August 23, 2016
The Women of Formula One

Formula One isn't a sports event known for women's involvement, but behind it is a slew of women who make things happen.

by Ukirsari
Issues // Gender and Sexuality
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We’re all familiar with this saying: behind every successful man is a great woman. Or something similar: behind a perfect husband is a wonderful wife. In short, a man is incomplete without a woman on his side. It may sound fair, but a closer look at these quotes has made me think that this kind of sentiment actually has the opposite meaning. Crediting a woman as an additional player behind a man’s success story can, in fact, seem sexist.

But in the world of Formula One this is the reality. Formula One Chief Executive Bernie Ecclestone has said that women drivers would not be taken seriously in F1. He said he believed they are not physically able to drive a car fast. Of course he did not give any scientifically acceptable reasons to this (Is it because our gender is less competitive? Or the uterus will get “overheated” after driving faster than 200 kilometres per hour?).

I came to journalism before the Internet was as accessible as today.  Back then we interviewed with a pen, notebook, and tape recorder. We visited libraries for research. And we received press releases from all over the world by mail or facsimile.

I was on the automotive desk, specifically F1 and other four-wheels sports. I took pleasure in writing about the fastest women on Earth such as Maria Grazia Lella Lombardi in F1 (1974-76) and Lyn St. James in Championship Auto Racing Teams or CART (1992-95) and Indy Racing League. These competitions shared similarities with F1 as single seater racing. St. James was not only awarded Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year in 1992, she also proved her superior driving skill in non-single seater by winning endurance series namely 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring.

When it comes to covering F1, women also a minority. Sixteen years ago, in a paddock and pit visit before the  2000 Gran Premio Campari d’Italia, I was one of the only two women journalists in a group of 10. It was a similar situation at a press conference held in 2000 Fosters Belgian GP, with women rarely found among the journalists, as well as in Malaysian GP and several other series. In all these events it was overwhelming to be surrounded by boys all the time.




Women did participate in F1 races up to 1992, with Giovanna Amati being the last woman to compete. It was only 20 years later that women returned to the circuit at F1, when  Maria de Villota was selected as a test driver for Team Marussia (2012) and Susie Wolff became Williams F1 Team test driver (2012-15).

Outside the circuits, women’s role was a different story. F1’s Public Relations are mostly handled by women. They scheduled my interviews, checking journalists’ credential before entering the paddocks, pits, motor homes, or attending events like luncheon or dinner with the drivers or crew. I befriended several F1 PR staff, including my favorite Agnes Carlier, a senior PR manager whom I affectionately called “Mommy.” She’s been working with various top F1 teams through the years and was a very helpful person.  
And then there were those  F1 drivers’ mothers. The legendary three-times F1 champion Ayrton Senna da Silva gave a “special task” to his mother, Neide Senna to mend his broken gloves. Since he began his career in karting, moving to various formula series and culminating in F1, and up until his untimely death in 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, his mother dutifully sew the gloves by hand. As Senna da Silva was left-handed, his mother recalled having to stitch the left pair more than the other side.

A more recent and closer example is Rio Haryanto, Indonesia’s first F1 driver. His mother Indah Pennywati understands what future holds her youngest son. She accepted that he must live abroad since young age to pursuit his dream in single seater. She manages the financial needs to support his races by running a family business and she accompanies him to meet government bodies for financial helps. She stayed by his side when his racing team terminated his contract due to a lack of financial support. 

Senna da Silva and Rio’s stories remind us that, perhaps instead of crediting the woman behind the successful man, we should remember the mother who has brought them up.

Ukirsari is a travel writer that published some of her works at National Geographic Traveler, former editor of a sport automotive tabloid, F1 guest columnist at boladotcom, and do pen fiction. She is currently living in London with her significant other.