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Off the Grid: No more 'Grid Girls' at the WEC

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The FIA has done away with the practice of scantily-clad models draped suggestively over cars and drivers in a welcome move against sexism.

Sebastian Vettel, then driving for Infiniti Red Bull, poses with grid girls at 2014’s American GP

In a much-needed move, the World Endurance Championship, the FIA's endurance car racing contest, has taken the decision to do away with the concept of grid girls. Chief Executive of the WEA, Gerard Neveu, announced in April that in light of social awareness, and as part of a strong anti-sexism movement, there would be no grid girls in subsequent races. Neveu acknowledged that the 'condition of women has changed', and indicated the idea was, in and of itself, regressive. 

The concept of grid girls seems to pervade a message of women being primarily 'eye candy' or some form of window dressing for Formula 1, as opposed to being potentially involved. This unfortunately strongly entrenched ideal could, in and of itself, be discouraging to women keen to take up the sport. The number of women active in the sport is abysmally low: for numerical comparison, there have only ever been five women who have competed in Formula One, which is less than half the number of male drivers in any given race. Formula 1 is an entirely male-dominated sport, where the only purpose of women on the track has so far been in the form of sexual objects meant to smile and wave, much like the penguins in the Madagascar films, in an attempt to get the sport more attention. Unfortunately, it’s all the wrong kind.

The sport itself, or perhaps those managing it, do not seem to want to make it appealing to women, as it features them as decoration rather than a part of any real proceedings whatsoever. In addition to the money, class and nepotism-related issues male drivers have to face before entering Formula One, female drivers also have to face the looming, gargantuan problem of sexism. Men are and have been present at races as representatives of skill, while women are ill-given that chance. Various women at F1 are draped in skimpy clothing and over cars, against drivers, and standing by them on the podium as they are doused in champagne for good measure. 

Lewis Hamilton sprays a hostess with champagne at 2015’s Shanghai GP

Desire Randall Wilson, one of the most successful female drivers of all time, was faced with a barrage of sexism during her racing career, in addition to her competitors regarding her as somehow ‘less’ than them. Former F1 driver Jacques Lafitte attempted to force Wilson off the track at several points at Monza in 1980, and proudly told people he “drove Desire right off the track. No f*****g woman belongs in Formula One “ and that he would do “whatever he could to keep her out.”

Lafitte has for some years been a leading F1 commentator.

Attitudes have not necessarily gotten better with the passage of time, with erstwhile F1 driver Sir Stirling Moss saying in 2013 that he thought they “...have the strength, but I don't know if they've got the mental aptitude to race hard, wheel-to-wheel." In fact, the lower weights and smaller frames needed to fit in F1 cars might indicate that women are physically perfectly suited to driving F1. No significantly attributed scientific study so far shows any difference in mental acuity attributed to sex, which is what Moss implies. He avers that no woman has won an F1 champion, something Moss himself never did throughout his own career.  

While the removal of grid girls may not seem to directly address the bigger problem, which is the abject lack of female drivers competing (or even attempting to compete) in F1, it directly attacks an important symptom of it: the objectification. With more and more women in other motorsports, would the answer then be reciprocal objectification in the form of ‘Grid boys’? It appears, going by current attitudes, that it would only be the female drivers who are objectified, rated once again on their looks rather than their racing skill. It pushes forward the ideal that motor racing is a testosterone-fuelled sport where women exist with no real role except for the gratification of the male gaze.

Grid girls pose in sky-high heels at Hockenheim, 2014

Young people, male and female, both watching and looking to potentially enter the world of motorsport, simply do not at this point have female role models they can look up to, and this can largely be blamed on the attitudes of a significant number of people part of the F1 machine, attitudes that have not seemed to change in the past half century. Following his win at the Shanghai Grand Prix, Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton caught a hostess unawares, spraying her with his bottle of champagne. He was not apologetic afterwards, describing the incident as a “bit of fun.” It is not the first time Hamilton has done so. 

Last year, on the 4th of July, 2014, Mercedes driver Susie Wolff became the first woman to take part in a Formula One race weekend in 22 years. It is not only the time frame that is shocking, but the fact that Wolff has faced a barrage of sexist critique in spite of being a member of the BWRDC. 

This move is one of a few welcome initiatives by the FIA, among them the ‘Women in F1’ initiative, which aims to highlight and give women more significant roles in Formula 1. It aims, according to the website, to “create a sports culture which facilitates and values the full participation of women in all aspects of motorsport.”

  • Former F1 driver Michele Moulton is an active participant, as is Sauber’s team principal, Monisha Kalternborn. Claire Williams and Susie Wolff have been significant women within the Formula One machine. 
Susie Wolff driving for Williams at Hockenheim, 2014

The trashing of the Grid Girl concept by the WEC was absolutely needed, and should with immediate effect be adopted by Formula 1 as well. Critics decry it as being a form of ‘political correctness’, but the term itself is defined as “the avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against”. It is thus difficult to understand why this ‘political correctness’ is a bad thing. 

Adopted by F1, this decision will play a significant part in modernising the game outside of its technology and assisting a paradigm shift in attitudes towards women, the sport, and women in the sport. More young girls will grow up watching the sport in the belief that they could be a part of it if they so chose. Hopefully, it will pave the way for more like Maria Teresa de Filippis, Desiree Randall Wilson and Lella Lombardi – and the sport will not have to go more than two decades before the next woman drives an F1 motor.


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