GLOBETROTTER

In-flight magazines and sex in Formula 1

On the way to the Argentine Grand Prix I went to New York. I won't go into too much detail except to say that logic and air travel are not always bedfellows and that when dealing with frequent flyer schemes you sometimes do things which do not obviously make sense. But going to South America via New York does have advantages. There is the shopping on Fifth Avenue and there are electronic bargains to be had...

But the nicest thing about flying from the US to South America is that because there are only 12 people in America who are interested in Grand Prix racing all the flights going south are empty. If you fly from Europe to the Brazilian or Argentine GPs you find yourself crammed onto the blames with vomiting German holiday makers heading for sea, sand and sex in Santos and burly mechanics who drink bacardi and coke for breakfast. More often that not these trips have to be made with dodgy South American airlines and you spend most of the trip wondering if the engine is going to fall off.

And so it was that I found myself stretched out in luxury aboard an American Airlines flight, reading the in-flight magazine which goes by the curious name of "The American Way". It was really good read and full of all manner of strange and bizarre pieces of information.

I learned, for example, that there are a bunch of people in Texas who get their kicks not from driving down Route 66 as any normal healthy American would do, but from decorating their cars in the worst possible taste and then parading them through the streets of Houston. Some may like the idea of a convertible in glow-in-the-dark paint, others prefer to use buttons, bottle tops, Barbie dolls, plastic fruit and even gold leaf.

"It is about freedom of expression," said someone involved. True. It is certainly not to do with good taste...

A few pages further on I discovered a marvelously useless piece of information. Sixty feet below the surface at one point in the Panama Canal there is an old French locomotive still on its rails and still hitched to 30 freight cars which was left there when the section was submerged. Why this happened was not explained but one must presume that it was related to the fact that 20,000 Frenchman died of yellow fever and malaria during the construction and no-one wanted to hang around the build any more railway...

There were loads of daft advertisements for silly gadgets which people buy when they are on aeroplanes because they cannot think of anything better to do with their time: watches with logos, projectors that fit into handbags and even such daft things as The Time Machine toothbrush, which has more bells, whistles and buttons than a McLaren steering wheel.

But all these paled into insignificance alongside the advertisement for paintings by "the most sought-after artist in history". I was rather surprised to think that Vincent Van Gogh or Pablo Picasso were advertising their works in an in-flight magazine. Perhaps it was Mr. Harmenszoon van Rijn? Obviously he understood marketing because he used his first name Rembrandt rather than the clumsy name with which he was born.

But it wasn't even Rembrandt, nor even Monet or Manet or Renoir. No, the most sought-after artist in history (self-professed apparently) was none other than an American called Thomas Kinkade, who paints the kind of pictures you find on the walls of cheap hotels in Havana, in an effort to soften the harsher aspects of the Communist School of Architecture.

I was still laughing about this madness when I stumbled upon a photograph of a lady in racing team gear. It was an article about people in interesting jobs and there was Diane Holl, a British girl who spent eight years working as a design engineer with John Barnard at Ferrari and Benetton before going off to America where she now acts as a race engineer for Tony Kanaan in the CART series.

Having time on my hands, I began to wonder about why there are so few women in motor racing. If you think about it is rather strange. According to the latest demographic figures in Formula 1 the number of female viewers of Grand Prix racing runs at 35-40% although in some countries this rises dramatically. If you happen to be a shy little nerd racing fan, looking for a Sharon Stone to give you a life, may I suggest that you stop writing in to lonely heart columns asking for female race fans and get on plane to Hungary. That is the only country in the world where more women than men watch F1 racing.

As I was pondering the lack of women in F1 and trying to blame everyone for being too macho or some such, I realized that perhaps I was not the right person to cast the first stone as I am partly to blame for the problem. A few years ago I married the Ligier PR lady and, being a smart girl, she immediately gave up the sport and made me do all the work...

I learned from her that Formula 1 is not an easy world for girls. It is a macho sport in which women were there to look pretty, to make sandwiches or, in the old days before computer timing, to use stopwatches. Even if you were a highly-flying graduate there is no guarantee that you will be taken seriously. F1 is not a very enlightened business.

The traditional female stronghold these days is public relations and there are more and more girls to be seen in team gear running around the paddock. There are also a lot of absolutely invaluable ladies hidden away in team factories who organize everything and get very little credit for it.

The F1 engineers are pragmatic men and so they tend to be more enlightened than the team bosses. If a girl does a job better than a man she will be employed and with all the number-crunching and computer stuff these days there are quite a few boffins in frocks lurking in factories. Over the years we have seen women fuel technicians, fluid dynamics experts and tire engineers. There are female journalists and photographers. But when it comes to down to women drivers, we simply have not seen any for years and I'd love to know why...

Somewhere in the mists of time, a few weeks or months ago, I read a study about women in motor sport which concluded that there was absolutely no physical reason why a woman cannot be just as successful a racing driver as a man. The report also concluded that the lack of topline women racers was doubly strange in that women have a huge advantage in the junior formula because of their sex. There is a novelty value in a woman racing driver which attracts attention in a world where attention is very hard to find. It is a lot easier for women drivers to find sponsorship.

Over the years I have reported on quite a few women racers and some of them were just as good as men who made it F1 and yet none of the ladies ever qualified for a Grand Prix. You have to go back 22 years to find the last woman driver to qualify for a Grand Prix - Lella Lombardi and it was 15 years before Lella that Maria-Teresa de Filippis races. Divina Galica, Desire Wilson and Giovanna Amati all tried to qualify but failed to make the grid. We have not seen a girl try to qualify for a race since Amati drove a Brabham at the start of 1992. When she left the team she was replaced by Damon Hill and he didn't do much better than she had done at the time...

Damon is not the only one. When I was reporting in Formula 3 in the early 1980s there was a French racer called Cathy Muller and I remember her being as fast as Gerhard Berger at the time. When Mika Hakkinen was racing for the Finnish national karting team in 1983 one of his team-mates was his girlfriend and he had to work hard to beat her.

Perhaps it is that women racers arrive in the spotlight too soon in their careers which can do much more harm than it does good. All young racing drivers make mistakes but most errors are quickly forgotten in the midfield of unimportant Formula Ford races. A woman driver having an accident will always be a big story and that can affect the way in which the drivers are judged. When I was a touring car reporter this happened to an Austria called Mercedes Stermitz who drove for the BMW Ladies team. Every time she crashed we wrote the headline "Mercedes bends BMW" which resulted in her being tagged a bit of crasher, which was probably not fair.

It seems to me that all that is really needed to solve the problem is a sponsor with a long-term plan and a good driver coach to help guide the girls through their early careers. McLaren, Elf, Stewart and other organizations have been carefully nurturing talent in recent years but none of them have taken on a woman driver. It is shame because F1 would be a great deal better off from a promotional point of view if we could boast a competitive woman racer...

Perhaps then Hungary would not be the only place in the world where women viewers outnumber the men...

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