprint across the world, its circus travelling to shiny new circuits in countries like India, China and the UAE. There is finally a non-white world champion, and the nationalities that have raced in the sport are no longer confined to Western Europe. F1 has finally seen, with varying success, the participation of drivers from countries like India, Mexico, Indonesia and Malaysia.
But where are the women drivers?
It is telling that F1’s bosses, in their quest for diverse markets and audiences, have completely bypassed the inclusion of more women on the roster of the pinnacle of open-wheeled racing. This in spite of the fact that F1 is a sport for agile individuals with quick-thinking brains and fast reflexes. Attributes that do not necessitate a separate women’s championship, as good women drivers, trained well, continue to win in the lower Formulas, a stepping stone into F1.
You could be forgiven for thinking that there must be a “physical” reason why women don’t make the cut. Turns out, though, that it’s not as great a deal as it’s made out to be. Training right helps all drivers prepare for the G-forces they experience at very high speeds. Drivers who build less strength outpace their competitors by working on endurance. A difference in muscular strength, therefore, does not rule you out as a race-winner.

Susie Wolff, ex-Williams test driver. Image courtesy the Sydney Morning Herald

The only genuine disadvantage that may impede a racing career is economy. Racing requires access to cars and karts from an early age, so it is understandable why the bulk of F1 drivers have come from the world’s most prosperous countries. A lack of girls entering karting competitions and the junior racing formulas may also explain why significantly less than half of all racing drivers are women. But Formula 1 has seen only five women start a Grand Prix as opposed to over 820 men since it started in 1950.
Which brings us to attitudes. The Old Men of Formula 1 have a knack for sexism which helps them come up with gems of insensitivity. Bernie Ecclestone, F1’s chief executive, said women “wouldn’t be taken seriously” when asked about bringing more women drivers into F1.
It is pretty much a case of the jocks keeping the paddock to themselves. In the non-driving aspects of the F1 circus, women professionals are a visible presence, reflecting their greater participation across professions. One of India’s best motorsports writers for example. Or team bosses like Monisha Kaltenborn and Claire Williams.
Legendary drivers, meanwhile, have done little to help make the sport more gender inclusive. The greatest driver to never have won a world title, Sir Stirling Moss, said the difference lay in the mind games. According to him, women lack the mental strength for the sport. What a relief, then, that he did not add in the popular jibe of women being bad drivers.
This explains why the maximum women you see at race weekends at the “Grid Girls”. Unfortunate for a sport which prides itself on being at the cutting edge of innovation.
If you thought it was just the ancients who hold regressive views like this, you’re sadly mistaken. The once up and coming Mexican sensation, Sergio Perez, once said he would prefer that women stay in the kitchen rather than drive in F1.
The sport hasn’t got to where tennis is, so it will be some time before pay parity between men and women is debated, and an F1 start does a Novak Djokovic on us.
There are signs of a greater change, though. Carmen Jorda, the Renault F1 test driver, is 27, so she does have a chance of a race seat. An outside chance, but it exists. Meanwhile, the last driver to drive in a practice session on a race weekend, Susie Wolff, has launched the Dare to be Different campaign to bring more women into motorsport.

F1’s isn’t entirely surprising though. Recent deaths due to head injuries prompted F1 to try out better head protection for the cars, with ‘purists’ blasting the move saying it takes away the risks, and thus the thrill of the sport. There persists the uber-masculine narrative of knights going out to battle, the risk of death adding nobility to what they do. No surprises, then, that women who could be champions continue to contend not with questions of racing talent, but to be “taken seriously.”

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