The gender mind-bender

Most people, when pressed to name a female in motor sport, would probably say Danica Patrick. But what about Louise Goodman or Williams public relations manager Ann Bradshaw? Women racing drivers may be few but women are growing in number throughout motor sport.

Despite gender equality becoming increasingly apparent in all aspects of the workplace, racing drivers can still be relied upon for good old-fashioned chauvinism. Ask me what was my all time racing highlight – winning my first race? Great battles around Oulton Park, Brands Hatch and Silverstone?

No, it was when a glamour model agreed to pose with my car at a test session last September. Sad, eh? And that’s without mentioning a certain F3 driver who was briefly sponsored by a lap dancing club. Given that such attitudes are so widespread it is perhaps surprising that women want to enter the world of motor sport at all.

Danica Patrick’s drive at the Indy 500 has reopened the debate about female racing drivers and their access to top drives, especially in the upper echelons.

This is a complex issue and one that has not been properly discussed in the racing press. While Patrick is undoubtedly the first top-level ‘lady racer’ to emerge for some time (Lyn St James was the last) and clearly very talented, I don’t quite place her in the same league as some of her IRL rivals.

Yes, in time she will win races, but to win a title she will need the likes of Tony Kanaan, Helio Castro Neves and Scott Dixon to break down – a lot. Do not take this as a comprehensive criticism of Patrick (it is not), but that purely I do not place her at the same level as the IRL title contenders.

Over in F1, Giovanna Amati was the last women to attempt to qualify for a Grand Prix She failed. While she was undoubtedly well-backed and her personal sponsorship clearly helped her into the drive, it should be noted the car she attempted to qualify (1992 Brabham) was rubbish and regularly outperformed by the McLaren paddock scooters.

Later Damon Hill (who took Amati’s drive) struggled to get the car on the grid. Amati’s time in F1 was ill-fated and should not be written off as a triumph of PR over talent.

So why is there a dearth of top-level female racing drivers? Firstly, there is an overall shortage of ‘lady racers’. Look at any racing programme from a club race to a GP meeting and you will find that fewer than 1 in 10 of the competitors are women. Given this statistical anomaly it is hardly surprising that so few women move into the upper echelons of the sport.

Secondly (and I hate to say it) many of the women racers I’ve competed against are not good. I don’t know the reasons, but all I can say is that of the women I’ve raced, very few have been close to competitive.

Even drivers who have gone further than most, such as Susie Stoddart, pale in comparison with their male counterparts. Stoddart spent three years in Formula Renault and failed to win a single race. In contrast, her F3 rival Tim Bridgman has spent three years racing cars and won two championships.

I realise that this is undoubtedly an unfair example, but a record like Bridgman’s is what is required to reach the very highest levels. Of the current lady racers, there are several that catch the eye. Formula Jedi Champion Jodie Hemming is clearly exceptionally talented and deserves some major backing as she has the potential to go all the way. Former F3 driver Katherine Legge is currently enjoying considerable success in the USA, although still has a worrying ability to get involved in major shunts.

But it is away from the cockpit where women are most rapidly reaching the pinnacle of motor sport (and that does not mean being my grid girl – although I wish it did).

Ann Bradshaw carved out a fearsome reputation as PR extraordinaire for the Williams team throughout the 1990s, coaxing the likes of Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill into facing the cameras under the most trying circumstances. She still contributed to the motor racing press.

It is doubtless no coincidence that many current F1 PR operations are spearheaded by women in the Ann Bradshaw mould. Likewise Louise Goodman and Suzi Perry have both proved to be excellent pit lane reporters, the former seemingly always able to grab a sound bite, even when most self-respecting drivers just want to be alone with a punch bag.

Women are also increasingly involved in the engineering side of motor sport and I have several female friends whose goal is to be designing and refining F1 cars. The days of a bloke with a drawing board have long been replaced by an absolute meritocracy where only the finest talents will thrive. Likewise the Alfa Romeo World Touring Car team has a female boss and their repeated success clearly demonstrates that success from the ‘prat perch’ is not an exclusively male domain.

Whilst there is no doubt that motor sport is still overwhelmingly male dominated, both in its fan base, competitors and employees, it is wrong to see it as an exclusively male preserve. I would be willing to bet that within 10 years there will be at least one female F1 driver and one female F1 team principal. This will happen for two reasons.

Number one, women are becoming increasingly involved in motor sport and I have no doubt that female drivers with Schumacher-esque driving talent will emerge. Secondly, and I know this sounds cynical, it makes perfect business sense. A female Grand Prix driver would open the sport up to a whole new market and do much to improve its public image.

Ultimately, in today’s increasingly business-led motor sport, gender will always play second fiddle to sponsors and finance. It is not pretty, it is not fair, but that is motor racing 2005-style.

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