Yes, the world of F1 is hugely sexist. Is there a problem with that?

Of course Formula One is a macho environment and has attitudes to match. But, Jane Nottage argues, women can still survive - and thrive - in it

Eddie Irvine's 75-foot luxury motorboat was moored off Portofino, a small piece of paradise situated on the coast of northern Italy. Splayed across the expansive sofa in the main reception room, flicking through the TV channels, its owner did not bother asking about my journey.

"Have you got them?" Irvine demanded

"Yes," I replied.

The goods in questions were 10 packets of chocolate Jaffa Cakes and five new pairs of Tommy Hilfiger men's underpants (grand prix drivers don't bother washing their underwear, it seems, they just get new ones). It was my currency to enter the inner world of a Formula One driver.

I was there to write Irvine's autobiography and had just spent two hours waiting to be picked up at the airport. "I suppose if I was blonde, 24, with endless legs, I wouldn't have had to wait," I muttered.

"Probably not," he chuckled, munching a Jaffa Cake.

Irvine's remarks might strike many women - and, indeed, some men - as unbearably sexist, but to me they were not a problem. I'd worked in the testosterone-fuelled world of Formula One for a long time, and it was water off a duck's back.

Beverley Turner would no doubt disagree. In yesterday's Independent she wrote scathingly about what she saw as the sport's appalling sexism.

Well, blow me down with a duster. Macho men, driving cars at high speeds, make overtly sexist comments to the members of the opposite sex - and the whole world is up in arms about it. They'll be quoting the Human Rights Act next.

Is Formula One sexist? Well yes, in some ways, and certainly there are no women drivers, no women team bosses.

Is it, in Janet Street-Porter's words (also in yesterday's Independent), a "cesspit of chauvinism"? No it isn't.

Irvine used to say outrageous things just to wind people up. But, come on, girls, have we spent the last 50 years or so fighting for equal rights only to cower in a corner when the heat is turned up? The best way to deal with sexism is to fight back.

Two days into the book writing, Irvine described to me in meticulous detail how he lost his virginity in a car outside his grandmother's house. "I could just go on for ever in those days," he told me, obviously looking for a response. "We were at it for ages and eventually she said, 'You'd better get on with it or your grandmother will find us'."

"Oh, so she must have been really lost in the moment then!" I shot back.

He looked at me for a minute and then laughed. That was the good thing about Irvine, he'd shout his mouth off, and make outrageous comments, but if you gave back as good as you got, then he always took it in good humour.

One of my press colleagues once commented on the size of my backside. "Your bum's looking big today," he said brazenly. "Not as big as your waistline." I replied, and he shut up.

Some may see it as sexism. I prefer to see it as banter.

Turner suggests Formula One uses women like decorations - to be enjoyed, used and then thrown away. Well, yes, some suffer that fate, but a lot of the women hanging around Formula One are hardly vestal virgins. I have seen women behave in a way that makes the drivers look chivalrous.

At the Silverstone Ball one very well-known glamour model disappeared into the bushes halfway through the event to "service" a high-profile team employee. Girls have arrived at team hotels intent on sleeping their way through an entire team, or at the very least, claiming the prize of the team superstar driver.

Photographer Pete Fox, once told me about a photo-session. "I was making good headway with one of the girls and about to ask her out for a drink, when Irvine suddenly appeared in his driver's suit," he said. "Within five minutes she'd gone off with him. Those driver suits are the best pulling tools."

It works both ways. Act like a cheap tart and you'll be treated like one. And no don't bother to send angry letters saying that attitude went out with the ark. It didn't and it hasn't. No one's saying it's morally wrong to sleep around. Do what you like - but take the consequences.

And it's not just male-dominated environments that can be hugely sexist. When I was 23 I had a job as supervisor for Boots cosmetics, working almost exclusively with women. It was the most demeaning, confidence-sapping job I have ever had. It was a mortal sin to wear the same shade of eye shadow two days in a row. Every part of one's attire was relentlessly scrutinised.

After that I decided I'd stick with the boys and, sexism or not, Formula One is a dream world compared to the bitchy environment of cosmetics.

Not that every alpha male in Formula One is a die-hard sexist. There are plenty of true gentlemen, notably Michael Schumacher, who has a woman, Sabine Kehm, as his media manager, someone he clearly respects enormously. In the world of Formula One, as in most areas of life, you have to earn respect not demand it.

Jane Nottage is Formula One correspondent for Octane magazine, and has covered the sport for 10 years.

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