What is it about Formula 1 racing that I love so much?
Bottom line; I love speed. I love any machine that moves with speed – aeroplanes, high-speed trains, speedboats, even a bicycle down a steep hill – but I particularly love the speed that can be achieved on a twisty, risky race track by these aerodynamic carbon-fibre creations and those who tame them. Chicanery, you could call it.
It’s not only the speed, however. I love competition too, and the sheer ferocity of the competition between these drivers and teams is irresistible. Not just every second, but every fraction of a second counts in gaining that competitive advantage, whether it’s in a pit-stop or negotiating a turn. Whether a driver is fighting for a world championship, to finish in the points or just to finish ahead of a team-mate, there are no dead rubbers here. And it’s not just between the teams; competition within some of the teams is just as fierce, and as we’ve seen over the years, whether it was the classic Senna v Prost at McLaren in the 80s or the more recent spats between Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes, it can often reach boiling point. Looking forward to the 2022 season, will the young pretender, George Russell, settle for biding his time and playing second fiddle to Hamilton as Bottas generally did, or is there another battle on the cards?
Of course, I love the skill. Money is a huge aspect of Formula 1 nowadays, as in most professional sports, and there are certainly drivers who buy their seats, but without the requisite skills, they will be shown up. Most interesting to me are the drivers who get the most out of inferior cars – I won’t say it’s easy, but it’s certainly easi-er to win or place well in the fastest car on the track. Going out there every weekend knowing your only hope of winning is a major crash that takes out the big guys and getting the most out of your car in those circumstances requires a very particular mindset. I envy racing drivers their focus too – a split second of distraction and you’re in the wall – and their ability to maintain that focus even when under immense pressure from the car or cars behind. Yes, they have the support of their teams in their ears, but they are the ones with ultimate responsibility.
And then there’s the glamour of it all. The fast cars, the rugged alpha males, the staged tension between the team principals. The money, the Monaco apartments, the huge shiny factories. Travelling the world, from Saudi Arabia to Singapore to São Paulo, and many more in between. Who wouldn’t want that?!
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t attracted by the danger and excitement of motor racing. Generally risk-averse in my own life, I live vicariously through these drivers who knowingly risk their lives every time they take their seats. I feel a slightly disturbing extra level of excitement for wet races, when numerous crashes are almost guaranteed and all certainties, including the form book, go out the window. Of course, I don’t want anyone to die or get injured, and I welcome all the safety precautions that mean such occurrences are rare, but Formula 1 brings with it a drama all its own that I can’t find in any other sport.
It’s not all rosy in the garden, however. My love for F1 is tainted by its enduring maleness – yes, there are women involved in the teams; it’s rare to see Lewis Hamilton without Angela Cullen, Toto Wolff’s wife Susi is a former driver herself, but while there have been female F1 drivers, including Maria Teresa de Filippis and Lella Lombardi, they have never been regulars and there have been none during the twenty-five years that I’ve been a fan. I find it truly difficult to reconcile my attraction to this sport with my feminist values.
There are few world sports which continue to exclude women as this one does. Tennis has given equal billing and prize money to its men and women players for years now, thanks to leaders like Billie Jean King. Golf has some way to go towards equality but its women’s competitions have a reasonable profile and women pros can earn a living. Major team sports like soccer and rugby are making huge strides; they too still have a lot to do but are on the journey. Women’s motor racing does exist, but have you even heard of the W series? I’d be surprised if you had.
And a women’s series is not even necessary. There is no valid reason why women cannot compete with men in motor racing; in fact it’s possible, that as in horse-riding, the lighter weight of some women could make for a faster drive. A recent DW.com article stated that just 1.5% of all licensed motor sports drivers worldwide are female, and it was only in 2018 that half-naked ‘grid girls’ ceased to be part of a grand prix weekend.
In Formula 1, as in so many areas of our society, there are no female drivers because there is no tradition of encouraging girls to follow this path as there is with boys. When I was growing up, all the boys I knew could drive long before I could; the only girls who could were farmers’ daughters who had the chance to drive tractors along with their brothers. F1 is all about the money, and until sponsors invest meaningfully in targeted programmes to actively encourage young girls into karting; start pushing teams to seek out potential female drivers and give them a real shot at success, start demanding that this happens, nothing will change. Who in the FIA would be brave enough to give teams five years to reach gender equality; one of each pair of drivers to be a woman?
Now that would take balls.