Are we going to see more women in F1?
When watching F1 on TV, there are always plenty of women onscreen. There’s nothing a cameraman likes better than a flag girl in a skimpy skirt, or model girlfriends anxiously clasping their manicured and nail-varnished claws, while watching their men do battle.
Recently, as it pans past Christian Horner’s jiggling leg, the pitwall camera has frequently been giving close-ups of a serious-looking lady in headphones.
Monisha Kaltenborn become Formula One's first female team principal in October, taking over from team founder Peter Sauber. Born in India, she is now an Austrian citizen, and joined Sauber in 2000 to run their legal department. She became chief executive officer in January 2010 at the age of just 39.
Red Bull team principal Horner said: "It's good for her and for women in motorsport. In our own team we have more and more women taking predominant roles. It is very healthy and should be applauded."
Press pack lenses have also homed in on Susie Wolff, who has become a development driver at Williams, effectively the third driver in the team alongside Pastor Maldonado and Bruno Senna.
So is the tide turning? Will seeing a woman clamber into an F1 car ever become an every day sight?
It’s true more women are sneaking into the sport from different directions all the time. I highlighted a Guardian story recently about female engineers working in the sport. I’m sure there will be more managers, PRs, engineers and CEOs, there’s no reason why not, but driving? That’s a challenge.
I’ve always wondered about the huge amount of time the drivers spend in the gym, and the heavy muscle they carry. In F1 every ounce makes a difference. If you don’t need muscle to drive and to resist the enormous g-forces in the car, surely all drivers would be jockey-sized? And if you do need muscle, that puts women at a disadvantage. Although would their low weight counteract this? Danica Patrick has done pretty well for herself in the States, becoming the only female to win an IndyCar race – and she’s tiny. British-born Katharine Legge has also signed a two-year IndyCar contract with Dragon Racing.
Then there's probability. One of my favourite cartoons is Kliban’s ‘Bach sculpting’. He’s rubbish. It's just as well he found what he was good at. As things stand, thousands of boys race to be F1 drivers, versus a very few women. Therefore, probability says, the likelihood of finding a new Vettel without a penis is pretty slim. The girl who could race the socks off him is probably doing a beauty therapy course (and may be rubbish at it).
Then there’s good old macho culture. Whatever they say, a lot of men in motorsport don’t believe women are capable of driving as well as the boys – and they say some squirmworthy things. A few years ago, David Coulthardt came out with the corker that women lacked the mental toughness for racing. A statement that would have mothers lining up to smack him round the face with a vile-smelling nappy. In that culture, those with the power to put a woman in the driving seat are terrified of getting hanged, drawn and quartered by the management if she doesn't instantly win a race.
There’s also that ‘gentleman’ thing that makes it worse if a woman is hurt on the track than a man. Back in the heyday of Brooklands, women were banned from competing against men, because the gents would be too worried about the little ladies' safety to race them fairly. Brilliant drivers such as Kay Petre and Gwenda Hawkes were limited to racing each other for records at more than 130mph on the perilous, rough concrete bowl. After the ban was lifted, in 1937 Kay Petre was hit by a male driver and forced to retire.
It was truly a disaster for women when Maria de Villota lost her right eye while testing for Marussia earlier this year. It didn’t prove women can’t drive, but it will probably make many people queasy about putting another woman in that danger.
After testing for Williams, Susie Wolff said "After the publicity, which surrounded Maria's accident, there's no doubt I felt an extra need to go out there, do a good job, and show her accident was a freak, one-off and it shouldn't generalise women in motor sport.
"It was very important for me to do it for both of us and show everybody that women can drive F1 cars successfully. And I think I did."
So far, the press has been positive, although the Sun showed what Susie will face from the red tops. The Sun wrote: ‘Formula 1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone, never one for political correctness, greeted her arrival by saying: “If Susie is as quick in a car as she looks good out of a car she will be a massive asset to any team.”’ They followed this with the sentence beginning ‘ Blonde Susie…’ and the heading ‘Susie Wolff sends pulses racing’. Website Auto 123 went with the age-old headline ‘RACY lady Susie Wolff has joined Williams...’
Sadly, if we want women in F1, they’ll probably need an initiate that rewards teams with direct payment or generous sponsorship. Rallying always had a Coupe des Dames, so although the men and women competed on the same track (and Pat Moss actually won fair and square against the boys), they also had some women-only silverware to take home, and this boosted the team's sponsorship hopes.
This year in the States, an initiative called Women Empowered, sponsored by price comparison site TrueCar has helped six women, including Katharine Legge, to race in six different series. I wish them all luck.