Motor Racing: Cook picks the grid lock

Andrew Baker meets a woman aiming for a place in the fastest lane of all
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There were plenty of women at the British Grand Prix meeting at Silverstone. Thronging the stands, working in the kiosks or behind bars, promoting this, fetching and carrying that. A few, in sponsors' uniforms, made it to the grid to hold umbrellas or flags for drivers. But only one made it to the start line in a car: Paula Cook, from Rotherham, who formed up 15th on the grid in her Dallara for the Formula Three race.

Most of the sports in which men and women compete on equal terms seem to involve horsepower of one sort or another. Women jockeys and riders have won races and Olympic medals but the sprinkling of their sisters who transmit the power via accelerator pedal rather than stirrup have been less successful. Cook is the latest to join an elite club of women who have made an impact at the higher levels of motor racing.

But the 27-year-old still has some way to go to realise her ambition of becoming Britain's first woman grand prix driver. She is in her first full season in the British Formula Three series, which although a national championship is widely respected as a proving ground.

"It is an unbelievably competitive environment," Cook said. "The cars are so sensitive, and the smallest change you make in your set-up will show through in your times on the track."

The required combination of speed and technical expertise is what makes Formula Three such an effective academy for grand prix racing, which is why team managers from the pinnacle of the sport took such a keen interest in the progress of the youngsters at Silverstone.

"This is the race you want to do well in," Cook said. "The chance to impress in front of the F1 teams does not come along all that often so you want to make it count. I've been thinking about Silverstone for weeks now - there's a real sense of occasion."

A television documentary on Thursday suggested that women competitors are routinely discriminated against in motor racing. Evidence of sexism among officials and fellow racers was cited, and female drivers claimed to have been forced out of the sport by the animosity of their male counterparts. Oddly, Cook, Britain's most prominent woman driver, was not included in the programme. But then her experiences and views would not have helped the argument.

"I can't say that being a woman has made any difference to me at all," Cook said. "The only time that you notice it is when you do well - so many people want to congratulate you. This must be one of the friendliest sports you can find."

The only British woman to have got to the threshold of Formula One, the former skier Davina Galica, who attempted unsuccessfully to qualify for grands prix with the fading Hesketh team in the late 1970s, was, according to Cook: "Just the same as many male drivers who get to Formula One with one of the bottom-end teams and don't get a chance really to perform."

Cook's progress in the sport has been made with her family team, D C Cook Racing, run by her father Derek, a former racer who has built up a successful chain of garages in the North of England. The team also runs Paula's brother David in Formula 3000, the next rung up. But the diminutive Yorkshirewoman has no truck with allegations of nepotism and a soft ride. "We might be a family, but we are fully funded by outside sponsorships," she said.

"We have to perform or the sponsors won't stick around. If anything there is extra pressure - my dad is hard on me, and I am hard on him."

Dad was reputedly a tough nut on northern racing circuits in his youth, and brother David has performed well enough at junior levels to earn a test drive with the Williams grand prix team. But how does Paula Cook rate as a driver?

Good but not great, on past and present evidence. On her introduction to the sport, a set of lessons at the Jim Russell Racing School at Donington in 1993, she impressed her instructor with her "great natural feel for the car and determination to succeed", but to get as far as a grand prix drive, she will need more than that, and the respectable but not shattering performances she has registered so far.

But she is prepared to take her time if necessary, and pointed out that there are other routes to success in motor racing than the fast track to Formula One. A career in the increasingly popular British Touring Car Champ- ionships is one avenue.

This weekend, however, her mind was on Silverstone and her chance to impress the watching Formula One teams. She had another disappointing showing, retiring on the 12th of 15 laps, but Paula Cook is not about to hang up her driving gloves. "There are always going to be times when you think, `Hey, what the heck, why am I doing all this?' " she reflected. "But then you remember - because you enjoy it."