On the podium after winning the Bahrain Grand Prix, interviewer David Coulthard asked race winner Sebastian Vettel to show the cameras a lucky charm on his racing boots. Vettel casually lifted his leg a little, dropped it and said “I don’t get my legs so high, because I’m not a woman.”
Exactly what Vettel meant is uncertain, but the world is going to interpret his comment as suggestive and demeaning. Earlier in the podium interviews, Vettel remarked that, “to have a woman on the podium, I think it’s not happening every day. Gill Jones, she takes care of our electronics in the team… she looks after the boys.” The suggestion that women have a place in F1 only in support of the men is unlikely to make Vettel any friends, both within and outside of the sport.
In the wake of recent sugestions by Sir Stirling Moss that women lack the mental aptitude to race in Formula One, Vettel’s comments are likely to get much more attention than they perhaps deserve. He is in a sport that needs a radical rethink regarding its approach to gender equality, and has not helped an already sensitive situation by publicly putting his foot in his mouth.
The question of whether or not women can or should race modern Formula One cars has been hanging over the sport for some time. Only a handful of women have even tested in F1 over the last few decades, and the last time a woman attempted to qualify for a Grand Prix was way back in 1992. Women are competing, or have competed recently, in almost all other major racing series, of which Indycar, NASCAR and DTM are the most high profile. Why not F1?
Those against the idea of having women in F1 have spoken about the physical challenges – strength, reflexes, endurance – and the mental challenges – thinking clearly under stress while still competing aggressively against the best drivers in the world, all while controlling a beast of a racing car.
Sir Stirling Moss, who is regarded as one of the greats in Formula One history, recently told BBC Radio 5 live: “I think they have the strength, but I don’t know if they’ve got the mental aptitude to race hard, wheel-to-wheel.
“We’ve got some very strong and robust ladies, but, when your life is at risk, I think the strain of that in a competitive situation will tell when you’re trying to win.
“The mental stress I think would be pretty difficult for a lady to deal with in a practical fashion. I just don’t think they have aptitude to win a Formula 1 race.”
Unfortunately, Moss’s words will be taken seriously in some quarters due to his standing in the sport. But he has no evidence to support his ludicrous suggestion, and nor does anyone else. The idea that mental stress makes it impossible for a woman to win an F1 race is nonsensical. There are female fighter pilots and astronauts – both of those occupations are far more challenging in all respects than driving Formula One cars.
The reality is that the idea that women cannot or should not race in Formula One is simply sexist rubbish. When high profile people in the sport chip in their two cents’ worth on the subject, they are invariably just spouting an opinion rather than actually looking at the issue of women in F1 objectively.
Can women race in F1? Should they? It’s time to put a woman in an F1 race and find out.