Lewis Hamilton fell under heavy criticism from fans and journalists over spraying a grid girl with champagne during the 2015 Chinese Grand Prix podium celebrations. The British driver was branded as “sexist” but he should have been congratulated. Hamilton’s action put a spotlight over a discussion that we ought to have more often: the role of women in Formula 1.
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The grid girl tradition goes back to the 1960s and is still very popular among millions of F1 fans around the world. It, however, appears a bit outdated. It reinforces an image of women having no other role in motorsport besides holding the signs with the drivers’ numbers. The woman as a grid girl does not contribute productively to the racing. She is there only to be appreciated; she is not racing.
This is not the message we should be trying to spread among young Formula 1 fans. The reluctance to reconsider the role of grid girls in Formula 1 by either doing away with them altogether (the WEC approach to the issue) or by including both male and female models seems odd among calls to bring back female drivers to the series.
We, the members of the Formula 1 media circuit, are part of the problem. We are focusing only on the negatives.
The senior figures in the sport are guilty of only complaining about the lack of female drivers without taking strong enough actions to improve the sports’ popularity among girls. It is difficult to convince a ten-year old female cart racer that she should commit her entire life to trying to get to Formula 1, when the only women she sees there are the grid girls.
Hamilton is not sexist. He did not spray champagne in Liu Siying’s face on the Shanghai podium because he was trying to insult her or assert his superiority over the opposite sex. Siying herself admitted she was only doing her job and did not really think about the so called incident afterwards.
The image, however, that the sport presents to the casual observer is very sexist. Yes, it is difficult to find female drivers that are good enough to be in Formula 1. Only 1.2% of the drivers in the Drivers’ Database of www.driverdb.com (a website that tracks the performance of drivers in numerous racing series across the world) are female. If the same ratio is applied to Formula 1, in every given season we should have on average 0.24 women in the sport (0.012 * 20). Getting female drivers, however, is not impossible.
NASCAR has Danica Patrick; IndyCar has Simona de Silvestro; Keiko Ihara has participated in the last three 24 Hours of Le Mans races. Formula 1 is the only premier motosport series that is lacking a “female touch” behind the wheel. Formula 1 really has a “women problem.”
We, the members of the Formula 1 media circuit, are part of the problem. We are focusing only on the negatives. Yes, they are no female F1 drivers at the moment, but there are numerous female engineers. We should be celebrating their contribution to the sport.
Hopefully, soon enough, Claire Williams will appear on the podium of a Grand Prix to accept the team winners’ trophy for Williams. Then, it will be evident for the casual fans that women in Formula 1 are not only grid girls.