Why Formula 1 really is the pits for women
"Oh Eddie," I said, "do you know that Nova won’t be at any more races this year?"
He paused, then slowly turned his head, eyes hidden behind his trademark mirrored sunglasses.
"Oh, that’s a shame," he replied. "It was good watching her ass walk down the paddock."
"Hmm ..." I said, assuming he was being sarcastic. "I’ll miss her conversation too."
"No, I won’t miss that," he said quite seriously. "She just looked good … She was there to be looked at. That’s all any of you are here for, just to be looked at."
There were eight other men sitting listening. Nobody said a word, except for Niki Lauda. He looked at me from beneath his baseball cap and shrugged. "It’s a man’s world," he said.
In Formula 1 "men do" and "women adorn". It is simply further proof that the sport is oblivious to the outside world. Men like Irvine say such things because they can and nobody questions them. Image might be everything in Formula 1, but where women are concerned, it’s more than everything: an attractive appearance is a prerequisite to gaining acceptance and the yardstick by which all women are judged.
Walk through the paddock in anything other than a chador and you’re likely to receive a chorus of wolf whistles from the mechanics, who are under the illusion that they are paying you a compliment.
In summer 2001, I was filming at the Budapest Grand Prix. The item culminated in a boat trip down the Danube. But this being Formula 1, it was no ordinary outing. It was a champagne dinner-cruise organised by the McLaren Mercedes team, who had invited their important sponsors, VIP guests and, of course, the TV crews that would guarantee them publicity. Loosely translated that means a group of people who spend all evening looking at each other and chatting animatedly without hearing a word anybody actually says.
It was the middle of August and we sipped champagne as the balmy daylight faded and streetlights lit up the riverbanks. Irvine’s favourite "ass", Nova, was aboard with her crew and, although she had been voted Germany’s sexiest TV presenter, there was much more to this 27-year-old than long blonde hair and red stiletto boots. She was perspicacious and performed with enviable flair in front of the camera.
One of the senior men from Mercedes asked Nova and me to join him at his table. It felt more like an order than a request, but not wishing to offend our hosts we accepted his invitation.
My dinner guests were two of the most influential men in McLaren Mercedes. One was a warm, engaging man wearing the skin of someone older than his 40-odd years. The other was short and squat, appeared to have no discernible neck and chewed slowly, like a gorilla: the ultimate alpha male.
Nova and I sat across from them, drinking just the right amount of wine and complimenting them on the night’s event. I felt like a geisha. I wanted to stop myself from engaging in this centuries-old ritual, but I couldn’t. We clearly had a role to play and we were putting in an Oscar-worthy performance.
I faced an age-old British concern when seated at an all-German dinner table. What to discuss? At that stage, I knew very little about traction control, launch systems, down-force variables, pit-stop strategies or tyre dimensions. Soon we were discussing drivers and how their talents compared.
"I was amazed by how small these guys are," I said. "I tower above them. I couldn’t believe it."
"Ja, they are not tall," said the nice, tanned German. "But they are very strong, physically and mentally. Very, er, very good."
"I wonder if we’ll ever see a female Formula 1 driver?" I asked.
"Ach ja!" came the enthusiastic response. "Sure, they are very good. We have good drivers, very talented. The problem is, Beverley," and he paused, searching for the right phrase, "they are just not very, ah, very pretty."
"What?" I said. Even Nova balked.
"Ja. It is bad. They are fast, strong, very good indeed. But there is a big problem. They look not pretty. Not pretty at all. They are like man, really."
"Have you looked at the male drivers?" I asked.
"But it is important," he insisted.
"Why?" I was still smiling, but perhaps my shock showed. Alpha male was digesting his sauerkraut and nodding in agreement.
Nova rolled her eyes. "Ah, c’mon," she said. "That’s not right. The drivers are not all, like, beautiful men."
"It is different," he replied. "Women must be more beautiful, more feminine. That is how it is …
"What we need, it is beautiful women. What about you two? Can you drive? Ha ha ha."
We welcomed the chance to lighten the mood, but I remained dumbfounded. These intelligent, powerful men were incapable of seeing how prejudiced they were, and how their Stone Age values would eventually damage the sport. They weren’t arguing that women couldn’t drive Formula 1 cars, they were saying that they could, provided they were beautiful.
I was at the Silverstone Ball in 2002 with a group of men who hold significant positions in Formula 1. The Foster’s Girls were in attendance, a troop of young women who appear at Grands Prix wearing blue micro-minis and tight Lycra tops. They are led around the circuit in a line, stopping from time to time to have their picture taken. On this particular night, they were handing out bottles of Foster’s to men who were groping their bottoms.
"I can’t believe that a global sport still has women like this on display," I said to my dinner companion.
"I know," he replied. "They’re pigs … You’d think they could find some attractive ones."
Formula 1 stands alone in its use of women to promote the sport. Boxing still uses scantily-clad women to carry the cards between rounds, but they form a very small part of the event. Women don’t feature in boxing’s promotional activity and nowadays several clubs allow women to take part in the sport.
Some American sports still have cheerleaders, but at least these women actually do something. Shaking pompoms might not qualify as an Olympic sport, but cheerleaders train long hours and many are gymnasts. Formula 1 sits its models on car bonnets and drapes them over drivers.
Of course women do work in Formula 1, but none hold positions of real influence. F1 Racing magazine recently ran a feature on the "50 most powerful people in Formula 1" and not one was a woman, after 50 years of the sport.
Right now, the woman who wields most power is probably Sabine Kehm, Michael Schumacher’s media manager, and her power comes from Schumacher.
"At the beginning you have to fight more to gain acceptance and for people to find out if you are competent," she says on the subject of women in the sport, though she admits that feminine "charm" can be a powerful negotiating tool in Formula 1. Sabine is slim and blonde.
She fits the F1 criteria perfectly. She is also good at her job.
Silvia Colombo works for Ferrari as a sponsor liaison handling the Vodafone account. She also recognises the old adage that women have to be twice as good as men in the same job.
"Because we are few, everybody expects that you are really good. You have to be really good and it is a bigger challenge sometimes," she told me. Silvia is normally referred to by the men as "that pretty one with brown hair and a fit body".
Silvia and Sabine were among many people that I interviewed for a TV feature, Women Behind the Scenes in Formula 1. The most depressing part of the exercise was the disparity between what some of them were prepared to say on camera and what they confessed to me afterwards.
Most of them accepted sexism as a necessary evil of Formula 1 and admitted to being on the receiving end on a regular basis.
"There is so much sexism," said one woman who left her job in PR, "but it’s very subtle. It’s not just about leggy blondes everywhere. It’s much more hidden than that."
A few women said they didn’t find Formula 1 chauvinistic at all. One of them worked as an IT engineer, setting up the pit-wall electronics and handling most of the computer-related emergencies. I asked her what characteristics she needed to do her job.
"‘You can’t be too, erm, I think too girly, if that’s the right phrase."
She claimed never to have been the victim of sexism, but off-camera I got chatting with one of her colleagues, a well-respected member of a big team.
"She was great," I said. "Thanks for the interview. It’s great to show a woman working on the technology side of things."
"Yeah," he agreed, "but just think what we could do with her if she wasn’t such a dog."
F1 bosses are quite happy to give the sponsor liaison and PR jobs to women, along with the waitressing, cleaning and being a brolly-dolly. This is surely the most demeaning job: wearing short, tight skirts, brolly-dollies stand on the grid at the start of a race, shielding each driver from the sun with an umbrella.
The Australian Grand Prix boasts the highest percentage of bare flesh per driver. Promotional models walk the circuit handing out leaflets and posing for photos with punters. They move around in groups, huddling together ever more closely as drunken men hug their bare shoulders and slobber kisses on their cheeks.
Occasionally one of the women will push them away or totter towards a marquee for cover, her tiny bottom cowering in tight Lycra shorts.
I know these women are young and that they enjoy the sense of occasion, but as long as lipsticked pit-babes and brolly-dollies remain the female face of Formula 1 there will never be a woman team boss and, most importantly, there will never be a female driver.
The issue of female drivers isn’t new: it rears its head from time to time, but is never taken seriously enough to warrant a thorough debate.
Bizarrely it was the romantic novelist Barbara Cartland who acted as the force behind some of the earliest female racing drivers. She backed a team who made their mark at the English track Brooklands in the 1920s. But the first woman to drive in Formula 1 was the Italian Maria Teresa de Filippis, who competed in four Grands Prix in 1958. She failed to reach the qualifying time for two other Grands Prix, including the 1958 Monaco race, though 14 male drivers also failed to make the grade there - one of whom was a little chap called Bernie Ecclestone.
Then between 1975 and 1976, another Italian, Lella Lombardi, raced in 12 Grands Prix and became the only woman to score a world championship point by finishing sixth in Spain. Next came the Briton Davina Gallica, who drove between 1976 and 1978, but failed to qualify in any of the three races.
Between 1978 and 1981, the South African Desire Wilson also struggled to qualify in an underfunded, uncompetitive car, but made it into her home Grand Prix where she famously overtook Nigel Mansell only to spin out on the 51st lap. Most recently, the Italian Giovanni Amati and her male team-mate failed to qualify in a floundering Brabham in the early 1990s.
Admittedly, these results aren’t exactly impressive, but these women all had one vital thing in common - they drove incomparably bad cars. It’s impossible to compare their performances with male drivers in competitive machines.
With so much money at stake, Formula 1 teams avoid taking any risk that might affect race results or the sport’s public image. Women are seen as a risky option and their poor record in Formula 1 doesn’t help. In the 1990s, as cars got quicker and therefore more dangerous, the prospect of putting a woman in the cockpit became even more remote.
Even though Formula 1’s safety record has improved, Bernie Ecclestone has admitted that women will probably never drive in the sport. He says: "In all likelihood they will never get the opportunity, because no-one will take them seriously or sponsor them financially. Therefore they’re never ever going to get into a competitive car."
The notion that women won’t be taken "seriously" is the problem. In sport there is a general perception that any event in which men and women can compete equally can’t be very hard. Formula 1, in particular, needs to be seen to be "hard".
Its manufactured image is based on testosterone, aggression and the fighting instincts of those modern-day gladiators, the drivers. Put a woman alongside Schumacher on the grid today and that veneer of machismo would slip. And let’s not forget that driving still holds a curiously significant place in the gender wars. Despite statistics to the contrary, the majority of men still claim superiority behind the wheel and most women know that to criticise a man’s driving is to undermine his very masculinity.
The Irish driver Sarah Kavanagh, 29, is eager for a seat in Formula 1. She was already 17 by the time she decided to take up karting competitively, after watching the 24-hour Le Mans race. Despite her parents’ outrage, she went on to become the first woman to compete in the Irish Formula Opel championship, British Formula 2 and Japanese Formula Nippon. She has also set lap records at Brands Hatch and Mondello Park in Formula 3000 cars. My friends from the boat trip might also be reassured to know that she is very "pretty".
Kavanagh’s website deliberately plays up her attractiveness - her dark eyes stare out from under a racing helmet with the caption "Expect the unexpected". That particular image advertises TAGHeuer watches and usefully demonstrates her commercial potential to team bosses. It’s a necessary evil that Sarah isn’t entirely comfortable with.
"Marketing potential is not the most valiant of reasons for being accepted into Formula 1," she says, "and as a racing purist it also leaves me cold, but if that’s the only way the opportunity can be presented, what choice do women have?"
The American driver Sarah Fisher clearly feels the same pressure. She appears on her website in moodily lit shots: head raised, lips parted, blonde hair skimming sculpted cheekbones. She is only 22, but already in her fourth consecutive season of the Indy Racing League (IRL) Indy Car Series. In 1999 she became the youngest person - not just woman - to pass the IRL rookie test. In May 2000 she was the third woman and one of the youngest drivers to compete in the world-famous Indy 500. The following year she took second place at the inaugural Homestead Miami Speedway, the best result ever by a woman in Indy-style racing.
In 2002 she was hired by the Dreyer & Reinbold team to replace an injured male driver at the Nazareth Speedway and finished fourth. This excellent result caused them to build a second team around her and in May 2002 she became the fastest woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, with a four-lap average speed of more than 229mph.
Despite such obvious successes, Fisher’s website seems desperate to convince potential sponsors and teams that she is still feminine. Her appearances in magazines such as Cosmo Girl, Glamour and Teen People are noted and her favourite hobby is "renovating her home". Also, she is superstitious about "painting her toenails before a race weekend". The websites of Kavanagh and Fisher emphasise their femininity.
Definitions of masculinity and femininity are clear in Formula 1. In order not to be seen as boyish freaks, these aspiring drivers amplify their femaleness.
The situation will change when a woman wins an Formula 1 Grand Prix, but first, paradoxically, she must be taken seriously enough to be given a competitive car.
It’s a no-win situation. But like the female employees in the paddock, women drivers know better than to complain about double standards.
"I am always asked if motor racing is sexist, male-dominated and particularly difficult for a woman to be taken seriously," Kavanagh says.
"While the answer is yes, yes and yes, I don’t like to sound like a moan."
I am more than happy to have a moan on her behalf and for all the other women who have had their F1 aspirations dashed.
Most seasons the teams spin rumours that they are about to employ a female driver and set tongues wagging by inviting the women to be photographed in the motorhome. In 2001, Kavanagh was tested by McLaren, who pronounced her fit and strong enough to race in Formula 1, but the offer of a race never materialised. In 2000 she was invited to the Jaguar motorhome to be photographed with Eddie Irvine, but never made it into the team. In my opinion these women are effectively publicity pawns. Nobody has any real intention of offering them a drive.
David Coulthard once said that the absence of women in Formula 1 was "nothing to do with their physical strength in handling high-powered cars. It’s simply they don’t possess the right attitude to succeed."
And Eddie Irvine once said that women couldn’t drive in Formula 1 because "they don’t have the right brain make-up".
Lost in a world that time forgot, Formula 1 keeps alive those stereotypes that most damage the sport.
Market research recently showed that Formula 1’s audience losses were mainly from women and young men. With spectators and viewers dwindling, it’s time for Formula 1 to stop ignoring one half of the human race and to face the fact that using women as sexual objects holds no appeal for a younger generation who see it as cheap, old-fashioned and unoriginal. Formula 1 websites and competitions urging us to pick our "favourite pit babe" only alienate women fans and undermine the sport’s claims to be "cutting-edge".
A female driver in a competitive car would revolutionise Formula 1’s image, re-energise the competition and attract a new fan base. Her team would receive an unprecedented amount of global media exposure as the most enlightened and forward-looking brand on the grid. For now, however, it seems that in Formula 1, sexism can even defeat the forces of capitalism.
Extract from The Pits: The Real World of Formula One by Beverley Turner published by Atlantic Books, an imprint of Grove Atlantic (UK) Ltd, at 14.99.
To order a copy of The Pits at the special price of 12.99 with free post and packing, please call 01903 828503; quote reference SM1.