Saturday 16 December 2017

De Villota injury puts spotlight on F1's glass ceiling

Women still find it tough in motorsport but their lot is improving, says David Kennedy

The British Grand Prix proved one giant headache for the organisers, who had to ask ticket-holders to stay at home on Friday or Saturday because the car parks were mud baths from torrential rain.

There's nothing worse for a promoter than having to refund money, especially when it runs into the hundreds of thousands of pounds, but that's the post-Grand Prix scenario Silverstone is facing.

But the sun did shine on Sunday, particularly on Aussie Mark Webber, who was a crowd favourite once they knew Lewis Hamilton wasn't going to pull it off. Practice and qualifying weather played havoc with race strategy and if Red Bull gives you wings the team sure 'winged' their way to victory as pole man Fernando Alonso faded in the closing stages.

But Alonso wasn't about to throw the championship lead away in a moment of petulance. He and Mark Webber are dancing a delicate two-step between victories and virtuosity and the longer Sebastian Vettel stays out of this picture the happier this duo will be.

McLaren is struggling but at least Hamilton is giving them some hope while Jenson Button's record gets more dismal with every race.

At the British Grand Prix there was much discussion about the freak accident a couple of weeks ago that befell Maria de Villota, Marussia's F1 reserve driver, who lost her eye after crashing into the back of the team's transporter, just after completing some straight-line testing at Duxford airfield.

Her crash shone the spotlight on female drivers in motorsport in general. Our own Status GP driver Alison Powell is almost a generation younger than Maria, but she shares the same ambition: to race in F1 on equal terms with her male counterparts.

The FIA recently launched an initiative, a 'women in motorsport commission', which aims to promote and encourage women into the sport.

It is headed up by honorary ambassador Michele Mouton, the only woman to have won a round of the World Rally Championship. She finished runner-up in the WRC in 1982 to Walter Rohl.

In my days racing in British F1, one competitor was Maria's father Emilio de Villota, another was Desiree Wilson. I was recently asked to add a few words to a book that was being written about the former South African driver and I wrote: "Desiree was incredibly competitive, extremely quick and I remember her as being 'last of the late brakers'. On the occasions when she beat me in a square fight, she was as good as the best. I wasn't surprised to see her get into F1. Desiree was 'one of us', I certainly never thought twice about the gender issue. Many of us shared admiration and pride that we had in our midst a woman with a genuine competitive skills-set, a rarity in our male-dominated sport. To have known Desiree and raced against her was a real privilege."

There was nothing in place back then to ensure Desiree got a decent crack at F1, yet her exceptional talent warranted it, however unfair that sounds.

The demographics have certainly changed over the decades. Women now represent 40 per cent of the F1 audience, double what it used to be.

When I look at 19-year-old Alison Powell today I don't see that much has changed attitude-wise but she does have much more support than her predecessors. However, if she beats a fellow competitor or a team-mate in qualifying or the race, it's almost perceived as a double insult.

There are two other women racing in GP3 who have taken the route of capitalising on their glamorous images, ostensibly to attract sponsors. But that game is a double-edged sword. It works for US IndyCar race winner and top female driver Danica Patrick, who has managed to combine being a part-time pin-up with the poster-girl image of successful female driver. As someone who came third in the iconic Indy 500, she can get away with doing both.

Susie Woolf, the Williams F1 team development driver, is another girl accused of being in an exalted position because she happens to be married to a Williams investor. She, as did plenty of male drivers, reached F1 with no championships to her credit.

Currently, she's also a decent DTM driver and has raced karts since the age of eight. Woolf is now the sole torch-bearer for other women that want to follow her into F1.

An early example of a female driver who was at the mercy of a jealous competitor was Hellé Nice, who was born in 1900 and raced Bugattis in the 1930s and '40s against Nuvolari and other such luminaries, self-financing her career through dancing and modelling.

Although she didn't win a Grand Prix, she was very competitive. One of her fellow competitors, Louis Chiron, falsely accused her of being a Gestapo agent. She was ostracised by everyone and never raced again, ending her days in penury in the south of France.

Sometimes being in a male-dominated sport brings out the worst in those testosterone-fuelled drivers who will use anything in their arsenal to eliminate the gender threat.

So the FIA commission is a positive and a well overdue offensive. Recently it started encouraging girls into the sport at grassroots level. Working with national sporting authorities around the world, the FIA teamed up with CIK to find a promising young female karter.

Ireland's Nicole Coffey finished an impressive second recently in a world shoot-out in her category and the teenager now goes on to try and secure the coveted prize of a works drive in the CIK-FIA Karting Academy Trophy. She could be one of those who benefit from a more balanced playing field should she eventually choose a career as a professional racing driver.

On the Friday before the British Grand Prix, the Prime Minster David Cameron invited Alison, her parents, and the man who is the driving force in her career -- her grandfather Jim Frazier from Limerick -- as well as the Status GP directors, to dinner at his home in Chipping Norton.

It was impressive to see the British PM pay tribute to Alison, a local girl trying to make it in the tough environment of her chosen sport. But she benefits from being born in a country with a rich racing pedigree. Eight of the 12 Formula One teams have a base there.

Cameron is clearly a fan of the industry and was well briefed on its economic benefits. In his speech he said the industry is responsible for 40,000 jobs and £5 billion worth of exports. Status GP is a small cog in that impressive wheel but not an insignificant one.

Back to the F1 calendar, the German Grand Prix is next weekend and the Hungarian follows the weekend after. Then it's the summer recess. The Hockenheim race could see a third double-race winner or a first triple-race winner or maybe even an eighth new winner this season. One thing we know for sure, there won't be a female amongst them; but that's all in the near future.

Sunday Indo Sport

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