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 It is hard to imagine any other sport engendering such an obvious association, but then no other sport has such an outdated relationship to women.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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan stars as Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades of Grey movie
filmFirst look at Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey trailor
News
Lars Ulrich of Metallica performs on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury 2014
music
Sport
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
football
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
Farah returns to the track with something to prove
Commonwealth games
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game