Wednesday, 1 April 2015

F1 and Women

F1 returned for its 2015 season last month - and I have to say the first race was troubling. I stopped posting last September, partly because I was too busy, but mostly because I was pretty uninspired. The past few years in F1 have been characterised by the dominance of a single team. For years it was Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel. Now, it's Mercedes. Lewis Hamilton won the 2014 world championship, closely pursued by Nico Rosberg. The dominance of the Mercedes cars was insane. Their engine was clearly fantastic, and the team were usually miles in front of the rest. So much so, that the past nine races (the final eight of 2014 and the first race of 2015) secured 1-2 finishes for Mercedes.

Now, I am a die-hard Vettel fan, and for years I've heard all the excuses in the world - "he's just in the best car!". Well, Red Bull were never as dominant as Mercedes, and largely their success came from finding technical loopholes before anyone else. The Renault engines were never the fastest, but the overall package they had up until the rule changes was enough to secure four world championships. Mercedes are just wickedly fast, and waiting for the others to catch up. I don't agree that the Mercedes cars should be slowed down (indeed, I think F1 should be faster, louder, and more entertaining), but the constant 1-2 finishes made F1 last year a bit of a drag, and many of us were longing for the others to catch up.

However, last weekend's race started to show a glimmer of hope. Sebastian Vettel moved from his beloved Red Bull to Ferrari and everyone was waiting to see whether this was a gamble that would pay off. Ferrari hadn't won a race since Spain 2013, even with Alonso in the car (probably one of the best drivers on the grid), so not many people fancied his chances against the Silver Arrows. However, Malaysia showed that Ferrari was a great move for Vettel after all, and we had our first non-Mercedes win in nine races. Alright, it's early days, strategy and weather may have played its part, but the race overall was superb, with battles all through the field. We can only hope that this entertainment continues throughout the rest of the season.

Now, aside from the races, F1 has had some odd news stories surrounding it lately. Mostly, these have been linked to ideas from Bernie Ecclestone about how to improve the show. The latest madness he's come out with is linked to the idea of a separate F1 championship for female drivers. Looking at the comments on the articles in question (always a terrible idea), this seems to have divided opinion somewhat.

Many people seem to view the matter in the same way as myself; the idea of a separate F1 championship for women is absurd, and women should be given the chance to race in the main championship. Others take the view that the current pool of female racing drivers simply isn't good enough for F1, and that there's nothing stopping women other than their own ineptitude. Alright, I may be exaggerating slightly, but a significant number of comments suggests the age-old argument that women simply can't drive. As a female driver (not in F1 or competition, but someone who just gets behind the wheel on a regular basis), I couldn't disagree more.

In my opinion, there are a number of issues that prevent women from getting into race seats in F1. In recent years we've had several drivers who have made reserve seats and third driver places (Susie Wolff, the late Maria de Villota, Simona de Silvestro, and - controversially - Carmen Jorda), but nobody who has yet made a race seat. One of the biggest problems in my view is the fact that there are so few women at lower levels of single-seater racing. The pool of female single-seater drivers is just too small, and the sport in general is dominated by men. This therefore isn't an F1 only issue. Let's look at the GP2 and GP3 grids over the past few years...

The 2015 grids are still being formed for these feeder series, however, we can have a preliminary glance at the drivers:GP3 has eight teams, each with three drivers. All bar one of the places has been confirmed for 2015 - and all the drivers are men. Even if the final place is taken by a woman, men are clearly overrepresented. GP2 has 13 teams with two drivers each. Again, no women have been confirmed to drive. There are four places left, but again, even if all filled by women drivers, women are woefully underrepresented. In 2014, GP2 featured no women at all, and GP3 featured Carmen Jorda for seven races. The picture isn't much better across previous years either. While other championships do slightly better than GP2 and GP3 in terms of the number of female drivers, overall there are alarmingly few women across the motorsport championships.

F1 is currently made up of 20 drivers. That's not an awful lot of the total motorsport population. Undoubtedly there are drivers out there who are much better than the current crop of F1 drivers, but who simply don't have the opportunity to compete. This isn't necessarily an issue of gender - there are most likely women out there who would prove much better than men, but the lack of F1 places means it would be impossible for them to enter this strange circus. The pool of potential F1 drivers is huge, while the number of actual spaces is tiny. Given that women make up a tiny percentage of the motorsport population at large, it's not particularly surprising that there are no female F1 drivers. It's not necessarily about ability in this case, but more about opportunity. The solution to this problem? Giving more girls and women the chance to compete from a very early age and working their way up through the ranks - same as the men.

Women face another barrier to F1, and that's the differing expectation that go with the gender. A few weeks ago, I had a lecture on unconscious bias - the judgements we make in a split second upon meeting someone. We assume things. Everyone does this, and it's just human nature - not necessarily indicative of prejudice, but just something we're socialised into believing about people based on their physical traits. During this lecture, we were asked to write down a 'secret' about ourselves, and we all had to guess who had written what. I decided to write about my years spent driving Land Rovers in competitions, and how I learnt to drive age 12. When my 'secret' came up, the majority of my class guessed that one of my male classmates had written this - not the nerdy girl. This is potentially another indicator of why women don't get into top-level motorsport. Young girls are often socialised into liking Barbies and dolls, less cars and F1, just because this goes along with traditional notions of gender. Again, there's nothing wrong with this necessarily, but from the off girls have less inclination to pursue a career in F1.

Similarly, look at how women are represented when they get anywhere close to F1. By and large, the most women we see on the F1 grid are the grid girls. When we see photoshoots of drivers, men stand proudly with arms crossed, looking determined, while women have the wind blowing through their hair, perfectly made-up - sometimes draped across the car in a completely ridiculous manner. The recent appointment of Carmen Jorda is somewhat suspicious - she's not a great racing driver, but she does look very pretty. Every photo posted of her by the Lotus F1 team is of her looking glamorous, rather than getting in a car. I won't even go there with the comments posted under these photos. Now, until women are promoted away from grid girls and models and towards SERIOUS racing drivers, I doubt much will change. The women who do get into F1 are also going to be held to a much higher standard. While it might be acceptable for Will Stevens or Roberto Mehri to race around at the back with Manor, I doubt a female driver would be so accepted - her slow pace would have nothing to do with the car, and everything to do with her gender.

There has been some progress towards gender equality in F1 - but largely in relation to team principals. Claire Williams and Monisha Kaltenborn have been doing a fantastic job in running their teams (alright - ignore the Sauber vs van der Garde scandal recently, and look at what their cars are doing on track), and it's heartening to see women in serious roles within top-level motorsport. I'd be interested to see how many mechanics are women too - although, again, women are woefully underrepresented in this profession generally. While their skill may match the men, there are just too few to have a statistical likelihood of getting into the job.

Overall, there's still much work to be done in getting women into F1 and other championships, and this isn't something that will happen overnight. A women's only F1 championship is ridiculous, and there needs to be a broader attitude shift towards women who choose to like cars. We need to stop viewing women as decorative grid girls, and start taking them seriously as competitors. If women can be taken seriously as F1 team bosses, I don't see why they can't be taken seriously in any other role. It takes work though, and the entire motorsport community should be there to support this change.