Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Women, Racing and Formula One

Giovanna Amati, last woman in F1
Women racing drivers are not really a new phenomenon even though our current age of marketing and search for the "next best thing" thinking would make you believe that. It did not begin with Danica Patrick or Sarah Fisher. In motorsport in general there are a number of female drivers that have been very successful on track and not just as individual market firms.

You can look to drag racing to see the likes of Shirley Muldowney and Angelle Sampey; first class championship winners. There are plenty of people familiar with Janet Guthrie, the first woman to compete in the Indy 500 and Daytona 500; Louise Smith, one of the pioneers of early stock car racing; and sportscar ace, Lyn St. James who is tireless when talking about getting women into motorsports.  Muldowney, Gutherie and Smith are the only women in the International Motorsport Hall of Fame (no doubt that Sampey will find her way there soon).

When we talk about modern era F1 (1950 on), we can look to Maria Teresa De Filippis in 1958 as the first female racer. From there we have Lella Lombardi (1974-76) Divina Galica (1976-78) Desiré Wilson (1980) and last woman driver in F1, Giovanna Amati in 1992. Sarah Fisher had a demonstration run in a McLaren in 2002. Danica Patrick over the course of her career has had some interest in testing F1, but ended any chance of it in 2009 stating she had explored Europe before and it was not in her heart. British racer and former Champcar driver, Katherine Legge tested a Minardi (predecessor of the current Toro Rosso squad) and put in very nice times.

This brings us to the present. Last week Lotus Renault Grand Prix (LRGP) tested Spanish racer Maria de Villota at Paul Ricard Circuit in France. As there is an in-season testing ban, she used a two-year old R29 putting in reasonable lap times according to Renault. She is looking to secure a test driver with a team. However at 32, it puts her on the wrong side of the curve whether she was a man or woman. Also, there is plenty of opinion that this is just being a PR stunt to get the team in the press; there are certainly better women racers with a better resume and her results are rather poor. It is a shame that a woman race driver is still seen as a novelty to boost one's profile.

So there is a couple of questions; will we ever see women racing in F1 again? Why isn't there more women? One, if societal evolution and marketing is any guide, then yes we will see a woman in F1 again. Especially if she has the desire and the sponsorship, which is not any different when talking about male counterparts. Two, the pool of women drivers is just simply smaller than the men's pool. It is harder to find gems in a pool of 20, then it is to find in a pool of 100. And there is no guarantee that those numbers will ever be equal because women as a group might not want to go racing at the same rates men do. Our culture is still in a gender role paradigm; you do not see men being hired as professional nannies and you don't see "grid guys" standing in front of the cars on the starting grid.

Moreover, there probably still some bias against women. In the world of Internet, you still have the discussions of women are not strong enough or do not have the endurance when there is plenty of information out there that shows the opposite. Also, there are chivalrous opinions people have of wanting to "protect" women. It would not surprise me if these attitudes carry over to people in decision making capacities.

It is not that great on the engineering side or in the upper echelon of team management as well. For example, in an interview Red Bull Racing Chief Technical Officer, Adrian Newey did with F1 in Schools, the global engineering challenge for school children, he stated there were 6 female engineers of the 140 on staff. However, program like F1 in Schools is pushing towards more female engineers. It has a 35% ratio of female competitors. So, there is a larger pool being created to choose from for the future. On the management or "key personnel" side, Peter Sauber's (Sauber F1 Team) number two is CEO is Monisha Kaltenborn, HRT's Communications and Marketing Director is Maria Serrat and Stephane Samson is Head of Communications for LRGP; not that many when you scan the faces of F1 teams. However, Bernie Ecclestone is on the record that FOM could be run by a woman within the next five years; presumably after he steps down. Now that be something coming from a man that has had some chauvinistic comments over the years.

In Indycar, there are a number of female drivers on the current grid, Danica Patrick, Simona de Silvestro, Pippa Mann, Ana Beatriz.  Each of these woman have demonstrated skill that makes their spot in the series a deserved one. With the exception of Patrick, these women are all within their first couple of years in the series and de Silvestro showing some race winning talent. The test is will we see similar or increased numbers in the future. 

In addition to the efforts of women like Lyn St. James, last year the FIA established The Women & Motor Sport Commission (WMC) to promote more participation by women in all aspects of motorsport under the direction of former world rally-winning driver Michele Mouton. Earlier this year, the council and CIK-FIA launched a new initiative that will provide a young female kart Driver with the opportunity to compete in the CIK-FIA Karting Academy Trophy that will ultimately reward one girl (aged 13-15) with a funded drive in the low-cost educational formula.

Also, if there are to be more women, teams needs to get them in their driver development programs. Teams are signing up pre-teen boys and building them up over many years. One can look to the development paths of Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel as recent examples. If women participation and success rates are to increase, the same investments need to made, not just after you find out that they are eye candy you can market. We will see what the latest efforts will bring over the next several years and whether the landscape changes. Indycar has made some strides; let us see what F1 does.


Mallory Clifford said...

Racing has long been a predominantly male-oriented sport, so it’s great to see women making their way into the ranks of the best racers. Some have even become household names, which just goes to show that women are perfectly capable and willing to do what men are doing. These women race because they enjoy it and love the thrill that comes with it, but at the same time, they are raising the bar for women in sports.

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