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Steering with elegance

Roshan Thyagarajan, Nov 4, 2012, DHNS

Women continue their quest to make a mark in the male-dominated world of Formula One

breaking the shackles: (Clockwise from left): Maria de Villota, Alice Powell, Susie Wolff and Carmen Boix are the young faces of women in racing while Maria Teresa de Filippis (bottom right) and  Lella Lombardi were the pioneers. AFP

It is no closely-guarded secret that most men think women are not made for cars. Cars are perceived to be a birth-right of men while the fairer sex’s role is just to straddle up in the passenger seat without complaining.

Even if that hypothesis were to be believed, it does little to explain how Formula One has had only five female drivers since its inception while India has produced just two.

In 1958, Maria Teresa de Filippis made history by becoming the first ever woman in Formula One, but it is ironic that her adventure did little to change the misconception. It took nearly twenty years for another woman to sit behind the F1 steering wheel. This time she even managed to score points. Lella Lombardi entered the 1974 season with little practice and in only her third race she finished sixth and bagged 0.5 points with March Engineering, which to this day remains the greatest achievement by a woman from the drivers’ seat.

Divini Galica, Desire Wilson and Giovanna Amati were the others to snuggle in the coveted single-seater but they too were only as, if not lesser, effective as Maria Teresa in their campaign to prove to the world that women can drive as well as men. A new breed of F1 drivers has emerged since the last one -- Amati -- in 1992,  a group which is signatory of the growing power of women. The likes of Maria de Villota and Susie Wolff have further intensified women’s quest to break into a world long deemed as ‘all male’.


Villota and Wolff are not the only ones in this fast-growing movement. There are other younger women, who too are trying to make their way up the ladder in a sport which is fixated with the idea of a macho male steering the car.

Alice Powell and Carmen Boix are two young girls who are taking part in this year’s MRF Formula 2000 Championship and they are putting on a show that has forced many to sit up and take note of.

The two youngsters were clearly off the pace in segments but given time, one can safely assume that they will give everyone in the championship a run for their money. The 19-year-old Powell has already taken giant strides by becoming the only ever woman to bag points since the inception of the GP3, while Carmen, still very much a green horn, is fast catching up.

What’s special about the case is that both of them carry a touch of elegence which can seldom be seen in male drivers. Yes, they both have turned into harder girls by sheer influence men they race against and interact with, but that has done little to alter their true form and instinct.

“Yeah! sure it is hard. I started when I was eight-and-a-half-years-old and I’m 19 now. I just like motor sport. I went and drove a kart one day in England and loved it and went from there. I didn’t know I was the only girl at the time and now it doesn’t matter if I am the only girl or not. I have won a championship. I have proved myself. It doesn’t bother me at all I’m going to still sit and work on making it to Formula One and for that it requires a lot of sponsorship,” remarked Britain’s Alice without mixing up her words.

“Yeah, a lot of people were telling me that maybe I shouldn’t do this. People even told me not to do the GP3 series. They kept telling me that I would get annihilated and things like that. But I did a good job in the first season itself so then they realised that I was good.
A lot of people say a lot of things but eventually it comes down to what you make of it,” said Alice.

Carmen, however, voiced a different opinion. “It is not at all to cope up (with racing against men). I started karting when I was very young because my father was a karting champion back home. And in Valencia we have a karting school so I went to the track and kept working on my skills there. For me it was not not hard growing up to become a racing driver because I had all the support but in many cases it is hard for women to break the shackles and make it big in racing,” said the Spaniard.

De Villota’s accident earlier this year shook the world of women in racing but Powell and Carmen were unaffected. The Spaniard, who became the first women in nearly twenty years to sign up for an F1 team as a test driver, was doing some straight-line tests for Marussia at the Duxford Aerodrome before she crashed and suffered severe injuries, jeopardising her chances of driving in F1 in the future. De Villota later revealed that she lost all her senses of smell, taste and still suffers from chronic head aches, but she was open to racing once again. That’s the kind of spirit that trancends the male-female barrier. “No not really. I can’t think like that. It could happen to anyone. I could walk out of here and get run over by a tractor you know. It’s just one of those things. She was very very unlucky to have met with such an accident and real lucky at the same time to have survived,” said Alice of de Villota’s unfortunate incident.

“Yes, it affected me a lot more because I am close to her. It is only because she and I have a personal relationship with Maria and not because a woman or a racing driver got injured. As a racing driver you cannot let these things affect you,” said Carmen, who met de Villota a couple of times after she met with the accident.

But much to their dismay, much like back in the days of Maria Teresa, things have not changed for women. Sponsors are hard to come by while critics pile on by the day, it’s no surprise then that there are so few female drivers around. But a woman’s desire to break into a patriarchal society is something to be appreciated, especiually when they are trying to match men at 300 kmph.

With a gentle touch, a soft grip of the steering and a heart full of steel, women have made their mind up to make a mark in F1 as drivers.

Even if it has taken them over fifty years to come to where they are right now, it is a move in the right direction, and one would have to be extremely naive to say ‘women can’t drive’.

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