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Motor Racing

The Last Word: Only another woman would have the balls to hire a female driver

It would be nice if promotion of Claire Williams loosened F1’s macho bolts

On the Turf, they suggest one of the twin spectres: slow horses and fast women. A still less enlightened view, however, infects men who deal with another kind of horsepower. In Formula One, a woman's most obvious purpose is decoration. "Grid girls" strut ritually on hookers' heels through the quivering air, unchaste vestals to all the priapic vainglory of the cockpit. While Katie Walsh, third last year, returns to the Grand National next Saturday as rider of the second favourite, no such breakthrough seems remotely imminent in a Grand Prix.

It would be nice to think, then, that the anointment of Claire Williams as ultimate successor to her father, Sir Frank – at 36, she was this week promoted to deputy team principal – will help loosen the bolts infamously rammed by Bernie Ecclestone, when Danica Patrick first emerged on the Indy500 scene: "Women should be dressed in white – like all the other domestic appliances."

True, one of the things holding women back may be a heightened sense of dignity. Never mind all the braggadocio and machismo commended in F1 drivers. Perhaps only a man would typically endure the din, stench, artifice and tedium of a sport so incensed by Sebastian Vettel's outrageous, underhand ruse of driving faster than his team-mate in Malaysia last week.

But that, in turn, would simply be another stereotype. Just as some women, given the chance, are perfectly capable of starting wars, so many plainly discover puerile satisfaction in the fast and furious transports of a petrolhead. And there have, of course, already been isolated cases of women driving in F1 – albeit just five have ever entered a race, against over 800 men.

Of these, two qualified to start: the pioneering Maria Teresa de Filippis, and Lella Lombardi, whose half-point in the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix (the race was stopped early) for now remains the sole foothold for a glass slipper in the testosterone void. But a tradition of drivers rejecting or exploiting obtuse male expectations extends over a century to Dorothy Levitt, holder of speed records on land and water; via the exotic, doomed Hellé Nice; Davina Galica, also an Olympic skier; Janet Guthrie, an aerospace engineer welcomed to Charlotte Motor Speedway by chants of "no tits in the pits"; Michele Mouton, runner-up in a world rally drivers' championship; and many others besides.

F1 is far too big a business to reject 50 per cent of the world's available brains. Sure enough, Claire Williams would not be the first woman to make team principal, Monisha Kaltenborn having taken over Sauber as a mother of two. But if Williams has enjoyed a degree of positive discrimination, as her father's daughter, then perhaps some such redress might yet be extended to the tarmac. After all, if it takes nepotism to beat sexism – and by all accounts, her genes have conferred upon Williams far more pertinent assets than a surname – then perhaps F1 will ultimately embrace a female driver simply by dint of its reliable pursuit of profit.

Ecclestone himself seems to have repented, recently suggesting that Patrick would now be a good fit for F1. But it is not hard to fill the thought bubble of a man who once suggested, as the driver to break F1's glass ceiling, "a black girl with super looks, preferably Jewish or Muslim, who speaks Spanish".

As an 18-year-old, Patrick actually tried to get started in England but found the motorsport culture over here too misogynistic. It is instructive – and alarming – that she should ultimately find a more congenial sanctuary in stock car racing, despite its highly conservative heritage in the bootlegging South.

Auspiciously, the Williams team already has a female development driver, Susie Wolff. And let's not forget that driver access to F1 is always commercially loaded. Some day soon, paradoxically, a woman could turn that to her advantage.

The McLaren boss, Martin Whitmarsh, has explicitly complained that some "pay drivers" with heavy financial backing are "fundamentally not good enough to be in Formula One." But nowadays you have to bring something to the table other than a basic competence to exploit advantages secured by the mechanics.

One of the Williams drivers, Pastor Maldonado, has been bringing in tens of millions in sponsorship from a state-run oil company in Venezuela. Though Maldonado had the talent to win in Spain last year, the death of Hugo Chávez has evidently made his future uncertain – many compatriots having been baffled that Chávez could invest so much, in so brazenly capitalist a sport, in the name of patriotic or even socialist evangelism.

It's a vicious circle. During qualifying in Melbourne, Maldonado pronounced his car "undriveable". There are only a couple of dozen drivers' seats, some behind hopelessly outmatched engines. Without the dough, there can be no upgrades.

Access to the fast set is exorbitant for talented men, as well as women, and one sex plainly provides many more aspirants than the other. But there could be corresponding commercial dividends for the woman who conquered bull-headed misapprehensions about the need for a bull neck; for the woman who could absorb the technical deficiencies of her vehicle, and the ethical ones of her environment. The stakes are so high, in fact, that perhaps only another woman will ever have the balls to hire one.