Monday, 15 April 2013

Women in Formula 1

There's a buzz, currently, about female drivers and Formula 1. This happens every few years when a likely candidate emerges and the media start to get excited. The current buzz is about Susie Wolff - a very talented 30 year old race driver from Scotland.

She got a BBC2 documentary (shot by her brother) on Sunday evening. And she will also feature in a Radio 5 Live debate tonight (Mon 15th April) at 9.30pm.

Conveniently for Susie's "people", Stirling Moss has made a statement saying that a female will never win an F1 race - and this is largely backed-up by the sport's supremo, Bernie Ecclestone.

Cue much frothing of the airwaves. When the fuss dies down, let's see if Susie can proceed beyond her one-off test driver stage and maybe get a race in a competitive car. The fact that she raced in the German Touring Car Championship for Mercedes last year and that her husband is now overall boss of Mercedes GP, might help.

But I doubt it.

In the mid-70s I worked for the rather brilliant John Webb. He was then Chief Executive of 4 UK race tracks including Brands Hatch. He was a motorsport enthusiast - and, crucially, a marketing man ahead of his time. His feisty, fearsome wife Angela was one of his directors - and between them they made many changes for the better in UK motorsport.

I was their wet-behind-the-ears PR man, running the press office. But I became very much their right-hand man and was put in charge of their growing stable of female racing drivers. OK - I was 20, single and it seemed an attractive offer. I soon learned otherwise.

I worked with Divina Galica at first - ushering her through single-seaters as far as Formula 5000 with an old Surtees F1 car. Eventually, "Divi" got signed to James Hunt's manager-brother, Peter and Olympus Cameras and tried to make it in F1.

Did she have what it takes? I believe so, yes. Immensely strong as a former GB Olympic skier. She trained and trained, raced and raced. But in F1 unless you have the right car under you run by the right team, you don't stand a chance. She badly needed a break with McLaren or another front-runner. That break never came. There was no way that the major sponsors of the time (Marlboro, for instance) would countenance "risking" their brand image on a woman. And if the sponsors don't want it, then the teams can't have it.

John Webb, always with an eye on the column inches, radio & tv slots which he tasked me to generate, knew he'd struck a winning formula with female drivers. The crowds at Brands Hatch definitely showed a big interest in them, and new spectators were drawn in by the type of media coverage that few male drivers could ever generate.

So we tried a few more - former showjumper Ann Moore, South African Desiré Wilson. We would stage "female only" races for media stars of the day in identical Ford Escorts. Each entrant would be put through the racing school and their progress would be reported back to John. He was looking for those who had the gift - those who had the killer instinct on the track and could be nurtured to success.

It never really happened. Desiré was the most successful of them all, actually making a season in F1.

Now, nearly 40 years later in our very different world, Danica Patrick has set the racing world on fire with enormous success in the USA - in both single-seaters and the frightening NASCAR. She has got "it". In simple terms, a female Schumacher. Fearless, talented, fast, strong and with the crucial killer instinct.

The USA will keep her in a living she could never get in F1. I don't think Danica will ever join Bernie's circus.

However, we have female racers in this country who could have the same success if they got the break with the backing. I was at a kart track a few years ago. It was wet and I stood on one chosen corner to watch races. It was corner which demanded a driver's attention in the dry, let alone the wet. I was mesmerised by one kart carving up through the pack. Out-braking, out-thinking, out-driving all the others. Then I saw the ponytail sticking out from the back of a helmet. After the race I went into the paddock and found a little family team - with a 12 year old daughter who had just won that race.

She had "it".

I just wonder if she ever got the sort of backing that talented boy kart racers get?

To the team owners & sponsors in F1 (mainly male) : c'mon fellers, give a girl a break! There's a whole new world to discover.

1 comment:

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