Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Michele Mouton: Changing gear for women in motor sport

Posted on 8 March 2018 by Emily Victoria

As the smell of rubber and dust engulfs the crowd and a car screeches across the finishing line past that chequered flag, it is only a matter of time before the driver hauls themselves out of the cockpit, takes off their helmet and removes their Nordex-fibre balaclava.

Why then is it still unusual for hair to flop out from under that balaclava, and a woman to be making their way over to the podium?

Yes, there have been outstanding world-class female racing drivers across all motor sports since the first engine revved up and, yes, they are an inspiration to many people.

Any fan who dips in and out of the motor sport world will know the names of the legends, such as the first woman to ever compete in Formula One (all the way back in 1958!) Maria Teresa de Filippis, the first woman to take the chequered flag in an IndyCar race Danica Patrick and throttle-heavy Simona de Silvestro, who is currently racing for Nissan in the very macho world of the V8 Supercars Championship in Australia.

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Some are incredible pioneers for change through the likes of the Federation Internationale de L’automobile (FIA) Women in Motor Sports Commission (WiM), and social enterprises such as Dare to be Different – both of which are headed up by legendary drivers with amazing track-records: Michele Mouton and Susie Wolff respectively.

In the rare sport where women can compete on equal footing to men, the disparity in numbers has never come down to talent or physical prowess – it is simply a fact less women participate. Try to find out the reason for this, and a heated debate often unfolds.

With this year’s International Women’s Day 2018 approaching Mouton, Chairman of the FIA WiM, opened up about this and what they are doing at the FIA to encourage more participation across all disciplines of the sport:

“Since its creation in 2009 we have made real progress around the world and now have co-ordinators in more than 80 of our national sporting authorities specifically working with us. There is always more that can be done but we are all working hard to make sure equal opportunities are there for all.

“We are also launching a new initiative this year which we hope will have really positive impact. Our European Young Women Programme will take place in eight different countries and young women can come along and have the opportunity to race in a kart on a short slalom course.

“We hope to inspire another generation, not only on track but with educational initiatives that will potentially expose young women to other areas of the sport too.”

In the UK, the Motor Sports Association has reported only eight percent of registered licence holders are women. In this day of and age of gender equality that’s huge.

With the natural pathway for drivers starting in karting at a young age, it is vital children have a role model who can give them access to the sport – especially because they’re not exactly going to have the chance to whizz around the athletics track at school.

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Nowadays, if you sit among parents of toddlers at a local play café, you’ll likely hear the phrase ‘gender neutral’ toys and clothes bandied about. With the new forward-thinking generation that is upon us, and with the help of advocates who promote the sport, it is likely this gap will narrow – but it will take time.

Only a few years back, though, gender stereotypes still affected most young girls’ chances to enter certain sports unless a father or brother were already involved. Pat Moss, for example, younger sister to Sir Stirling Moss, found her feet in the sport and managed to break out of her brother’s shadow by winning many rallies.

Mouton emphasised the need to create opportunities for all children:

“The most important thing is that all females become aware from an early age it is not just a male-dominated sport and they have equal opportunities in all areas. The focus tends to be on competition, but there are many areas women can be involved, and being exposed to those opportunities, whether it is a school, with family and friends or by having role models to look up to, is key to increasing their participation in the sport.

“It is true to say that at the base level there are much fewer women than men involved, whether competing or in engineering, management or other positions; it is therefore natural that those who rise to the top are fewer in numbers than males.

“This is why we have to really encourage girls at an early age, and it is what the WiM commission is working at.”

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WiM are working hard to not just put women in the driver’s seat, but to also give girls and women the chance to get involved in engineering as well as all parts of the sport.

There is currently an F1 in Schools project which gives students the chance to experience a lot of different roles within a team both in the factory and on the track.

Graduate, Ana Andrade said in a brochure on the WiM site: “I have just completed my first year both at university and at the Randstad Williams Engineering Academy, meaning I am still in the early stages of my engineering career. F1 in Schools gave me valuable skills that led me to my current part-time placement at Autodesk as a Student Expert for Global Strategic Partnerships and Fusion360 Catalyst. Being introduced to 3D modelling during my two years in the competition was certainly one of the advantages of the project, as I have gained crucial experience in several softwares which I am certain will help me in my future career.”

There really are so many doors opening now for women who want to work in motor sports in any role whether that be behind the wheel, as an official, an engineer or, in Mouton’s case, in several of those roles – her latest being in management at WiM.

She truly believes any women or girl can succeed in this sport. Wolff, for example, has been known to beat a host of the men including Lewis Hamilton so there really is no limit (except maybe when it comes to horsepower and aerodynamics).

Mouton said to finish up:

“In top level competition, most drivers have come through various formulas from a very young age and spent years honing their skills and understanding what it takes to be a successful racing driver.

“The sport is not just about the pinnacle of the disciplines; there are millions of people around the world enjoying motor sport as a fun and social hobby.

“I think it is the same in any profession, if you have the skills to do a job then there is no reason not to follow your dream.”