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Danica Patrick, F1's Lewis Hamilton grapple with racing's sexism

Earlier this month, Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton took first place in the Chinese Grand Prix. The victory barely whiffed of news. Hamilton has become something of a redundant champion of late, winning nine of his last 11 starts dating to last year—when the 30-year-old Brit drove off with F1’s year-end championship. The events following Hamilton’s crossing of the start-finish line didn’t look to have the makings of a trending topic either. All the Mercedes pilot did was play out the scene that every driver plays out upon claiming the checkered flag: He reached for the nearest pre-approved beverage and emptied its contents on any soul within range.

The beverage in this particular instance was Mumm, no less than the official champagne of F1. And Hamilton, like a kid with a garden hose tormenting pedestrians from his front yard, giddily sprayed it into the faces of Nico Rosberg and Sebastian Vettel, the second- and third-place finishers who would join him on the podium and wield their own mighty magnums of Mumm. Hamilton even rained down a little of the drink on a select crowd of VIPs—who, unwittingly at least, would redefine what we’ve come to think of as bottle service.

The celebrating was seemingly all in good fun until Hamilton soaked a 22-year-old model named Liu Siying, who on this day was working a gig as a racing hostess. Siying had one job, as she explained it to the Shanghai Daily newspaper after the Chinese GP: “to stand on the podium,” she said, “and that’s what I did.”

On the heels of that boozy shower came a storm of outrage. First, old media brought the lightning in the form of still photos of Hamilton’s bubbly behavior. Then social media brought the thunder, denouncing the driver as a champagne chauvinist. A UK-based anti-sexism group called Object demanded an apology.

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It hardly mattered that Siying told the Chinese newspaper that she “did not think too much about” the drenching, as it had only lasted “one or two seconds,” or that this half-century old manner of post-race expression isn’t even exclusive to Hamilton—who was surprised by all the controversy he had uncorked. “I would never intend to disrespect someone or try to embarrass someone like that,” he told reporters before F1’s April finale, the Bahrain Grand Prix—which, incidentally, he also won. “I don’t really know the reasons why people are starting to bring those kinds of things up.”

Indeed, the outrage at Hamilton is beyond hypocritical given F1’s deficit of inspiration when it comes to finding more noble roles for women within its ranks. “Grid girls” like Siying, who prevail in the sport and whose main function is to serve as window dressing, are only part of F1’s flagging gender track record.

This is not to say that F1 is the only motorsport that objectifies women. NASCAR and IndyCar are probably the most obvious stateside copycats. But the way they feature women has matured. Would-be models have ditched their once form-fitting attire for one that couldn’t be less flattering—the firesuit. Meanwhile, an increasing number of women who work more technical jobs around the garage blend in with the fellow wonks in shirts and slacks.

And then, of course, there’s Danica Patrick, who’s just as likely to be wearing all of those things as scarcely anything at all. The fact that she can underscores the freedom she has to toy with the definition of what it means to be a grid girl. Still, when it comes to creative license, no series takes more of it than the NHRA, which has produced enough title-winning women to fill a top 100 female victories list.

How’d they do that? By seeing racing’s gender problem for what it is—a numbers game—and encouraging young girls to crowd its grassroots ranks. As consequence, NHRA gives itself great odds of producing successful women at its highest levels.

Formula 1 could easily preside over a similar revolution. Six years ago, its governing body, the FIA, created something called the Women in Motorsport Commission, with the aim of promoting the involvement of women “at all levels.” The effort has not only been slow to gain traction, it’s been directly undermined by F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone—who recently floated the idea of creating a women’s world championship that would run alongside F1. (In Ecclestone’s defense, he has evolved on the subject of women, of whom he once said “should wear white, like a domestic appliance, and they shouldn’t be allowed out. You don’t take the washing machine out of the house, do you?”)

Never mind that an all-women racing series would only exacerbate Ecclestone’s problems of filling a grid each week. “You’d almost need 40 women competing at the F2, F3 championship and more in the world endurance kind of championships, because only half of them would probably get the opportunity to have 20 cars to run in a Formula 1 woman's championship,” says 1992 Indy 500 rookie of the year Lyn St. James, who is adamant that boy racers and girl racers don’t need separating. “Ours is one of the few sports that men and women compete in at an equal level. It takes physical strength, physical endurance, but physicality is not a defining element.”

Simona de Silvestro appeared to have all that and more when the Sauber F1 team signed her to its roster in 2014, with the goal of racing her the following year. But when their relationship ended prematurely over money issues, the 26-year-old Swiss made a 2015 return to IndyCar, where she had logged laps from 2010 through 2013. In fact, she’s come back strong as ever, averaging a finish of 11.0 in two starts with Andretti Autosport—including a fourth place two weeks ago in New Orleans.

She’s aiming for an even higher finish in her next start, the Indy 500, one she can punctuate with her own champagne shower. “I don’t even know why this is become such a big story,” she says of Girlgate. “When you’re on the podium and you’re celebrating, it doesn't really matter who’s there.”

With Hamilton barely into the first act of a Schumacher-like prime, there’s no telling how many more innocents will be subject to his friendly fire. And if a grid girl should find herself caught in his grape-infused wake, don’t hate the player. Hate the game.