Formula One: The Misogyny Surrounding The New Wave of Fans

© McLaren on Instagram; one-off livery in Monaco celebrating their partnership with Gulf

Unfortunately, I am back again with another article on misogyny within a fandom and this time, I will be looking at the top of the world of motorsport: Formula One. For those that may be unaware, it is a sport where 10 teams, each with 2 drivers (20 in total) compete for two championships: the Drivers’ and the Constructors’ (i.e., the teams) Championship. It is a sport that has been around since 1950 and comes with a variety of legendary drivers: Ayrton Senna, Niki Lauda, Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost, and a number of others who are still driving in Formula One today: Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton, etc. 

This upcoming season, with the first race set in Bahrain on the 18th of March, will include a record of 23 races (one to be determined after the cancellation of the Russian Grand Prix in Sochi). These races take place around the world and each come with a unique track. I could delve further into the logistics behind the sport because it is truly fascinating, but there’s something more important I want to address first. 

What spurred me to write this article was the comments made by Red Bull Racing’s Team Principal Christian Horner in a conversation with talkSPORT in which he goes on to give his opinion on the Netflix series Drive to Survive. Essentially, this is a documentary series about the Formula One sport and everything surrounding it: since its start in 2018, it has since been a catalyst for a new wave of Formula One watchers and fans. 

What Horner said, however, was not quite positive. Not at all, actually. It was not directed at the general audience of Drive to Survive, but instead was directed specifically at the teenage girls that have, through the series, found an interest in Formula One (and often in the other classes of motorsport as well). He said, “F1 is bringing in a young generation. It’s bringing in a lot of young girls because of all these great-looking young drivers. They want to know more about the characters and so on.” (Read here for more.)

Let’s just say that this sparked a fair amount of controversy online in the Formula One communities, especially on Twitter and TikTok. It also sparked a lot of humorous posts (as these things tend to do) but the controversy went so far as to trigger an official reaction from Christian Horner, yet he didn’t do much except retrace what he said and phrase it a bit more sensitively. Luckily, during the interview himself, he was called out by the interviewer Laura Woods. She countered, “I think maybe some of those young girls who are watching are not just inspired by the good-looking racers but may be inspired to be drivers themselves?” 

Although Horner’s comment at first glance seems as an ‘observation’ rather than a negative comment, it’s not true: a majority of the fanbase is, as Laura Woods put it, inspired by the drivers and the team around them to eventually work in the sport themselves or to start karting (this is where you start if you wish to go into F1) and having a Team Principal like Horner suggest otherwise can be seen as quite narrow-minded. If you’re interested in the full interview between Woods and Horner, here is a link.

The question is, of course, why is this comment by Horner so damaging? Well, it adds onto what many (toxic and gatekeeping, often male) fans of the sport already spread around online. Many fans who only started watching Formula One because of Drive to Survive are deemed as ‘fake’ fans. An even bigger issue, however, is the generalisation of young female fans of the sport (often by this same group of gatekeeping fans). More often than not, comments such as ‘you only watch for the hot drivers’ are thrown at them. 

One can imagine then that Horner saying this only adds fuel to the flame. There are two things here that I want to address. First of all, it is a generalisation that is harmful and only used as an excuse to throw hate at female fans and content creators online. Most likely in an effort to gatekeep the sport. It’s long since been a (rather unfair) assumption that anything to do with cars, motors, engines is ‘masculine’ and the furthest thing from feminine. 

Therefore, having a Team Principal phrase his opinions in such a way that adds onto this assumption that teenage girls only watch the sport for the attractive drivers, is extremely harmful; it shows that these sexist views are still at the root of the sport—because what this reveals is the idea that women simply cannot be interested in motorsport without there being some ulterior motive.

Secondly, the question that remains is: why does it even matter if girls were to be only interested in the sport because of the good-looking drivers? If they stay and continue to watch the races and perhaps even visit a Grand Prix, then it is only for the better of the sport. Trust me, I would not spend multiple hours of my weekend watching cars go around in circles to watch the ‘hot drivers’. Not to even mention the fact that they constantly wear their helmets throughout.

Neither Drive to Survive nor young female fans deserve to be put down for the way they found out about the sport. It is true that in recent years with drivers such as Charles Leclerc and Lando Norris coming into Formula One that a lot more teenage girls have started investing their time in the sport, however this is not only due to their looks. This also discredits them as drivers, although this is not the biggest issue at play. Most likely, it is not their looks playing a great deal in this surge of popularity but rather the appearance they have created for themselves in the new age of social media, and this applies especially to Lando Norris. 

© Quadrant; Lando Norris posing in Quadrant merchandise

The Belgian-British driver has been an advocate for mental health issues after his rookie year in Formula One where he struggled with depression due to the high pressures of the sport. During the first lockdown of Covid in 2020, he also started streaming a lot on Twitch, as he is quite the gamer at heart. Next to this he also created a gaming and lifestyle brand called Quadrant, consisting of a team of four gamers with whom Norris hopes to bridge the gap between racing and his other passions: gaming, apparel and content (think Twitch streams, YouTube videos, etc.). Quadrant has since launched a successful line of merchandise and boasts more than 450K subscribers on YouTube.

All of this adds to his popularity as a Formula One driver, and to his rising popularity as a celebrity in general—this is what draws many people in, not just teenage girls, yet they are as per usual the butt of the joke. It is unfortunate that Christian Horner would say the things he does, because it also adds onto a bigger issue in the Formula One world — the lack of women in the sport. 

Of course by this I mean the lack of diversity among the 20 drivers — only one of them is black, all twenty of them are men. Aside from the drivers, there are also only a few women working behind the scenes. In 2021, teams such as Mercedes-AMG Petronas employee stats showed that only 11% of their employees are women, but this only applies to their factory-based staff. The women that accompany them to races comes to just above 6%, with 4 out of 65 regular track personnel. 

From this source, in which ESPN reporter Niamh Lewis sent a survey to F1 teams, it appears that all teams except Mercedes-AMG Petronas, Haas (9.1%), McLaren (7.5%, with one woman filling a senior race team role) and Alfa Romeo (highest with 9.8%) failed to answer the questions sent in. Even Williams, who are the only team to have employed female drivers in the past. This on its own is quite the tragedy. 

Adding onto this, there are also not enough women in leadership roles in motorsport, as can be seen in the data above: McLaren is the only one to report having a woman in a senior race team role. 

Unfortunately I do not have the space to write about every single epic woman in Formula One or motorsport in general, but there is one woman that I would like to mention. Although she no longer races for Formula One, she is the only one to have raced in an F1 car in the past three decades, and therefore I feel I have to mention her: Susie Wolff. She is currently the Team Principal of Venturi Racing in Formula E, a lower division of motorsport of which the cars are completely electric. 

©; Susie Wolff

She was a test driver for Williams for multiple years before she retired — she was never able to step up into a Formula One seat even though she raced alongside Lewis Hamilton when they were still karting. And the first thing she heard when she retired and chose to go to Formula E? “And I remember it so clearly because [when] we had the call, I remember exactly where I [was] sitting. The first question was: ‘Did your husband get you the job?’ The second question was: ‘What qualifies you at all?’ And the third question was: ‘How do you manage being a mother and a team principal?'”. The link to the article that goes further into Wolff’s career can be found here

It is unfortunate that in the age we are now, women like Susie Wolff still need to face questions such as ‘did your husband get you this job?’. For reference, her husband is the Team Principal of Mercedes-AMG Petronas, Toto Wolff. This, however, should not matter at all — Susie has been in the sport her entire life, yet simply because she is a woman she is seen as unworthy of her position, or unable to achieve it without the interference of a man? It is simply unfair that the world revolves in this way, but that is the patriarchy. 

On the bright side, this surge of young people that are now becoming more invested in the sport also brings with it a new wave of interest in careers in the sport. Even though Formula One is one of the most gatekept fields when it comes to careers, that does not mean it has to stay that way. By ‘gatekept’ I am referring to the fact that, often, when asked how one comes into a career in the sport, one says either connections or money but gives no actual information on how they got there. Luckily, this has started to change in the last couple of years. 

Just you wait, Christian Horner: before you know it, those percentages of women in Formula One teams will start rising and more and more of those teenage girls whom you deemed as only interested in the sport due to the drivers’ appearances will have secured careers in the field due to hard work and determination. 

Written by Vivian Van Klaarbergen


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