Courtesy of NYTimes.com
One drives a large truck and puts tires on rims. Another organizes an army of gasoline technicians who develop fuel. One heads a department of aerodynamics designers, while another is in charge of the 240 employees of the racing team and takes part in the meetings of an otherwise all-male club.
These are a few of the women who are breaking the mold in the macho world of Formula One, where, as is the tradition elsewhere in auto racing, they usually occupy marketing, media relations and hospitality jobs. While more women than ever work the technical jobs to make the cars go fast, the one area where they are still absent is behind the steering wheel.
In fact, as Formula One prepares for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza this weekend, it has been 18 years since the last woman driver took part in a Grand Prix, and half a decade since a woman even tested a car. Giovanna Amati, an Italian, tried and failed to qualify for several races for the Brabham team in 1992, while Katherine Legge tested at the Minardi team in 2005.
Women racers drive in some of the sport’s top series, including Danica Patrick in IndyCar, the leading open-wheel series in the United States; Liz Halliday in endurance racing; and Legge in the DTM saloon car series in Europe. But Formula One, the pinnacle of racing, remains off-limits and opinions are divided as to why.
Women work in most other areas of the series, however. At the top of the pyramid is Monisha Kaltenborn, the chief executive of the Sauber team since January. At the German Grand Prix in July, she was introduced at the official Friday press conference as the first woman to have taken part in the decades-old ritual.
Kaltenborn said that although the series is macho, it can benefit from the feminine presence.
“There are many things that I think as a woman you see with more distance,” she said, “because you simply probably don’t have that emotional feeling to motor sport and fast cars and you have a different view. And that is sometimes needed to open new directions here, because we all know some things have to change. It can be an advantage.”
Kaltenborn has worked in Formula One for a decade. She trained as a lawyer and worked at the Fritz Kaiser Group when it held shares in the Sauber team. After the company sold its shares, she joined Sauber as head of the legal department, where she negotiated contracts with drivers, sponsors, suppliers and the Formula One commercial rights holder and governing body.
She said that for a year one of the team directors thought she was an interpreter for Peter Sauber, the team owner, so unusual was it to have a woman among the team directors.
Lisa Lilley once found herself at the Ferrari hospitality unit serving coffee to journalists standing behind her in a line at a coffee machine. She served two or three before she informed the next man that she was not a hostess, but the Shell Oil technology manager for Ferrari assigned to Formula One.
Lilley, who has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, attends most of the races wearing the Ferrari team uniform. Because the only Ferrari clothes designed for women are those of the hostesses, she wears the men’s outfit.
Generally, any prejudices women may face when they enter the series are forgotten by what drives everyone: performing and working well to win races.
“It really doesn’t matter in the end if you are a man or a woman,” said Tina Vajanszki, a tire technician at Bridgestone, “as long as you do your job well.”
Marianne Hinson, the director of the Lotus team’s aerodynamics department, has worked for Formula One teams since 1999. But she is perhaps an exception. The number of women in technical jobs seems in line with the demographics of women applicants.
“If you go back 30-odd years to when I went to university and studied engineering, the one thing I have to say is that in the engineering faculty there were no girls,” said Martin Whitmarsh, director of McLaren Mercedes.
“Within McLaren Racing at the moment, I think we probably have no more than 2 percent of our engineers are female,” he added. “I haven’t done the analysis of what percentage of applicants are women, but it probably isn’t greatly skewed. I think that we probably have only 2 percent of the applicants are women.”
“Engineering is slightly machismo,” he said, “motor engineering is more machismo, racing cars even more machismo.”
Nonetheless, in April the International Automobile Federation created a commission to support and encourage women to take part in all areas of motor sport.
Women sometimes constitute up to 40 percent of race spectators, depending on the venue. But Kate Walker, who reports for a Web site specializing in women in motor sport, Girlracer.co.uk, said that she had felt uncomfortable as a spectator at one race she attended alone because there were so few women.
Perhaps the most sensitive question, however, is why there are no women Formula One drivers.
The sticking point is often whether a woman would be physically capable of handling a Formula One car, which submits drivers to huge G-forces in cornering and braking.
Heikki Kovalainen, a driver at the Lotus team, said that a woman would not be strong enough.
“It’s all the training you have to do to remain in peak condition,” he said.
“I don’t know how many women want 22-inch necks,” he said. “Imagine the weight of your head, plus a helmet, multiplied by five. Just braking you are forced five times your body weight in a harness.”
But Legge, who was the last woman to test drive a Formula One car, laughed off such notions.
“It is much easier to drive than a ChampCar,” she said, referring to the Formula One car and that of the former top open wheel series in the U.S., in which she drove in 2006 and 2007 before it folded. “The forces thing and the strength thing is absolutely 110 percent, categorical rubbish.”
She said the ChampCar did not have the cornering G-forces on the neck but that the braking and accelerating was the same. She added that power-steering and other drivers’ aids in fact made it physically easier to drive a Formula One car.
Bernie Ecclestone, the promoter of the series, has frequently expressed a desire to have a woman driver, particularly for the marketing value. But Oksana Kosachenko, who manages Vitaly Petrov, the Russian driver at the
Renault team, said she would never work with a woman driver only for marketing purposes, and added that a woman could not take it physically.
Perhaps what counts, though, is being at a top team, and no woman has had that chance.
“It would be interesting to have the equal opportunity, the equal car, no politics, nobody’s controlling situation, and then we would see how quick we really are,” Legge said.
“The problem is that no team wants to be the first to hire one, and to risk looking stupid if the girl can’t finish the race,” she added. “We just need to be given the opportunity.”