/ 27 February 2009

Sexing up motorsport

It takes some guts for a 16-year-old girl from Phoenix, US, to travel across the Atlantic and make her car-racing debut against a pack of English boys in a sodden, blustery country. To then beat about 120 of them and finish second, just a year later, in one of junior motor sport’s biggest events — the Formula Ford Festival — is a serious achievement.

Ten years on, Danica Patrick could find herself at the wheel of a USF1 car in the 2010 Formula One season. If she does, it won’t just be good news for one of the US’s biggest sporting stars, it could be a lifeline for the whole sport.

Simple logic dictates that an all-new American grand prix team would have Patrick’s name scribbled on its list of possible drivers. After claiming her debut Indycar victory at Motegi, Japan, in April last year she became the first woman to win a major motor race.

She is a prime-time chat show favourite, a Sports Illustrated sales-booster and a sponsor’s dream. Formula One hasn’t had a female competitor since Giovanna Amati failed to qualify for three races in 1992. To borrow the lingo of Patrick’s home nation, go figure.

Just what the doctor ordered
And the sport could do with some good publicity right now. The bubble that grew after Lewis Hamilton’s championship success last November has been deflated by the global financial crisis. From Honda’s last-gasp attempts to secure the funding to compete in F1 to car manufacturers’ ongoing staff redundancies and sponsor pull-outs, the sport is going through a rough patch, so the possibility of Patrick taking to the grid would bring a welcome injection of interest — and, no doubt, cash.

With the lack of an American race on the calendar — and not even a visit to Canada pencilled in — Formula One has turned its back on a whole continent. The combination of the USF1 team and the participation of Patrick is tantalising.

If Patrick does get the drive — and we won’t hear anything official from the team for a week or so yet — she certainly won’t be in for an easy ride. Her four seasons in the Indycar championship have yielded a sole victory and generated much criticism from fellow drivers who feel she has not, and cannot, live up to the hype her gender inspires.

Even if she had more silverware to her name, the two series are more different than a fleeting glance at the similarly shaped cars would suggest. It’s undoubtedly a difficult transition: the Toro Rosso driver, Sebastien Bourdais, won four consecutive Champ Car titles before gaining his Formula One chance, but scored only four points last season and has just clung on to a drive this year.

Patrick’s apparent willingness to use her gender to her advantage in gaining sponsors and media attention has riled the establishment. Beyond that, there is still a school of thought that says women’s physical and genetic differences makes them unable to compete on a level basis with men. To put it more bluntly, there are some who think that girls can’t race cars.

But you can bet that even those cynics would tune in to see how she performs — and that is exactly what Formula One needs. —