what took you so long

Emma Bunton sprang to mind when reading this piece on the decline of Formula One by Richard Williams. I had a similar feeling when reading a piece by ITV presenter Beverley Turner on the gross sexism in the sport. A sport that styles itself as most capitalist sport turns out to be uncompetitive, ruined by greed, exclusivity and where gross misogyny is rampant? Shiela Rowbotham to thread etc…

I’ve always found motorsport something of a turn-off. There’s a sense of impending danger that’s always been part of the spectacle which I found distasteful; the idea that someone might get seriously hurt – as with boxing – seemed part of the attraction. Williams touches on this issue, and you can sense a feeling that whilst he understands the reasons for the increasing safety and knows, he can’t help but think that something has been lost. The danger was as much a part of the interest as the skill demonstrated by the drivers. Other variants of motor racing have competitiveness, skill, endeavour and bravery but haven’t become more popular as F1 becomes more of a Schumacher procession, which suggests that behind the calls for better racing there’s something more unspoken being lamented.

Williams lays the blame at the door of Bernie Ecclestone, but Ecclestone’s been involved for years. His hunger for money, and brutal treatment of those who got in the way of his plans is well known. The increasing uncompetitiveness is something that Schumacher has exacerbated but was increasing. As in football, the market tends to monopoly, and the rich will get richer. Eventually, the talent all resides in one place, and the spectacle is pretty much dead. It’s not a particularly difficult leap to make. It’s probably harder though in F1 to remedy it, as like football, it needs a good dose of (at the very least) social democracy to maintain the competitiveness. In a sport which rewards individualists, using money from major motor companies and major sponsors that wants to rewrite its calender to evade anti-tobacco regulations, that’s going to be a difficult sell.

I heard Turner on ‘Start the week’ last week and she seems genuinely surprised as she related how slowly, more and more misogynistic remarks were made to her about other women. She seems to have an idea that at the exalted level of multi-millionaires and rich kids, people would be untouched by the extremities of sexism.

She spoke as if Formula One had somehow been resistant to the advances made through feminism. It’s worse than that though as made clear in an article in a recent London Review of Books on a female driver from before the second world war. Motorsport was less gendered; the only qualification was a near-suicidal desire to get behind the wheel of a very dangerous machine.

But the whole ethos of F1 seems to be about alpha-males. For many a year it has been seemingly of the view that only men can risk their lives, as if the spirit of the hunter-gatherer had been distilled into the figure of the cosseted star who is ‘quickest’, risking his life to beat other men off (DYS!) the track. Like Yorkie bars, it’s not for girls – unless they’re parading around the paddock as eye candy. In the sport’s mythology, there’s a rugged glamour in the devil-may-care playboys. Live hard and party harder, for tomorrow, we may die.

The elite (who generally play the less life-endangering game of accumulation, safety and security) longed to be associated with such an image, and so the endeavour becomes ever more rarified. Only those who have rich parents to support them or have big sponsors backing them can get the drives. Only those from the super A-list of businessmen and celebrities can gain access to the paddock. To entire enterprise is resolutely anti-egalitarian. And, for the super rich and super famous, isn’t everyone an object for use and gratification? Someone who thinks that a human being’s worth is measured by what they can do for them is entirely likely to view women as there for sexual and visual gratification.