Exposed: the rampant sexism that defines the world of Formula One

Nestled in the wooded area between the Gold and Silver entrances to the Hungarian Grand Prix were 20 whitewashed booths beneath a banner proclaiming "Erotik Camping". Each contained a red carpet, a grey-blanketed bed and a neat stack of toilet rolls. Formula One had come to town, and an open-air brothel had been specially erected for the occasion.

Nestled in the wooded area between the Gold and Silver entrances to the Hungarian Grand Prix were 20 whitewashed booths beneath a banner proclaiming "Erotik Camping". Each contained a red carpet, a grey-blanketed bed and a neat stack of toilet rolls. Formula One had come to town, and an open-air brothel had been specially erected for the occasion.

F1 was perceived as a prime market for prostitution. It is hard to imagine any other sport engendering such an obvious association, but then no other sport has such an outdated relationship to women.

During my three seasons as an F1 TV reporter, I witnessed the world of elite motor racing defining itself as "cutting edge", but promoting ideologies from the Dark Ages.

The driver Eddie Irvine turned his charms on me at the Brazilian Grand Prix when the conversation turned to a mutual friend, a German F1 presenter whose contract had been unexpectedly cancelled.

"Oh that's a shame," he said from behind mirrored sunglasses. "It was good watching her arse walk down the paddock."

I assumed he was being sarcastic. "Hmm..." I said. "I'll miss her conversation too."

"No, I won't miss that," he said, quite seriously. "She just looked good - she was just here to be looked at. That's all any of you are here for, just to be looked at."

There were eight other men sitting listening. Nobody said a word, except for Niki Lauda. He looked at me from beneath his baseball cap and shrugged. "It's a man's world," he said.

In F1 "men do" and "women adorn". Being attractive is a prerequisite to gaining acceptance and the yardstick by which all women are judged.

While filming an item about "Women behind the scenes in Formula One", I was unnerved by the disparity between what the interviewees would say on camera and what they confessed to me afterwards.

"There is so much sexism," said one woman who eventually left her job in PR, "but it's very subtle. It's not just about leggy blondes everywhere: it's much more hidden than that."

One female IT engineer claimed - on and off camera - that her gender had never caused her any problems. But afterwards I chatted to one of her male colleagues, saying that it was great to show a woman working in the technological field. "Yeah," he agreed, "But just think what we could do with her if she wasn't such a dog."

F1 stands alone in its use of women to promote the sport. No dedicated website is complete without an invitation to vote for your favourite "Pit Babe". Of course, some American sports still have cheerleaders, but at least these girls actually do something. F1 sits its models on car bonnets and drapes them over drivers.

The marketing concept of the "Fosters Girls" was invented for F1. This troop of young women appears at Grands Prix wearing blue micro-minis and cropped Lycra tops. They are led around the circuit in a line, stopping from time to time to have their picture taken.

On one memorable occasion they walked between tables at the Silverstone Ball, looking miserable as several male guests attempted to grope their bottoms. I turned to my dinner companion and said: "I can't believe a global sport still has women like this on display."

"I know," he said, "they're pigs. You'd think they could find some attractive ones."

Such attitudes are so endemic in F1 that it is difficult for women to be taken seriously in any capacity. Increasing numbers are employed in motor racing but their roles are largely confined to PR, catering and sponsor liaison.

Last season, F1 Racing magazine ran a feature on the "Fifty most powerful people in Formula One", and not one was a woman, after 50 years of the sport.

Women have, however, been involved in motor racing from its inception. The romantic novelist Barbara Cartland was the force behind some of the earliest female drivers at the Brooklands track in the 1920s. Five women competed in F1 between 1958 and the early Nineties but they all drove incomparably bad cars.

Bernie Ecclestone explains why we may never see another: "No one will take them seriously or sponsor them financially, therefore they're never ever going to get into a competitive car."

In sport, the perception exists that any event in which men and women can compete equally cannot be very hard.

F1's manufactured image is based on testosterone, aggression and the fighting instincts of the modern-day gladiators, the drivers. Put a woman alongside Michael Schumacher in the grid and that veneer of machismo would slip.

Experts in physiology and psychology now widely accept that the strengths needed to drive an F1 car are certainly attainable by women.

Michael Schumacher admits that physical difference is not the issue. "The reasons are cultural," he said recently. "There are too few women coming up the ranks." To a certain extent he is right, but that argument is becoming an easy excuse. There is a specific challenge that only female drivers must overcome. I once asked an influential character at McLaren-Mercedes whether a female F1 driver was a likely scenario.

"Ach, ja!" came the enthusiastic response. "Sure, they are very good, very talented. The problem is" - he paused, searching for the right phrase - "they are just not very pretty. They look like men, really."

I tried to explain that the male drivers were hardly Armani models but he replied: "It is different. Women must be more beautiful, more feminine. That's how it is."

This pressure is evidenced by the homepages set up by female drivers. Moodily lit shots play up their attractiveness and detail hobbies such as "renovating my home". The website of the American driver Sarah Fisher (who became the youngest person - not just woman - to qualify for the Indy Racing League) reveals that she is "superstitious about painting her toenails before a race weekend".

The male team principals demand that female drivers not be "like men" and the women have no choice but to oblige. But it is hard to imagine Michael Schumacher respecting a competitor who publicly admits to being superstitious about varnishing her toenails.

The Budapest brothel lasted just one season after complaints - not from F1, but from the local Catholic community. The taboo of the female F1 driver has proved harder to overturn.

A woman in a competitive car would revolutionise F1's image, re-energise the competition and attract a new fan base. Her team would be front-page news as the most forward-looking brand on the grid.

In a sport driven by global marketing ambitions, it is extraordinary that nobody has yet seized this potential. Ecclestone described his ideal female racing driver as "Perhaps a black girl, with super looks, preferably Jewish or Muslim, who speaks Spanish".

It was a joke, I think, but a revealing one. In Formula One, sexism even defeats the forces of capitalism.

Beverley Turner's book The Pits: The Real World of Formula One has just been published by Atlantic Books, price £14.99.

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