Girl racers find men hog pole position

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The Independent Online
THE sponsorship deal was simple. All Helen Bashford had to do was to take her clothes off and pose naked with her racing car, and then, said the marketing man, the money just might be available.

Forty-year old Helen was not impressed. As the only woman who currently drives a Formula One car, she had hoped to get sponsorship on the back of her proven talent at racing a 190mph car around Grand Prix tracks like Monza - and winning.

"I thought the era of girls getting draped over cars had gone, and it really shocked me when they asked me if I would be prepared to go nude with the car for advertising if the sponsor wanted it," said Ms Bashford, who finished fourth in her sport's world championship last year.

"Failing that, they said, would I go topless, or at the very least show some unzipped cleavage. I think they were surprised when I said 'No', but I was quite shocked and also embarrassed at the idea. I told them that they would not ask a man to do that kind of thing.''

Sadly for Ms Bashford, who drives a 550bhp Shadow in the SIA Thoroughbred Grand Prix Championship, an international competition for the previous generation of Formula One cars, she still has no sponsorship. Ironically, many of the men she competes against - and regularly beats - do.

Helen Bashford is one of a small but growing number of women who race, but who either can't get sponsorship or risk being abused and insulted in a sport where women are still largely regarded as decorative pit lane accessories rather than active players. The major manufacturers may increasingly aim their advertisements for hatchbacks, saloons and estates at female drivers, but, when it comes to racing, none are prepared to back a woman.

And, according to psychologist Dr Judy Eaton, of Coventry University, just breaking into the closed world of motor racing, with its dominant masculine culture of bravery, courage, aggression and heroism, can pose a problem for women.

Dr Eaton, who followed the progress of 35 women racing drivers over a 12-month period, says that some of the barriers they face are almost insurmountable because the ethos of the sport is so aggressively masculine.

"Participants reported a disturbing number of physical and verbal attacks during and after races," says Dr Eaton. "They were deliberately and obviously excluded from the camaraderie of the sport, and were constantly facing demands to capitalise on their femininity rather than their driving ability when they were trying to get sponsorship and support.''

Dr Eaton, who presented her research finding yesterday at a Women and Psychology Conference organised by the British Psychological Society, says that in Formula One the only females likely to be seen are wives and girlfriends and those in shorts holding the boards with drivers' names on them. "In sports like boxing and rugby, exclusion results from obvious and indisputable differences in male and female body size. But in motor racing, the emphasis is not on physical strength and size but on skill and stamina. The women I have seen are very talented and all they need is someone to give them a break,'' she says.

Although there has been a sprinkling of women who have tried their hand at Formula One and Grand Prix racing since the turn of the century, none have had any great success. Women have had more success in rallying and Pat Moss - sister of Stirling - was European Champion for two years.

The lack of impact that women have achieved, or been allowed to achieve, down the years has had two main consequences. It means there is no popular role model for girls who want to race. And it provides ammunition for the lobby which believes that motor sports is and always will be a man's world.

Stirling Moss, still one of the most famous names in motor racing, says there are differences which prevent women competing at the top level: "I don't think that they are likely to be as good a driver as men. I feel that when the heavy pressure is on, women would probably be inclined to ease off whereas a man wouldn't.

"I have great respect for women and I think there are certain things they are far better at than men. I believe that if women took up being mechanics, for instance, they would be very good because they are very much more methodical than men.

"With me, if everything else fails I read the instruction book, but with women they usually read it first and get it right first time. My wife for instance can change the ratio of a gearbox and I can't because she is methodical."

But in motor racing, says Mr Moss, "there isn't a man who is anywhere near Schumacher, so where the hell one is going to find a woman capable of getting up there I've no idea.

"I don't think the characteristics or mental make-up of women would allow them to be a Schumacher.'' It is also often claimed that women are not physically equipped to handle a Formula One car, and Louise Goodman of ITV's Grand Prix team doubts women have the necessary strength.

"Formula One is physically very demanding with the need for a lot of upper body strength and I don't think women are strong enough," she says. "Women are not built with big shoulders and a strong neck. If you look at rallying where driving skill counts for everything and brute force does not, women have more success.

"It's true that women are still vastly outnumbered in the paddock - I was the first female TV commentator from the UK - but the Arrows team, for instance, have a woman engineer. Elf have a top chemist and Benetton have a woman involved, I believe, in design. Things are changing.''

But for drivers like Helen Bashford, who has been racing 20 years and who spends around pounds 3,000 a race meeting, things are not changing quickly enough. Barely two per cent of the holders of competitive racing licences in the UK are women.

"Lots of things are said about women, including this thing about upper body strength. I drive a Formula One car at 180-190mph and I keep fit by training six days a week. Of course I have the necessary upper body strength and I have strength throughout my body.

"I also have stamina and women tend to have more stamina than men,'' says Ms Bashford, who is planning to race in the Indy 500 next year in the US.

"The simple fact is that, at the end of the day, we are discriminated against. They want us to buy their cars, but they don't want us to race them.''