Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Second (Placed) Sex?

There are some things which are so unremarkable, so much an accepted part of our life, that we rarely stop to ask the question why? Never even consider that they might be otherwise. Take sex for example. Why does it exist at all? (the answer as best we can tell, is rather esoteric and seems to relate to parasite resistance) But that's only one part of an answer. Why are there two sexes? Why not a system which allows any individual to breed with any other individual? Why not three sexes, or ten? To the best of my knowledge, biologists have failed to settle upon a definitive explanation for this puzzling feature of the natural world.

Back to the motorsport, and the question arises - why are almost all racing drivers male? It's a question I hadn't really ever given any thought to until someone asked me recently, and yet it strikes me as a rather interesting one. In most sports, the answer is obvious. Men tend, on average, to be larger, taller, and physically more powerful than women, so it is no surprise that they outperform them in the sporting arena. It is less clear, however, that such physical advantages should make any difference on the racing track. Sure, you need to be strong enough to drive a racing car, but providing you have sufficient strength, it is not clear that being physically stronger than your opponent will give you any additional advantage.

Broadly speaking, there are two possible answers to the question (or one could sit on the fence, and say that there is some truth in both the possible explanations). Firstly, it could be a cultural thing. Boys are drawn to fast cars and danger and want to emulate their (male) racing heroes, so they are more likely to take the first steps into karting. Parents are more likely to be supportive of such an interest in their sons than their daughters. Sponsors and backers have never seen a really successful female racing driver before, and so they are less likely to secure the funding to support their junior career, and so on.

I tend to be suspicious of claims that everything is down to culture, but there may be some truth in the claim. Certainly there can be little doubting that, if you go to any junior karting meet up and down the country, the vast majority of the competitors will be boys - and so perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised when the great majority of adult racing drivers are men. And, historically at least, sponsors may have found it hard to take the idea of a female Formula 1 driver seriously. Desire Wilson, a racing driver from the early 1980s, told Mark Hughes some years back that "When I first moved to America to race, I would go into boardrooms explaining that I was trying to do Indycars and the reaction was You mean you're going to be racing against Mario Andretti? Excuse me?"

The second possibility is that it is nature at work. That there is something about men (or at least the best men) which makes them better racing drivers than women. I've said above that physical strength is unlikely to be the explanation, as there clearly are female racing drivers who do not struggle in this area. That may be an oversimplification though. Clearly there are many drivers - including many male drivers, who simply don't have the strength to cope with F1 style downforce levels. If that is the case, it may be that many otherwise able female drivers simply can't adapt to big powerful single seaters. That's not so say that there aren't some who can, but it will certainly narrow down the field of potential contenders. Veteran racing journalist Mike Lawrence noted that "It is downforce and the massive forces which it places on the driver which has made the difference." which would certainly go some way to explaining why, when there were three female drivers in F1 during the 1970s, there have not been any Giovanna Amati's brief and ill-advised foray with Brabham in 1992.

Leaving aside the question of physical strength and endurance, various studies appear to have demonstrated that, on average, men have slightly better spatial awareness and depth perception than women do. The difference is arguably too small to account for the near-complete absence of women from top-level motorsport, but the focus on the average may be misleading. Professional sports people, including racing drivers, do not come from the middle of the bell curve - they are outliers - exceptional cases by definition. And the evidence suggests that, on almost any given measure of ability, the bell curve of ability for men tends to have a longer tail than that for women. Put simply, the best men will tend to be better than the best women and by extension, the worst men will be worse than the worst women. This may go a long way to explaining, why, for instance, almost all the great chess players are male, though superior depth perception or strength is unlikely to serve you well on the chequered board.

What, then, of the exceptions to the rule? Surprisingly, from the very dawn of motorsport at the beginning of the 20th Century, there have been a number of female racing drivers. In truth, this is a reflection in large part of the fact that motor racing was a wealthy gentleman's club at the time, and the wives and daughters sometimes joined in. As racing got more serious and professional, the proportion of female entrants declined.

Nonetheless, into the 1920s and 1930s, a small number continued to make a significant impact. 'Helle Nice', a former erotic dancer who raced Bugattis in the 1930s, is well known, thanks to Miranda Seymour's enjoyable biography The Bugatti Queen. Much less well known, but almost certainly ultimately the faster driver is Czech driver Elisabeth Junek. Junek was married to wealthy financier Cenek Junek, who was an archetypal gentleman Bugatti racer. Elisabeth, though, was rather more than that. Ultimately quicker than her husband, she came tantalisingly close to beating such established names as Guiseppe Campari and Tazio Nuvolari, Luigi Fagioli and Louis Chiron in the 1928 Targa Florio race, leading much of the way, before losing time near the end with brake problems and eventually finishing fifth. She might have gone on to greater things, but she retired from facing following her husband's death later that year in the German Grand Prix.

The post-World War II racing world was less fertile ground for women racers. Maria Teresa De Fillippis competed in a handful of Grands Prix in an aging Maserati 250F in the late 1950s, but did nothing to suggest she was anything more than a tail-end amateur of the kind that tended to make up the numbers in Grand Prix racing at the time.

Some sixteen years later, Lella Lombardi made her racing debut in a privately entered Brabham. She failed to qualify but came back in 1975 and did the best part of a full season in a March 751. In her third race, in tragic circumstances at Montjuic Parc, she recorded a sixth place finish in a race stopped prematurely following an accident which killed several spectators and marshals. In so doing, she made a bit of history in becoming the first, and so far only woman to score points in an F1 Grand Prix. She competed in a further 14 Grands Prix, but never looked like repeating the feat. Thereafter, she went on to some success in sports cars, winning a number of FIA World Sports Car races in the late 1970s. She was certainly notably more successful than former British Olympic ski-ing captain, Divina Galica, who unsuccessfully attempted to qualify for 3 Grands Prix between 1976 and 1978. To be fair, Galica had almost certainly been catapulted into top-level machinery far too early, and she did at least achieve some success in the peculiar sideline that was the British Formula 1 Championship.

It was in the British F1 championship that F1's next female entrant, South African Desire Wilson achieved her greatest success, winning a round at Brands Hatch and so becoming the only woman to win a Formula 1 race of any kind. Had she had the right breaks, though, she might have achieved rather more than that. The bare statistics don't really suggest she was more than a non-entity - a single failed attempt to qualify for the British Grand Prix in a RAM Williams in 1980. That, however, is to ignore the fact that the Williams she attempted to qualify had severe chassis damage, and it is doubtful that anyone could have got it onto the grid. The 1981 South African Grand Prix was a non-championship event, owing to a dispute between FOCA and the FIA and in that event, driving a Tyrrell, she qualified a respectable 16th, around 0.5s slower than more experienced team mate Eddie Cheever. Come the race, she had to start from the pitlane, but in the rain began to pick off the likes of Salazar and Stohr, only to slide back down the order when she found herself on the wrong tyres, before ending up in the wall on lap 51.

It was all we would ever see of Wilson in top level F1 racing, but she was, with little experience, really not far from the pace in her first race. Who is to disagree with her own assessment, years later, that "I don't think in all honesty, that I was world championship material....but I'm pretty sure that I would have been a regular point scoring type of driver."

Thereafter, the only woman to enter a Grand Prix was the hopeless Giovanna Amati, whose previous CV included an awful lot of DNQs in F3000 who made a half hearted attempt to qualify a Brabham in the South African and Brazilian Grands Prix of 1992. If there was a woman who was up to the task of F1 at that time, it is more likely that it was German Ellen Lohr. There is little to suggest that Lohr was really from the very top drawer, talent wise, but a second place finish in the blue-riband Monaco F3 event in 1990 (ahead of such as Alex Zanardi and Olivier Panis) and a win in the DTM at Hockenheim in 1992 establish her as easily the most accomplished female driver of her time.

In recent years, it has been across the pond in the USA where female racing drivers have made the biggest waves. Danica Patrick may be disparaged in some quarters for the fact that she has never won a motor race of any significance, but it is hard to deny that she has established herself as a significant force in the IRL with 3 poles and 3 podium finishes to her name (the best of these, a second place at the tricky Detroit street circuit). She wasn't the first woman to achieve a modicum of success in IRL. In its earlier, more amateurish guise, Sarah Fisher became the first woman to score an IRL podium, at Kentucky back in 2000. A couple of years later, she achieved another first, becoming the first woman to record a pole position in a major US open wheel race at the same circuit. Neither of these two drivers have actually won a race of note. Englishwoman Katherine Legge, on the other hand, has 3 Formula Atlantic wins to her name and finished a promising 3rd overall in her rookie season in 2005. That said, her subsequent performances in the moribund Champ Car series suggest that this is perhaps reflective of the rather poor quality of the opposition in Formula Atlantic that season (after all, what became of series winner Charles Zwolsman?)

Perhaps as a result of this, various other female racing drivers, including Cyndie Allemann (a middling F3 Euroseries racer) and Simona Di Silvestro (a competent FAtlantic driver) have made the trip across to the States to further their career. It has to be said, though, that none of the above names look like potential F1 stars. A symptom of the relative dearth of women at the junior level, or a demonstration that on a brute biological level, the best women just can't compete with the best men behind the wheel? We may never know for sure, but there is a tantalising suggestion that this might not be so, from over in the world of rallying.

None of the drivers I have mentioned above have won events at the very top level. Some may have competed at the top of their sport, others may have won races in more junior or less prestigious categories, but one cannot point to a female Grand Prix winner. The same is not true of the rallying world. In 1981, Frenchwoman Michele Mouton won the San Remo rally for Audi, and in doing so became the first, and only woman to win a round of the World Rally Championship. The following year, she won a further three rallies, and wound up second in the drivers' championship, ahead of team mate Hannu Mikkola (although it must be said, that on the occasions when they both finished, Mikkola was always ahead).

In doing so, she stands out as surely the only female racing driver whose achievements would be considered worthy of note had she been male. Sure, the Audi was the class of the field in 1982 (at least when it was running reliably) but the Group B monsters of the time were no easy beasts to tame - with over 450BHP running through primitive 4WD systems, they were a great deal more tricky to drive than today's WRC machinery. She may have faded quickly from note in World Rally circles (she was 5th in 1983, with 3 podiums, while Mikkola won 4 rallies on his way to the world title) but that was not the end of her achievements.

In 1984, she made the trip over to the USA to take part in the fearsome Pikes Peak hillclimb event as a works Audi driver. On her first attempt at the mountain course, she finished 2nd overall, and won the rally car section. A year later, she came back and won the event outright - the only woman to have done so. It is reported that Bobby Unser was far from happy at being beaten at an event he had made his own by a French woman in a European car, and that Mouton's response to his grumbling was "If you had any real balls, you'd race me back down as well." She remains, for now, a one off. A hint at what women might be able to achieve in motorsport, or the exception that proves the rule?

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4 Comments:

Anonymous Clive said...

There's just one thing I want to know: was Helle really Nice?

I note you have studiously avoided the non-PC reason that probably explains everything - that, generally, women are not as interested in risk-taking and driving quickly as men are. This is not cultural but part of our make-up as human beings; it stands to reason that females, designed as the progenitors and carers should also be given a more careful attitude to life. On their shoulders lies the future of the species, after all.

Men are expendable, however, and so it does not matter if they want to compete to see who can do the most foolhardy, dangerous things imaginable. Anyone who has raised children knows that there are innate differences in approach between boys and girls and, if that offends the PC crowd, so be it.

4:55 AM  
Blogger patrick said...

Ah Ms Delangle? Yes, I believe she was, in her day.

I'd originally included a line on innate tendencies towards risk-taking and removed it because the article was just getting too damned long.

A (female) friend of mine who sometimes volunteers as a trackside doctor noted how polite and tame in an 'After you Claude' kind of way the 'Formula Woman' racers tended to be in comparison with...well...pretty well any other club racers outside of those racing various expensive historics.

And my own view is that the differences are indeed innate - I've yet to find anyone with no ideological axe to grind who seriously disputes the broad thinking behind evolutionary biology on this.

9:18 AM  
Anonymous Steven Roy said...

I think one of the other problems is that a lot of very average women have been given a lot of publicity and this probably is in the mind of potential sponsors making them resistant to sponsor female drivers.

The thought of one sex leads to the possibility of Max breeding with himself or Bernie with himself.

1:06 PM  
Anonymous Varun said...

Motorsport is a risk driven event,men are more risk taking than women,[its the average thath maters,poiting examples of women risk takers doesnt count,for every 1000 males and women there will be more males that are more risk taking or reckless]Its biology and has scientific basis.
Some women will race in the future no doubt but wont be as succesfull as men ,imo.
Also take for eg a sport like Equestrian its not physical and doesnt involve the risk factor and women beat men all the time and men and women compete againt each other.

6:41 AM  

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