Tuesday, 13 February 2018

No Girls on the Grid - Equality in Formula One

Formula One's decision to "retire" Grid Girls from the 2018 season threw the spotlight on the sport in the off-season as the latest skirmish in the tiresome battle between those rallying against the forces of political correctness and those battling objectification. It's a highly complex issue which has largely been hijacked on both sides as a cause celibre, largely by people who haven't watched a race for years and don't intend to any time soon. Who can blame them is my initial answer - I stopped watching when Michael Schumacher retired for the first time and no amount of cribbed NASCAR gimmicks will tempt me back to watching anodyne PR droids in cars that can't overtake. But there's more here beyond identity politics.

The role of the grid girl for those who don't watch Grand Prix (that's 98% of those who suddenly have had strong feelings about it for around a fortnight) is to basically parade out in a sexy outfit festooned with sponsor logos smiling and stand in front of a car on the grid holding a board with the racing number of the car for that slot on it. They feature minimally in TV coverage as they're on the grid before the parade lap when coverage largely switches back and forth from 'flavour' footage of the pre-race bustle and studio pundits. They will be glimpsed briefly - it's worth checking out a picture of a Formula One grid before a race if you haven't before. Even the cars are all but lost in the swarm of brightly coloured uniforms. The girls can only be glimpsed from the stands if you have a ticket on the main straight and the specialist press (i.e. the only ones who'll give the sport more than a single picture of either the winning driver or the post-race podium) really don't pay them much attention, being more interested in pictures of rear diffusers and multiple-car accidents. If you go through an average Grand Prix report in Autosport there will maybe be a shot or two in the 'postcard' style spread of local sights and backmarker drivers engaged in ironic national activities - and bear in mind Autosport is the Daily Star of the motoring press. Indeed, the announcement of the 'ban' in the off-season when the teams are away from competitive driving served to get Formula One probably its' widest mainstream coverage in years. 

So the role itself is fairly inoffensive - certainly no more than any other commercial modelling, and plenty of women do worse work in worse environments for less money every day and the actual job is strangely chaste and old-fashioned - they aren't grinding against cars and they're surrounded by professionals who politely ignore them while they got on with the job of downloading engine mappings and the like, rather than the sweaty-palmed public. While the interviews with girls since the "banning" are naturally to be taken as anecdotal and subject to the confirmation bias of the media source interviewing them a few are even fans getting close to a sport they love. There are online sites dedicated to pictures of grid girls but then it's the internet, there are online sites dedicated to pictures of people shitting on each other, it doesn't mean it's something a large number of people find titillating. And of course the removal of grid girls simply removes female models from one particular area of the race weekend; there will still be no shortage of attractive women in sponsored boob tubes floating around pit and paddock in the 2018 season, they'll simply not be used for the one halfway-justifiable task where a faint argument against them being camera-friendly mobile billboards could be made. Those famous shots of Katie Price, Jo Guest and Melinda Messenger in Jordan bikinis that have been doing the rounds again the past couple of weeks are a prime example - they weren't grid girls, and neither are most of the models pulled up on Google Images. Banning grid girls will do nothing to stop scantily clad ladies floating around Formula One. 

It's worth taking a moment out here to consider what Formula One is like as a sport, however. It is the pinnacle of mechanical achievement, a tournament of excellence between some of the smartest engineers and team managers on the face of the planet. It is also staggeringly expensive; while many of the teams are reticent about budgets the big ones operate on up to ~$500m (with smaller ones still using $100m); individual cars (as in not counting development costs) can be around $1-2m per unit and written off if a driver misses a braking point while drivers themselves can command salaries of $25-30m, before additional endorsements. Drivers celebrate finishing in the top three places by spraying Moet & Chandon champagne over each other. Millions are spent each year hauling cars, staff and equipment around the world, after which there's nothing stopping two of them running into each other at the first corner. It is the single most capitalist, elitist and decadent sport on the planet.

However, for some considerable time - since the television boom of the eighties allowed Bernie Ecclestone to send it truly world wide - this has actually been used to market the sport. It's a high end product to sell high end products to rich people. It's designed to sell road cars, watches and computer hardware to people who have yachts moored in Monaco or three Ferraris in the garage. The cars and even the driver's uniforms have long been mobile advertising hoardings. Now, until recently a major backer of the sport was the tobacco industry. The tobacco industry has been under the cosh for decades in Europe and the sport did its' best to ignore it. First Germany, then the UK and France banned tobacco advertising on cars at their rounds of the series (leading to the semi-famous "non-tobacco" schemes, where brand names were substituted by other words in the same font - Racing for Rothmans, Buzzin' Hornets for Benson and Hedges, East for West) but with regulations tightening and Western viewing figures falling anyway the sport began to look further away from its' European heartlands to the Middle East. 

Further tightening broadcasting regulations meant the tobacco advertising didn't last much longer anyway, effectively being discontinued by the sport before the sport could be censured for it. By then new markets in the Middle East had been found, with plenty of money swishing around them both in terms of television viewers and hosts for races. Bahrain, China, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates have all been added to the calendar this century - conservative countries, countries that might not appreciate scantily clad women on the grids. Because in Formula One it always comes back to the money, because teams need $500m to compete and will do basically anything for increased TV broadcasting funds or sponsorship.

Now, it would be nice if grid girls weren't the most noticeable female presence in the sport. The irony is that Formula One is probably the only worldwide high profile sport not to have separate male and female categories. This has a simple reason - even at lower levels it costs a considerable amount of money to mount a motor race. Even if you were to run a category featuring a race between 24 Peugeot 206s you've got to pay for a well-maintained circuit with safety personnel (who incidentally have no gender requirements and are usually volunteers) and equipment, supporting mechanics, transportation for the cars, etc and so on. For Formula One circuits basically start preparing for the next year's race when the previous one finishes, so a second category simply wouldn't fit even if the demand was there. But anyway, the line is that there is nothing in theory stopping a woman becoming a Grand Prix driver, at least not in the regulations.

Since the sport was formally organised into the Formula One World Championship in 1950 precisely five women have attempted to compete in a Grand Prix; these are not the summation of all women Grand Prix drivers, the likes of Helle Nice (whose not unpromising pre-war career was junked by unfounded accusations of collaboration from Louis Chiron, who could be an absolute prick), Anne C├ęcile Rose-Itier (who competed in Grand Prix as recently as 1947) and Lucy Schell (ne O'Reilly, a racer in her own right and mother of the popular Harry Schell). There's a certain irony in female drivers in Grand Prix racing possibly being more widespread before the war in the thirties than in all the time since when (we're told) equality in society has improved...

The first of the championship era was Maria Theresa de Filipis, an Italian who gained some respectable results in sportscars for Maserati in the early fifties. This lead to her buying one of the company's beautiful 250F cars when the factory Formula One team closed and competing in the 1958 season as an independent. At the time official qualifications to attempt a race largely consisted of being able to afford a car to race in, with entries at the discretion of organisers. After de Filippis' passing in 2016 there was some bobbins in various obits regarding her entries being refused by some (an impression she did little to dispell) but this appears to be entirely apocryphal. Everything points to her being given a warm - if perhaps somewhat patronising - welcome into the category. Both Juan-Manuel Fangio, Jean Behra and Stirling Moss gave her tips on driving the fearsome 250F while even Motor Sport - the grandee of the motoring press, written by grey old men who thought anyone who hadn't died going over the banking at Brooklands was a nancy - was polite and paid her no more or less attention than any other backmarker. Because in the final analysis de Filippis was by Formula One standards slow; after finishing fifth in her first Grand Prix (a poorly attended pre-season non-championship race at Syracuse with only six finishers) she was bog last in qualifying for every race she entered and finished last in every one she was eligible to start. She was sensible (though both Fangio and Moss felt she over-drove) and did nothing significant to disgrace herself but it is entirely due to her gender making her a historical curiosity that she is better known than other continental pay drivers in ex-works cars of the period. In 1959 she briefly drove for Behra's new team and there has been talk that she formed part of the Frenchman's plans before his tragic death at the absurd AVUS later that year; however, like the purported denied race entries this seems to be a fanciful invention of more modern scribes - Formula One fans like nothing more than the idea of a fatality which robs the world of some great future enterprise, as if the untimely death of a person in a sporting event isn't tragedy enough. Either way her F1 career ended in early 1959, after which she returned to national events in Italy before retiring in 1960 to start a family.

The sixties, the great decade of empowerment, passed without a female driver on the grid but by the mid-seventies - perhaps as a trickledown - there was finally a successor in the form of Lella Lombardi. Another Italian, who finished as runner-up in the country's hotly-contested Formula Three series in 1968, she set several 'firsts' in the category which have yet to be equalled. After a one-off attempt to qualify a private Brabham at the 1974 British Grand Prix backing from the Lavazza coffee concern landed her a seat for the 1975 season at the March team, making her the sport's first works female driver. She proved to be a respectable midfielder, finishing 6th at the shortened Spanish Grand Prix (her half point being the only championship score to date for a female driver) - like de Fillipis she was unspectacular but reliable. However, early in 1976 March had the opportunity to recruit Ronnie Peterson and Lombardi was dropped to make space. She took her sponsorship to RAM Racing, one of several non-works outfits always happy to take money from someone to sent them out in an obsolete car; after one qualification from three attempts Lavazza withdrew their backing and her F1 career ended. That one qualification, at the blistering Osterreiching for the 1975 Austrian Grand Prix, represents the last time a female driver has started a Grand Prix. Lombardi had some success in sportscars either side of her Formula One racing, notably three attempts at the Le Mans 24 Hours from 1975 to 1977 with a different female partner each time. Of further note, if irrelevant to her racing, was that Lombardi was a lesbian, though this was given little attention if it was even know at the time of her F1 career. Like de Filipis her reception at the time was polite curiosity; television had yet to seriously discover the sport so once again the specialist press provided most of it. Her coverage was perhaps a little more patronising than it would have been for another mid-ranking Italian. She doesn't seem to have received a huge amount of tutelage from her peers but this was more than likely a sign of the sport becoming more serious and less familial as a whole by this point as commercialisation began to take a grip. She was frequently pictured with Arturo Merzario, though her countryman was renowned for making his famous Marlboro-branded hat appear in as many pictures as possible.

Her anti-penultimate attempt at Formula One in 1975 crossed over with the attempted debut of the third woman to compete in the sport. Davina Galica was a former Olympic skier who had taken part in a celebrity car race on a whim and found out she was a decent racer; she worked her way rapidly up through various British domestic series before driving Charlie Whiting's ex-works F1 Surtees in the Shellsport Group 8 series for obsolete machinery. They tried their hand at the 1976 British Grand Prix (a common practice for British independents of the period) but set-up problems prevented her from qualifying - a similar fate to Lombardi; the race remains the only one to feature two female entrants. She returned to national series for the next two years and attracted backing from Olympus Cameras and for 1978 this landed her a seat at the Hesketh Formula One team. They were of course famous for launching James Hunt but since then Lord Hesketh had withdrawn his backing and Bubbles Horsley had kept the team running as an outfit for anyone willing to pay for a seat. The 1978 car wasn't a classic and Gallica failed to qualify for the first two races of the year by some margin, her confidence being shaken by a heavy crash in practice in Argentina. After running in the non-title Race of Champions (where she span off in heavy rain) the team engaged Eddie Cheever to join them for testing in South Africa ahead of the third round. When the Italian-American proved two seconds quicker than Gallica he was given the drive instead. After that she returned again to domestic series but by 1980 had left single-seaters to race sportscars and then trucks. She later returned to skiing but has since been a racing instructor at Skip Barber's school. Her close timing to Lombardi meant she received relatively little coverage outside of Britain (where her heroic performances in skiing, not a sport Britain has acheived a huge amount in, made her a minor celebrity two decades ahead of Eddie the Eagle Edwards), though it was difficult to shy away from her poor showings in the Hesketh - which were mollified to some small extent when Cheever's replacement Derek Daly did little better; the Irishman would go on to score championship points at Tyrrell and Williams.

By 1980 however the sport had seen its' fourth female driver. Desire Wilson had raced midget cars in her native South Africa from the age of 12 before winning the domestic Formula Ford title in 1975 and retaining it in 1976. At the time the country had a teeming national motorsport scene at least among the ruling white classes and many of the best would go on to race in Europe - most notably the Scheckters, 1979 world champion Jody and elder brother Ian. For 1977 Wilson followed them and performed with no small success in Formula Ford F2000 and for the following year she secured a drive in the domestic British championship for Formula One cars. While the machinery was a year or so out of date and ran by small concerns it was a competitive category fought by many with considerable experience of the network of British tracks; her first year saw a third place at Thruxton; the second saw her lead for much of the wet overseas race at Zolder before a spin dropped her to third.  For 1980 she was backed by the Hong Kong enthusiast Teddy Yip and won a race at Brands Hatch, the only F1 event to have ever been won by a female driver. Later that year she made her championship bow, hiring one of RAM's old Williams cars for the British Grand Prix but as ever John Macdonald's machinery was poorly prepared and she failed to qualify. The following year she was offered a one-off drive for Tyrrell at her home race and did qualify before spinning out. Some credit her with running as high as sixth at the time but I've yet to see any collaboration for this from contemporary sources and it may be descended from an inaccurate factual book that credited her with finishing sixth which was taken up by several other sources. Similarly unproven are claims she was offered a chance for further races with the team; Ken Tyrrell at the time was down in finances and would have no doubt taken any paying driver. It would seem the Argentine Ricardo Zunino was able to raise this where Wilson couldn't and that was the end of it. To add insult to injury due to sport politics the 1981 South African Grand Prix was stripped of championship status, though Wilson remains the last woman to start an international Formula One race. She went on to drive with no small success in other categories, with a successful career in sportscars and Indycars before her career wound down in the late 1980s. Like Galica she attracted little attention - positive or negative - from the press, though for her all-round record across several categories largely achieved on merit she can make a solid case for being the best female single-seater driver of the Formula One era.

It was 11 years before the sport's next female driver and Giovanna Amati certainly attracted a lot of attention, though much of it was negative. As the sport's costs had increased the privateer amateur driver of the fifties and sixties had become the pay driver - someone whose main talents were closing sponsorship deals or having wealthy families. With budgets high there was always a place for these and with most Superlicence qualifications being distance-based it was possible for someone with only minor talent but considerable backing to effectively grind their way through the lower categories; the likes of Jean-Denis Deletraz and Giovanni Lavaggi were perhaps the ultimate lesson but Amati, another Italian, was in their ballpark. Amati was the daughter of a film studio owner and an actress and lead a colourful life - when she was 15 she bought a motorbike and successfully concealed it from her parents for two years and when she was 19 she was kidnapped and ransomed, briefly forming a relationship with one of the kidnappers. She made friends with another rich Italian with a love for motorsport, Elio de Angelis, and began racing in Formula Abarth in 1981. While de Angelis rapidly ascended to Formula One it took Amati until 1985 to reach Italy's Formula Three category. There she was not uncompetitive with occasional wins but four years in Formula 3000 showed that she had reached her limit; from 30 attempts she qualified only 14 times and had a best result of seventh place. She had a reputation as a fiery character however and had also started dating Flavio Briatore, the principal of the Benetton Formula One team. Meanwhile the once-great Brabham team were in tough financial straits and had just been denied a superlicence for the Japanese driver Akihiko Nakaya, who was to provide a huge chunk of their budget. Amati offered some funding and was signed (Briatore arranging a test for her in a Benetton at Silverstone to pass the superlicence requirements), the team hoping that she would additionally provide some publicity. Initially she did - with her long blonde hair and Mediterranean looks she seemed dazzlingly glamorous in a world of Thierry Boutsen's bowlcut and Pierluigi Martini having a fanclub of screaming girls in Japan. However, once she got into the car the problems began; the 1992 Brabham was no competitive proposition but Amati proved comprehensively out of her depth, spinning regularly in practice sessions and comprehensively failing to qualify for the first three races. Any media interest rapidly vanished - what was the point in a female Grand Prix driver who didn't drive in Grand Prix? - and she had yet to actually give Brabham any of the money her contract stipulated. The team resolved that if they were going to run someone for free it might as well be someone competent and she was promptly dropped in favour of Damon Hill - which at least further ensured her place as a well-known footnote in the sport.

Since then there have been several female Formula One drivers to some degree. The ballooning of testing (or "development") teams since the turn of the 21st century has led to many teams having five or six drivers on the strength, most of whom do very little running in the car or have any serious chance of making a race seat. Budgets are bigger so more sponsorship is needed, both via paying drivers and increased media attention. It would be rude to dismiss the likes of Susie Wolff, the late Maria de Villota and Tatina Calderon as publicity stunts but they certainly did gain their teams publicity and they certainly weren't trusted with race seats (the closest being Wolff's appearances as a free practice driver for Williams in a few events in 2014-15; her husband Toto was a shareholder in the team at the time) or stay in the team's long term plans.

The truth is Formula One would love to have a female driver - it's a sport entirely about money, so the increased media attention, boost in viewing figures and new sponsorship demographics a halfway competitive female driver would likely bring would be most welcome. There were even longing eyes cast at race winners Sarah Fisher and Danica Patrick in the Indycar series, albeit no serious approaches. However, several serious obstacles stand in the way of any female driver wanting into the sport and chauvinism is one of the smaller ones. Formula One doesn't seem to be an especially sexist environment and some women - like Annie Bradshaw - have carved out a long career in the paddock even if it's not in the most visible roles.

Firstly and most importantly, Formula One is not a meritocracy. A driver's progression and place on the grid is down to a combination of skill, funding and timing. Of twenty drivers something like a dozen can have a reasonable claim to be there on merit; the rest will be at the behest of sponsors or because they are within reach of the teams who can't realistically win races. Many talented drivers have found their Formula One careers to be either cut short or stillborn entirely due to a lack of funding to get a foot in the door or through joining the wrong team at the wrong time. Due to the limited spaces available a bad season can see the promising driver of one year becoming yesterday's news - on and off the circuit the sport is fiercely competitive. It's not quite survival of the fittest but it's certainly survival of the best equipped to find the best balance needed at one particular time in order to prolong a career.

Secondly there's the physical requirements. Driving Formula One has never been physically easy. Post-war races were three hours long and while not requiring athletes exactly they did need a certain amount of strength to keep control over the heavy cars with low mechanical grip and thin tyres. Since then the role of a driver's physical condition has only increased. While races are shorter now - never longer than two hours and usually significantly under - with such narrow margins between the cars being able to consistently drive them on the upper edge of their performance is a basic requirement of even the tail-end charlies. At the same time a certain type of physique is needed - too much muscle creates extra work for the heart; add in the Nomex fireproofs, overalls and helmet and even in races of 75 minutes physical endurance is a key component of a Formula One driver. Finally on the physical side aerodynamic advances means cockpits are cramped - cars are driven with arms extended with minimal movement now that gears and other functions are located in buttons and paddles around the steering wheel. Without wanting to be crass a female driver would need to have a boyish figure not to find this extremely uncomfortable. None of which mind you makes it impossible; women go through greater discomfort and many have great physical strength but it does serve to skew the possible field in favour of the broad physical advantages of male biology. Further playing to this is the ever-younger age of Formula One drivers and the knock-on effect down the categories - men generally develop faster during puberty and are likely to be in better physical condition for karting and lower categories to be on track to enter Formula One in their early twenties.

Then there's the money needed, right down the line. Motorsport in general, not just Formula One, is a sport for the rich. A basic season in Formula Ford, the entry level category for single seater racing in the UK, costs about £100,000, either to contest as an independent or to buy a seat at an existing team - in 2011 ESPN estimated the cost of advancing to Formula One, assuming only a single season was spent at each intermittent step at €10m, and that's to end up at the back of the grid; in just about every category below Formula One all but the most outstandingly talented will be expected to pay for their drives (either through sponsorship or personal funds) even if they're regular race winners. If you're a supermarket heir this isn't too bad but if you're just someone who fancies it it's a wince-inducing amount even for an upper middle-class family. The simple matter of equipment means it's basically impossible to be scouted - if you were a talented footballer there would be the theoretical opportunity to be spotted playing for a local team and snapped up by a professional club, for example; no such parallel exists for motor sport. The working class heroes for modern Formula One are the likes of the Schumacher brothers, whose father owned a go-karting track. Obviously once again there is nothing to stop a female driver raising this money or even being given it by a wealthy family but once again the field is thinned.

More positive female role models in Formula One, both behind the wheel and in the many technical roles in the teams, would be more than welcome. But they won't happen by themselves; the sport has a tricky record with oiling the wheels for this sort of thing (witness the 25-year search by various parties for a genuinely front-line Japanese driver, while the last thing the sport needs is an Anna Kournikova figure) and the piranha club are simply too focused on money and glory to feel any greater response to society. While it is a multi-million pound entertainment as much as it's a sport the simple desire to make it more diverse can't make it happen in the way it can be for other media content. For female drivers and technicians to come girls need to be interested in motorsport at a young age, need to take engineering-based courses and need to have the luck to have these interests tally with the money to act on them. At the moment however the prospect is looking increasingly distant - and outlawing grid girls won't change that. Already a vicious circle is in place - there are no female role models in the sport so the chances are reduced of girls becoming interested in following a motorsport career at a young age are lower, meaning less chance of any female role models.

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