Fast Cars, Faster Women

When I was small, I desperately wanted to be a lorry driver when I grew up; being in charge of a massive engine and tonnes of metal seemed like a pretty awesome career to me.

Sadly, my dream was scuppered when the school careers advisor said I couldn’t because I’m a girl. Ever hopeful, I then asked if I could be a racing driver, but she rolled her eyes and told me that maybe I should give secretarial work a try instead. So, as my home town was near Silverstone Grand Prix Circuit and several Formula 1 teams were based locally, I found that working as a secretary for one of these companies seemed to fulfil the career advisor’s ambition for me as well as facilitate my own obsession with cars.

Let me assure you, F1 isn’t nearly as glamorous as it seems on TV. As the only woman working in my company, the boss decided one of my jobs was to clean the office toilets. I literally didn’t even have a pot to piss in either because said boss decided it wasn’t worth installing a toilet just for me. There was also the relentless sexual harassment, which was just as irritating and tedious whether committed by colleagues or other teams’ drivers. Oh, and the hours of plotting suspension geometry (imagine really tedious data-entry) are hours I’ll never get back. But hey, I got to hang out in the pits during qualifying. Also…free F1-branded nylon jackets.

Being a girl had its benefits, however, and I found that I could ask as many stupid questions about mechanical stuff as I liked and get a simple explanation. This is quite handy if you’re trying to learn what a flange actually does. I’d also get sent along the pits with a camera for a spot of industrial espionage. A rival engineer taking photos of the competition’s nose cone? Do one. A woman taking pictures of the nice car? Come into my garage, love, and take as many pictures as you like.

Back in the day, jobs for women in F1 were scarce – generally speaking, you were either secretarial or marketing. The engineers, mechanics and managers I met were men, not to mention the drivers. The F1 team Brabham took on female driver Giovanna Amati in 1992, but unfortunately a weak car meant she consistently failed to qualify. Former world champion Damon Hill also struggled to qualify in the same car but it was the jokes about women drivers doing the rounds at the time which everyone remembered. Times they are a’changin’ (a bit) within the F1 teams- Sauber recently appointed a female team principal, Monisha Kaltenborn, Maria De Villota was a test driver for Marussia until sh had a serious accident in 2012. Sadly, she died in October 2013. Susie Wolff test drives for Williams; all three were ambassadors for the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission (WMC).

Sadly, motoring in general has been slow to lose its chauvinistic credentials. Ever seen someone roll their eyes and sigh ’women drivers!’? Ever been in a car dealership and had your questions ignored? Ever had a garage try to rip you off because they assume you don’t know any better, and have a mechanic demand to speak to your husband instead because it’s too complicated for your pretty head? Try me, buster, I have a Haynes Manual and I’m not afraid to use it. Then there’s the constant pitting of one gender against the other over parking or accident statistics in the media (I’m looking at you, insurance companies with your press releases masquerading as ‘news’). Motoring’s relationship with women seems to be stuck in about 1970 – just visit any motoring event and see manufacturers of everything from cars to windscreen wipers lazily drape their product with some poor shivering bikini-clad lass. It gets pretty boring to be constantly told that half of the world’s population can’t drive for toffee, use their mirrors solely for make-up application and are too dumb to understand cars.

Living the ‘jet-set’ life of F1 happened to coincide with getting my first wheels – a Ford Escort MKII. Owning the Escort taught me a lot about cars; like how annoying it is when they don’t start and how to hit a failing starter motor with a hammer to knock some life into it. And that shoving it into first gear at 50mph is bad for the engine and gearbox but a good learning experience; I went home covered in oil and slightly more knowledgeable about engines, and my mum told me (with an air of disappointment) that she thought she’d raised me as a lady.

Now seems like a good time to impart some hard-learned wisdom on car ownership:

  • Never ever ever buy (or steal from a skip behind a tyre and exhaust centre) second hand tyres. Finding myself skidding helplessly towards the back of a bus after my second hand tyres failed to maintain their grip with the tarmac cured me of this habit even though I stopped in the nick of time. Tyres are what stands between the road and your fiery death in a ditch; buy the best you can afford. Also buy a tyre pressure gauge and a foot pump, and keep them in your car!
  • Check your oil and water regularly. It might seem obvious but until you’ve stood contemplating the smoking ruin of your engine while kicking yourself because you didn’t notice the water leak, you might not appreciate the importance of this tip.
  • Don’t be cheap. If there are two of something on a car and one of them needs replacing, it’s a false economy to replace just the broken one. If you’ve ever replaced just one damper then found yourself under-steering fairly quickly through a bend while saying whoaaahhh! in a panicky voice, you may realise afterwards that new part vs. old part equals unbalance, stress and rubbish handling.
  • If you’d like to read more tips, there are loads of websites with guides on how to do basic car maintenance. AutoTrader and Diamond Insurance have some which are pretty good.

And remember – if anyone ever holds up Penelope Pitstop as a symbol of women in Motorsport (they invariably do at some point), ignore them. Pitstop was a terrible driver.

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