Out with the old and in with the new: Formula E should leave grid girls behind

Sam Bird of Virgin Racing being interviewed on the grid by presenter Nicki Shields from ITV4, before going on to win the race
Sam Bird of Virgin Racing being interviewed on the grid by presenter Nicki Shields from ITV4, before going on to win the race

At Battersea Park in London this weekend Formula E concluded the first ever season of electric vehicle racing with Virgin Racing’s Sam Bird narrowly winning the final race from a frustrated Stephane Sarrazin. Although sitting in front the Frenchman failed to make his William’s designed battery last the 29 lap race distance and crossed the line with 0% power remaining forfeiting his victory. It was a bad result for his team Venturi, but great news for Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson who at the start of the event told the BBC that he expected Formula E to be bigger than Formula 1 within 5 years.

To my 6 year old it already is. The 45 minute races mean that he remains avidly fixated to the screen for the entire duration (including the pre-race coverage), the musical dimension means that he and his friends bounce around on the sofa singing, dancing and shouting at the growing number of celebrity visitors “Look Mum, it’s Will I Am”; the car swap sees him shouting at the drivers to move the second their bums hit the seat and the on-screen battery levels mean that I get a constant update on who has the most power.

“Mum Nelson Piquet is on 23 percent”

Three minutes later. “Mum, Nelson’s on 22 percent”

Three minutes later. “Mum Nelson has 21 percent now. Will they swap cars soon?”

Far from being boring as some cynics had predicted at the start of the season, the street circuits of global cities make exciting atmosphere for viewers and tough racing surfaces for the drivers. My 6 year old and his friends relish a good “slam off” as he calls any altercation and there have been plenty. In fact he still talks about the huge slam off that happened in the first race of the season where Nicolas Prost of eDams and Nick Heidfeld of Venturi collided disastrously on the final corner of the Beijing circuit handing victory over to Lucas Di Grassi of Audi Sport ABT. Added to this drama the fan boost technology is enabling engagement at a level that has never been done before with live interaction from fans who can vote to give a speed boost to their favourite driver.

On the grid with two of battery supplier William's Advanced Engineering's finest technicians!
On the grid with two of battery supplier Williams Advanced Engineering’s finest technicians!

All of this is brilliant. Combining the power of social media with a young environmentally aware audience, located in the streets of the world’s most populated areas, has the power to create a massive fanbase. Pegged as a vision for the future of the motor industry by focusing on, and enabling development of electric vehicle technology, Formula E is promoting clean energy and sustainability in a world where global investment in green technologies is rising. Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimated such investment to be worth $310bn in 2014. This is just as well. Motor racing is an expensive sport and it is not a coincidence that many of the Formula E drivers come from well known, and wealthy, F1 families.

But with so much that is new and modern it is disappointing to see some of the same old sexist, attitudes from motor racing persist. I was lucky enough to be on the grid in London this weekend (courtesy of The Husband who is involved in the series) and it was utterly depressing to see pretty girls wearing outfits so tight and small they looked like white balloon skins had been stretched over their bodies.  They were then parading in front of the cars, smiling broadly as they were leered at by the kind of chino wearing, pastel shirt sporting, perma-tanned playboys who match their loafers to their watches and spend more money on their hair products in a week than a normal family spends on food. But seriously, unconscious bias is so normalised in the industry that men in the sector genuinely don’t seem to understand why this kind of objectification of women could be offensive to anyone.

Formula E's only female driver is Simona de Silvestro of Andretti
Formula E’s only female driver is Simona de Silvestro of Andretti

I do not want my children growing up to think that girls can aspire to stand in front of the cars wearing hardly any clothes and boys can aspire to drive, build or design them. And while there are a few inspirational females in Formula E such as the only female driver Simona de Silvestro of Andretti there are not many. In this digital age of revenues driven by viewing numbers and followers, fans are everything and if teams take the right approach the handsome young Formula E drivers could become motor racing’s equivalent of One Direction with millions of fans – male and female.

In fact the World Endurance Championship has already taken the lead on this, axing grid girls in order to appeal to a wider audience and attract manufacturers that understandably don’t want to demean potential customers. Why not take the same stance in Formula E or even open up the “grid girl” role to fans using competitions or perhaps engage with local schools in each of the host cities, guaranteeing more participation and support?

Natalie Imbruglia visiting the Virgin garage,  she seemed lovely too
Celeb spotting: Natalie Imbruglia in the Virgin garage – she seemed lovely too!

After just one season Formula E is gaining momentum. UK viewer numbers started at 700,000 on ITV4 for the first race in Beijing in September 2014. By June 2015 the UK saw 1.2 million tune in to watch Nelson Piquet Junior become the first Formula E champion. Compare this to F1 which has been losing viewers in recent years, and Sir Richard might just be right. And let’s not forget that his company, Virgin, is one of the most progressive organisations in the world in terms of equality, offering a year’s fully paid parental leave. “Take care of your employees and they will take care of your business,” he says.

So come on Formula E, let’s ditch the sexism and allow modern thinking to underpin the modern technology. As even more exciting new developments are pursued in season two such as a more electrical energy innovations from teams with the aim of this filtering into the everyday electric vehicle market, let’s also see forward thinking in terms of equality. It makes financial sense, and it is the right thing to do, and I can encourage my children to support it or even work in it one day without fearing that I am reinforcing old fashioned sexism.

This blog also appears on The Huffiington Post at: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/bernadette-ballantyne/formula-e_b_7709196.html?utm_hp_ref=uk-sport&ir=UK+Sport

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