Getting rid of grid girls

Grid girls (photo by Mark McArdle)

When I started watching Formula 1 in the 1990s, grid girls were a fact of life. But they were already beginning to fall out of fashion.

I remember reading letters in magazines like F1 Racing admonishing the editors for featuring photographs of scantily-clad models. Those photographs soon disappeared from the respectable publications. But they remained a feature of F1.

If you had told me then that grid girls would no longer be a thing in 2018, I probably wouldn’t have been surprised. In fact, I might have been surprised that it had taken so long.

If men were women - image from BuzzFeed

A simple test to work out whether something is sexist is to imagine the gender roles reversed. If it seems ridiculous, it’s probably sexist.

F1 has tried this already. As far back as 2008, the European Grand Prix held at Valencia had both ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ on the grid.

And in 2015, the Monaco Grand Prix replaced all of the grid girls with male models. The reaction of Sebastian Vettel was telling:

Why didn’t we have any grid girls today? What was that? F—! You get there and park behind George or Dave. What’s the point?

What’s the point indeed. He hit the nail on the head there. He started off asking where the grid girls were — and within seconds undermined the argument for having them at all. If it’s pointless to have George or Dave on the grid, it is pointless to have Georgie and Davina as well.

Yesterday F1 made a massive song and dance about finally ending this outdated practise. Since then, some people (mainly of a certain gender and a certain age) have decided that this is an outrage.

Grid girls have now joined the list of things that are now supposedly part of “the DNA of F1”. This list also includes open wheels, V8 engines, and general risk of death.

Alberto Ascari chasing Juan Manuel Fangio at the 1954 Italian Grand Prix

Alberto Ascari with an inline-4 engine, chasing Juan Manuel Fangio with a closed-wheel car in 1954. They lined up on a grid without grid girls.

Apparently the sport just can’t be the same without them. But it would be more accurate to describe these things as being in “the DNA of the 1970s” rather than F1.

However, I wonder what the reaction would have been if F1 had just quietly done away with grid girls rather than making a big announcement. Would anyone have actually noticed if the grid lined up in Melbourne without grid girls? I highly doubt it.

Maybe it would have been wiser for F1 to keep a low profile on its plans. But the new owners of F1 seem to be keen on self-congratulatory press releases and vanity logo redesigns that could have done with having a soft launch.

On the TV broadcasts that are beamed around the world, grid girls are actually most noticeable not on the grid, but in the area drivers walk through on their way to the podium. This had become a staple of the post-race TV broadcast in the past decade or so.

The victorious sweaty male gladitors would disinterestedly trudge through a corridor lined with identically-uniformed, sponsor-clad, perma-grinning women obediently applauding as if Kim Jong-un had just walked into the building.

The image this projects to the world is appalling. This isn’t about a woman’s choice to forge a career as a glamour model. This is a situation that has been constructed as if to say, women can indeed have a role in F1, just as long as it’s mainly as eye candy.

In this context, F1 isn’t “banning” grid girls, as some are making out. They are in fact making a business decision to stop projecting this terrible message to the world. They are acknowledging that this set-up is totally manufactured, and moreover that it is sexist, anachronistic, and it doesn’t have to be this way.

Five women have entered a grand prix in the history of F1. In the 1970s, Lella Lombardi started 12 races, and scored half a point in one of them. No woman has entered a grand prix since 1992.

This is a sport that has, appallingly, gone backwards in the past four decades when it comes to female participation.

F1’s decision to move on from having grid girls won’t guarantee that more women will begin racing overnight. But it will stop sending a message to the young girls watching grands prix today. Girls will no longer grow up thinking that if they want to be part of F1, they probably have to wear a skimpy outfit and stand there waiting to get sprayed by the winning driver.

5 comments

  1. The reaction of Sebastian Vettel suggests we definitely would have noticed had the practise been quietly ended, short of a gagging order being issued to the drivers (which would probably have caused a worse furore than the grid girl issue). I’m not surprised – WEC banning grid girls caused a fair bit of fuss too – but I agree with you; it’s been a while coming.

    When F1 introduced grid girls, they were a new idea (especially to motorsports) and promoted glamour, both very F1 notions. For the last 10 years at least, they’ve been unmistakably cheap and tawdry, neither of which is a F1 notion. This is not because the role, treatment or power of the grid girls has changed in the intervening 40 years – it’s because everything else has changed around them, and F1 hasn’t meaningfully responded.

    Had F1 successfully introduced grid boys, we’d probably not have lost grid girls. However, this is not a generation that goes for anyone’s notion of conventional beauty; it prefers things to be radical, to see beauty in function and not just form (though as certain aero rules will confirm, there are limits to this…) and to avoid things that are off-putting. Also, law is now heading towards banning gender stereotypy, meaning any position dependent on only one gender performing it (without genuine occupational reason) risks litigation and pointless scandal.

    This move is really F1 finally admitting defeat on a battle it’s been losing for decades. It has stopped being chauvinist due to all other options being exhausted.

  2. Thanks for the comments.

    Alianora, you make a great point about grid girls being a “very F1 notion” in the 1970s. But F1 stood still as the world around it moved on. Which seems to be a common theme when you consider lots of the other problems facing the sport right now.

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