A grand prix weekend oozes tradition. Everything from the national anthem to the champagne ceremonies. For 2018, however, one of these traditions has been consigned to the history books. ‘Grid girls’, whose primary job is to hold up the name boards of drivers in front of their cars before the race, have been scrapped by F1’s owners Liberty Media.
The decision has not been met lightly. Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo is one driver who said that “fast cars and fast girls” are part of the sport’s spectacle, a view echoed by ex-supremo Bernie Ecclestone, who said that scrapping grid girls takes away from the glamour. Some grid girls themselves have also been very vocal about the decision, complaining about having a line of work taken away from them without their input.
Except that’s just it. Nobody ever talks to the grid girls… not as far as those glued to their TV screens are concerned anyway. When Ecclestone shakes his head at the loss of ‘glamour’, he is mourning his own male-gazing, money making perspective that sees grid girls as appetising eye candy. They talk to the fans at the circuit and actually do a lot of valuable promotion work, but this is never seen by the global audience. It is what is seen on television that keeps the cash flowing into the sport, something Ecclestone of all people needs no reminding of.
This is Formula One’s way of responding to a changing world. Williams’ team boss Claire Williams hit the nail on the head in saying that it was “a decision that the sport had to make”. Largely because of the #TimesUp movement, which has stretched beyond the ‘glamorous’ confines of Hollywood, some serious thinking regarding how women are valued, treated and viewed in their professions has taken hold worldwide. This adds to the already strong voices from both within and outside Formula One who have insisted for some time that the inclusion of women has not been good enough. It makes no difference if the workplace spans twenty different countries – Formula One is not exempt from making changes.
Liberty’s boss Chase Carey said back in January last year that Formula One “needs a fresh start”, and it was plain to see why. Formula One is facing dwindling audience numbers, and the sensitive balance between honouring its rich tradition and not appearing like a gas-guzzling dinosaur. This debate has normally focused on the cars – their speed, their noise, and most recently their looks – but it has percolated through into the way Formula One presents itself and the people within it.
Scrapping grid girls has not proved popular with fans – a BBC poll found that 60% of them believed grid girls should be kept – but has been celebrated by others. Susie Wolff, former Williams test driver and the closest the sport has got to a racer in the modern era who is not a man, said that while she was personally never offended she agrees that the ban is a step forward. The Women’s Sports Trust has also praised F1, saying that they are one of several sports who are “making a considered choice about how women should be valued and portrayed”.
As jokingly pointed out by the social media accounts of Have I Got News for You, there is a poisonous irony in striving for equality by scrapping F1’s biggest source of female employment. Regardless, Formula One has struggled for a long time to break the all-male deadlock that currently underpins it, and this is a tentative step in the right direction. This is a lot more than simply another industry bowing to the wills of feminism. It’s a sport drenched in history forcing itself to change in light of a changing world. For a sport all about being the fastest, it had to make this decision unless it wanted to be left badly behind.