Sun, Jul 16, 2006 - Page 19 News List

Cars out for the ladies

For years women in motor racing were just 'brolly dollies' or mascots. Now, though, a major event puts them in the driving seat

By Fanny Johnstone  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Women such as Britain's Katherine Legge are beginning to make a mark in car racing and challenge "brolly-dolly" stereotypes as epitomized by Katie Price despite what F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone and Jenson Button say.

PHOTOS: AGENCIES

Bantering with a journalist from the lads' mag FHM last year, Jenson Button was asked his opinion of women racing drivers. “You wouldn't want to be on the circuit with them, would you?” he said. “A girl with big boobs would never be comfortable in the car. And the mechanics wouldn't concentrate. Can you imagine strapping her in?”

Unsurprisingly, his comments caused quite a storm. Until recently, though, they seem to have been pretty representative of attitudes towards women in motor sports, especially in formula one.

After all, for years now, the closest most women have got to a racetrack is either in the trackside audience, or by being a “brolly dolly”: wearing a short skirt and marking the place on the starting grid for drivers, while shielding them from the sun with an umbrella.

(Glamor model Katie Price epitomized this image when she was the F1 mascot for Eddie Jordan's team, bagging the name “Jordan” on the way.)

Recently though, the grid-girl concept has begun teetering on its high-heels, thanks to a major British racing championship called Formula Woman. Although the highly respected British Women's Racing Drivers Club (BWRDC) promotes women already making their way in motor sport, it doesn't generate events. But Formula Woman is a championship specifically designed to teach novice female drivers how to become fully fledged racing drivers in a supportive, but competitive, environment.

And at least one major F1 player is enthusiastic about women becoming drivers and training to a standard where they can compete with men. Just last month), David Coulthard spoke up strongly for women in motor sport. “I'm a great believer that (women should) have an equal opportunity to race,” he said, “There's no reason at all why they shouldn't race with men. There's no physical or reaction reason. More men get into it, because more boys get into it. My sister was naturally a better driver than I was, though.”

And, it seems, women are just as keen to get into the sport. Launched in 2003, the Formula Woman competition has grown massively since its inception, with an eye-popping 10,000 women registering to take part after the television airing of the first FW Championship, and there's a three-day elimination camp to find the final 16 to compete in the championship. They are tested for everything they will need to become a first-class racing driver in the real world; points are won with track times, fitness levels and finance generated (particularly important given the sheer expense of motor sports).

The cost of a young driver going into Formula Ford is about £100,000 (US$184,000) per season. Formula three is £500,000 per season, and it costs multi-millions just to break into formula one — some F1 teams take paying drivers just to subsidise the entire team's financial survival. Compared to this, taking part in the Formula Woman championship — in which all the cars are provided — is much more accessible for women trying to break into the industry, costing about £10,000 for the season.

Like F1, the championship unravels over three months at prime track locations such as Brands Hatch, UK — the first race of the season is at Pembrey in South Wales on Saturday. Winning in 2004 launched the career of Natasha Firman, who has since become a paid driver (for Mazda), racing in a mixed team, a rare achievement in the UK. Other championship finalists are active in motor sport.

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