Column: How to help women F1 drivers? Put one in every team
PARIS (AP) What a shame that Formula One's next stop is China. Because its notoriously protest-intolerant government surely wouldn't look kindly on crowds of demonstrators venting against Bernie Ecclestone's latest putdown of women drivers.
Yet people should vent. Because there's a whiff of sexual apartheid in the latest madcap suggestion from F1's billionaire boss that teams should launch a championship exclusively for women.
Segregating female drivers in a separate, second-fiddle series that few fans will watch cannot be the best way to advance their cause. Instead, because F1 teams have been so resistant to change, the time has come to force their hand: Rule that they each must hire a woman driver and race them in at least two Grand Prix per season. More of that later.
To be fair to Ecclestone, perhaps his motivations are noble.
Perhaps he recognizes that the enduring stranglehold of men on F1, with no women actually racing and too few in positions of power behind the scenes, undercuts its pretentions of being the most modern of sports.
Or having declared 10 years ago that ''women should be all dressed in white like all the other domestic appliances,'' perhaps the 84-year-old wheeler-dealer who built F1's commercial success is becoming a campaigning feminist?
Or perhaps not.
Parading women like this smacks suspiciously of being more about money, an attempt to use them to revive F1 television audiences, rather than being an about-face for equality.
''I thought it would be a good idea to give them a showcase. For some reason, women are not coming through - and not because we don't want them. Of course we do, because they would attract a lot of attention and publicity and probably a lot of sponsors,'' Ecclestone said in comments reported by British media.
''They could race before the main event, or perhaps on the Saturday qualifying day so that they had their own interest,'' he was quoted as saying. ''It would be super for F1 and the whole grand prix weekend.''
Again, to be fair, Ecclestone has found some support.
Carmen Jorda, a Spanish driver training with the Lotus F1 team, told The Associated Press she would rather be a world champion among women than finish a distant second-best to men. She also said the intense physicality of F1 driving is a barrier to equal competition between women and men.
''That's why a woman will never be in the top, because of the physical issue,'' Jorda said in a phone interview. ''I don't want to fight for 10th or 15th. What I want to do is to win.''
In the opposing camp are women like Michela Cerruti, an Italian who recently raced in the electric Formula E championship, and former rally driver Michele Mouton, who now works with the FIA governing body of motorsport.
By email, Mouton wrote ''I am annoyed and very disappointed!'' that Ecclestone maybe is thinking ''about women only for the show!''
In a phone interview from her home in Milan, Cerruti said she wouldn't want to be part of a women's championship ''made, basically, to attract attention'' and which would be ''much less interesting than seeing women racing against men.''
''It is really absurd that there's not a woman (racing) nowadays in Formula One,'' she said. ''In the past two or three years they could have taken one of us.''
Well said. F1 has had ample time. And now the time for excuses has run out.
If Ecclestone really wants to help women drivers, he must get them onto F1's grid with the men. Not just training in simulators like Jorda and in occasional tests like Williams' Susie Wolff, but by ensuring that every race has one or more women drivers.
That could be done by forcing every team to hire a woman as a third driver. Doing so would, in turn, force teams to do a much better job of scouting and nurturing female talent. The teams' two main male drivers would also all be made to skip a minimum of one race per season, giving the seat to their female colleague.
That would guarantee two races per season for each woman. But it also would ensure the continued integrity of the drivers' championship, because each man would still compete in the same number of races as all the other men. So Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and all the other leading contenders would, for example, all race 18 of the 19 times per season. Teams would be free to choose which races the men sit out and could, of course, bench them more than once if and when the women prove to be faster.
Just an idea, to move things along and get more women started.
But better, surely, than making them race alone.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester