Women, where's your place?

Motor sport has a history of great female competitors, but they’ve always been in the minority. It’s an imbalance that the FIA is now addressing
By Franca Davenport

Last year I saw my first ‘grid boy’ in Valencia at the European Grand Prix. It was a refreshing sight, and thanks to his rare status he received far more attention than his female counterparts. Currently it seems the same is true for women drivers. Motor sport may allow both sexes to compete on an equal footing, but the numbers are far from equal. In fact, the amount of female race and rally drivers at the top of their profession is probably similar to the number of grid boys present at the top races.

However, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile is looking to change the situation. Not just for women drivers but for women in all aspects of the sport, including managers, marshals and engineers. At the end of last year, the FIA formed the Women and Motorsport Commission with world rally star Michèle Mouton at the helm. Mouton has won several World Rally Championship events for Audi and in 1982 was a hair’s breadth away from winning the World Championship outright (and that’s brunette hair, not blonde). In 1988, she started the Race of Champions, which brings together top drivers from all disciplines to compete. Mouton is clearly a woman who knows and loves her motor sport but, despite her experience, she remains slightly baffled by the current lack of women in the sport.

“It’s really difficult to say [why],” she says. “I don’t think it’s easy for men to get to the top either because the numbers at that level are so small now. I don’t know if fewer women are interested and I can’t say it’s because of a change in the format. I don’t have the answer, but I hope this commission will give me one.”

Indeed, it seems that with the progression of equal opportunities and women’s rights, the number of successful females in motor sport has dwindled. As early as the 1930s women were finishing in the top 10 at Le Mans, and in 1958 Maria Teresa de Filippis was a Formula 1 works driver for Maserati. However, since de Filippis, only four other women have risen above F1’s glass ceiling: Lella Lombardi, Divina Galica, Desiré Wilson and Giovanna Amati, and only Lombardi managed to score points, or half a point to be exact. Since 1992 there has been no real female flicker on the F1 radar. “There are girls out there who are competitive and committed,” says Galica. “But it’s about encouraging them and keeping them in the sport. Sponsorship is key. When I was racing the amounts of money [involved] were much less, and I was lucky to have Brands Hatch director John Webb backing me, who had extremely good contacts.”

In America the presence of women in the top racing series seems to be a different and more constant story. Janet Guthrie was the first woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in 1977 and Lyn St James competed in the Indy Racing League during the ’90s. Now Danica Patrick is flying high. Last year she finished third at Indy and fifth in the IRL IndyCar Series; this year she is competing part-time in the NASCAR Nationwide Series alongside the IRL.

British driver Katherine Legge raced in the US Champ Car series in 2006 and ’07 and is now an Audi works driver in the DTM German touring car series. She is also a drivers’ representative on the FIA commission “I think there was more opportunity in the States,” she says. “Danica and I were there at the right time when they were pushing for a female driver, but now, with Champ Car finished and the financial crisis, they’re not pushing so hard. Hopefully this new commission will change the situation for women in all aspects of the sport and we will have co-ordinated support in this area. I’m looking forward to being part of it.”

Rallying can probably boast the greatest number of successful women drivers. Before Mouton there was a stream of excellent female competitors during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s such as Pat Moss-Carlsson (sister of Sir Stirling), Anne Hall and Rosemary Smith. “Maybe it’s always been more difficult for women in racing,” says Mouton. “In rallying you’re alone against the clock whereas in racing your competitors are right beside you. My concern was never to beat the men but to be competitive at their level. It was my own personal pride that made me go fast.” As far as Mouton is concerned the main difference between the situation today and when she was competing is the numbers. More drivers are fighting for fewer places, which means any minority will have a lesser representation. Pat Moss-Carlsson, world-class rally driver in the ’50s and ’60s who is now sadly deceased, also believed there was more opportunity when she was driving. “It was nothing to get 10 or 15 women entered in the big rallies,” she once said. “Maybe even 20. You hear girls saying they’d love to rally but there are no opportunities now unless they’re mega-rich and usually the rich ones can’t drive.”

Over the years there have been changes in both the machinery and the format of events, but most female drivers don’t believe these have put women at a disadvantage. Especially since Moss-Carlsson drove an Austin-Healey 3000, a machine considered a handful for most male competitors, to outright victory in 1960 on the toughest rally in Europe, the Liège-Rome-Liège. “Driving is not physical in the same way as a runner or a shot-putter,” she said. “It is physical-ish and less so now with power steering and computerisation. But it’s really down to the last ounce you screw out of yourself – the last bit of risk you’re willing to take.”

So if it really is a numbers game, what can the FIA do to ensure the numbers add up to more women in the sport? It has started collaborating with international sports organisations and national motor sport bodies, but the work is still in its infancy and the strategies are yet to be fleshed out. Nevertheless Mouton has questions she wants answering and has already flagged up areas for the commission’s work.

Training and education are particularly important. By ensuring there are more women at a grass roots level, the probability that they will reach the higher echelons of the sport will increase. In the UK and abroad there are currently a fair number of girls in karts, but later on they seem to fall by the wayside. Legge, who started karting when she was nine years old, believes it’s her competitive streak that’s kept her in the sport. “I just wasn’t going to let the boys beat me,” she says. “I think when you get to 16 or 17 and half of them are coming onto you while the other half are making fun of you, it’s easy to give up and focus on something else. I would say there’s no reason why a girl can’t do it physically, but sometimes girls lack the mental strength to get there.”

Sarah Moore, winner of last year’s UK Ginetta Junior Championship, is only 16 but has her own theory on why there seems to be a No-Woman’s Land between karting and racing cars. “At a younger age girls are more fiery,” she explains. “And when they get older I think the high speed of cars compared to karts puts girls off. It’s all in the head really. The first time I drove a race car I got scared by the speed, but then I got used to it and 100mph became like 20mph.” Moore believes that racing is still classed as a boy’s sport and girls need better advice. “There’s quite a few girls who are interested but don’t know what to do,” she says. “Moving into cars so early really helped me because I had to get used to the speed and I had to be professional. And as a girl you do get noticed more by sponsors.”

Discrimination, whether it’s positive or negative, is not really on the commission’s agenda. As Mouton says, “We are not a feminist movement and we are not here to push a quota of women into the industry.” Mouton is also against all-woman events, believing they would be a regression rather than a progression. It seems most female drivers agree it’s best to continue competing against the men and there are few reports of any overt discrimination from the drivers. However, it might be subtler than that. Galica identifies the turning point in her career as being a crash in Argentina, but believes this was more to do with the fact she was a woman crashing than the accident itself. “My sponsor was suddenly very concerned for my safety,” she says. “And I think even today an accident involving a woman is seen as being much worse than one involving a man. I don’t think it’s a conscious discrimination, but it is there.”

Legge received huge coverage for her accident in Champ Car in ’06. “It was a massive crash,” she says. “So it would have been a big deal for anyone, but because I was a girl people were amazed that I was saying I would get straight back in the car.” Although she doesn’t name this type of response as actual discrimination, Legge feels there is an ingrained belief that women can’t make it to the top. “I would say 80 per cent of people don’t believe a woman can do it,” she says. “And that’s fair enough, because in F1 nobody’s proved they can. People want it to happen but I don’t think they believe it actually can. And that’s women just as much as men.”

It does seem that belief is a big factor both from the world of motor sport and the women themselves. Currently there appears to be a chicken-and-egg situation, where women drivers need to prove they can get to the top for people to believe they can, but they also need a large dose of self-belief to be successful. The hope is that the FIA commission can foster this belief and that enough women drivers will join the ranks of Danica Patrick to change the mindset of everyone involved. Who knows, there might even come a time when we get more grid boys on the track. At least that would be something for the female drivers!