Monday, 22 April 2013

Are women mentally tough enough to compete in Formula 1?

This time last week, Sir Stirling Moss created a real stir with his dated and somewhat antiquated comments regarding women in Motorsport. 
Will Buxton summed up the ensuing furore beautifully on Twitter: "Hold on. The BBC asked an 83 year old racing driver for a comment about women? And it was politically incorrect? I’m staggered". (@willbuxton)
Everyone in the world of Motorsport respects Sir Stirling Moss and his achievements hugely but there is no doubt that his most recent comments are born on a generation apart from today's world of equal opportunity and experiences. This question was a media banana skin for Sir Stirling and his answer, albeit it wrong does not really surprise me. I do not agree with his comments but at the same time I've lost no respect for the legend. 
Common sense has to prevail and we need to be realistic and understand that if we want to find a true answer to the question 'Are women mentally tough enough to compete in Formula 1?’ then surely we should be chasing the current generation for answers; drivers who have competed against the current crop of female drivers. Not an 83 year old legend from an era where women were not competitors but trophy girlfriends. 
The topic of female racing drivers is a subject well documented by the media over the last few years. I think the best article I've read recently was by Autosport's Ed Straw: 'Time to take female drivers seriously'. Sadly not all share his positive viewpoints. You are never far away from a patronising or casually sexist comment. Ironically, most of these comments come from those with zero experience on the topic: they are neither female nor have they competed against the very individuals they are spreading unfounded negativity about. Having been Danica Patrick's stablemate at Haywood Racing and competed against Susie Wolff in Formula Ford, I think I am well placed to offer my knowledge and experiences on the topic. 
First and foremost, Danica is a fierce competitor, as fierce a competitor as anyone else I've driven against. I remember I realised very early on that you did not cross Danica as she is not scared of letting you know of her displeasure. Some may argue this side of her is petulant; call it what you want, she wants to compete and she is ready to fight for what she thinks is right. To quote John Cleese in ‘Fawlty Towers’: “She can kill a man from ten paces with one lash of her tongue". It was this side of Danica that really made me stand up and take notice. Of course she is also very amicable and has a hugely marketable side to her, in and out of competition. Danica is very astute; do not be fooled by the petite frame and pretty exterior. Personally I cannot understand why others begrudge Danica for using all her attributes and her astuteness to maximum effect in order to progress her career. She has been diligent and smart and I'd certainly do the same if I were her and so would a lot of others. Surely these comments are just born out of jealousy. No doubt Danica Patrick has more than earned her status in motor sport and would be a valuable asset to Formula 1. 
Another female driver I have had the pleasure of competing against is Susie Wolff or Susie Stoddart as she was known then. I think my Mother spent more time talking to Susie than she did me in the British Formula Ford paddock. She was in awe of Susie and rightfully so. I think most of the recent resentment towards Susie is born off the back of her marriage to Toto Wolff. Many see this as the sole reason she's secured her Williams F1 testing role. I do not share that naive view. It is a disrespectful attitude towards a driver who finished ninth overall in 2003 British Formula Renault (2 places behind Paul Di Resta) and is a BRDC McLaren Autosport Young Driver nominee. There is no hiding from the fact that Susie was never able to show her full potential in DTM. After 6 years with Mercedes, the DTM put Susie Stoddart's name on the map regardless of whether or not she fully mastered the car. Susie is a very different character to Danica. Whereas Danica is a very fiery individual, Susie is much more approachable and gentle in her manner. But make no mistake, when she puts her helmet on, she is just as committed as any other driver on the grid. She has one interest and one interest only and that is to be the best driver she can be. Susie Stoddart has worked hard to utilise all opportunities that have come her way, never missing the chance to build on her talent. This work ethic has seen her reach the top of the sport and deservedly so. 
So do Susie and Danica have the aptitude to compete in Formula 1? Of course they do and to say they do not is saying they are incompetent. They might not win a Formula 1 race but that does not make them incapable. With that attitude, half of the current Formula 1 grid would be inept at producing the results they consistently achieve. Tim Henman is not incapable of playing tennis just because he has never won a Grand Slam. He did not lack the aptitude; he was just beaten by better players on the day. Sometimes on the world stage there are simply others that are better than you. Most racing drivers have to cope with that scenario but being female and dealing with that does not mean you lack the aptitude; it is just a way of life regardless of your sex. All drivers will strive to be the best they can be and all drivers should be able to do this without prejudice or being patronised. 
Interestingly enough, Cricket is in the midst of a similar debate. Sarah Taylor, one of England's top female cricket players is striving to become the first female to participate in the men's professional game this summer. Historically, cricket is a male orientated aristocratic environment, formerly governed by the MCC. Although women's cricket has grown dramatically over the last few years with the introduction of live TV, the idea of a woman cricketer competing in the men's game professionally is somewhat unprecedented. Ironically, it is from the MCC that this idea has stemmed; a club that only allowed female members in 1998. 
Many have backed the idea and are excited to see Sarah Taylor take up the opportunity, should it arise. However, just like in Motorsport, there are many doubters. Does Sarah have the power or strength to compete? Can she handle bowlers up and around 90 mph?! A big part of fast bowling is physical intimidation i.e. bowling fast so that it bounces towards the head or chest. With this in mind, some question whether or not male bowlers will even want to bowl against women, putting the players in a tough position. I suppose the full test of equality, should Taylor play, would be whether the male fast bowlers would bounce her and risk hurting her. 
Personally I fully support the idea of Sarah Taylor playing and comments suggesting men wouldn't want to bowl against her are condescending and patronising towards her ability. 
Women do have the aptitude to complete in Formula 1 the same as they have the aptitude to play Men's cricket. If you have the ability, then gender is not important. I'm very much looking forward to seeing Susie Wolff in a Formula 1 car and Sarah Taylor playing Men's cricket for Sussex. May they pave the way for others to follow and go a long way to stemming this old fashioned view that women are inferior to men in these two sports?