One day, not all that far into the future, you’re likely to see a follow-up post apologising for that headline.
The usual drill applies when it comes to analysing pre-season testing. (The first person to say, “What, you’re going to ignore it and then go 2 years without writing anything?” earns themselves a round of terrifically slow applause, alright?) There are real, genuine limits to what you can learn without knowing what fuel load everyone’s carrying, whether the track was 3 degrees warmer today than yesterday, whether Williams have turned their engine up and Ferrari haven’t, whether Driver X is really pushing and so on. This blogger is, however, going to go out on a limb here and suggest that Mercedes might be quite quick. You get nowhere in this business without making the occasional shocking, left-field prediction.
Williams may or may not have turned their engine up when Susie Wolff drove the new FW37 in Barcelona last week. The general response to news of female participation in a male-dominated sport is often to assume that the driver is where she is because of her looks, her marketability or who she knows. Susie, she of the Vogue photoshoot, the articulate media-friendly nature and the well-connected husband (Mercedes F1 chief Toto), is no exception, but to assume that her Williams role owes everything to those attributes is to ignore a career spent scoring points in DTM and podium finishes in Formula Renault, beating Aston Martin factory driver Stuart Hall and Audi sportscar specialist Oliver Jarvis along the way.
Susie is, in other words, more than fast enough for a team like Williams to learn something when she drives their cars and spends time in their simulator. For Williams, a once-mighty organisation heaving itself back to the top of the pile after too long languishing in the middle of nowhere, it has to be this way. A test and development driver needs to be quick enough to fully assess a car’s performance, then concentrated and intelligent enough to give their engineer concise, accurate feedback on how it behaves.
The situation is much the same at Lotus, who followed two race-winning years with a 2014 season good for nothing, beyond reminding the team that hey, at least 2015 can’t be any worse. Armed with that knowledge, meet their new development driver, Carmen Jorda.
The initial Lotus press release described their new signing as having enjoyed “a distinguished racing career.” Last season, Carmen competed in GP3, a feeder series two rungs below F1, and finished the season 29th in the championship standings. In practice for the season’s first event in Barcelona, Jorda placed 27th out of 27, one second slower than the driver in 26th. The season’s other female competitor, Beitske Visser, finished ahead of Jorda in the championship despite only competing in the first two races. It’d be easy, of course, to blame the car, but then again a) GP3 is a one-make series, so everyone has the same equipment and b) she was replaced in the Korainen team for the final 4 races by Dean Stoneman, who took Jorda’s car to 2 front row starts and 2 race wins.
Considering these facts has forced this writer to remind himself of how the dictionary defines the word “distinguished”, having briefly considered that he must also be in the middle of a distinguished racing career and had simply failed to realise. Considering them further led him to realise that if the racing career required him to take part in this many photo shoots wearing short dresses, shorter shorts or no obvious shorts at all, perhaps his being too tall and heavy for it was for the best after all.
Reaction to the announcement, including GP2 racer Mitch Evans advising that it isn’t April 1st yet, Jorda’s former team mate Rob Cregan suggesting that she “couldn’t develop a roll of film, let alone an F1 car” and GP3 race winner Richie Stanaway cutting straight to the heart of the matter with a simple “LOL”, hasn’t quite been universally positive. The reaction emphasises the points we covered a paragraph ago, of course, but Lotus will have seen it coming. They must have done, because they’d already appointed 2014 GP2 champion Jolyon Palmer as their official test and reserve driver weeks ago.
That being so, what exactly is Carmen’s signing meant to achieve? Recent years have seen Danica Patrick win in the IndyCar Series, while Sarah Fisher scored podium finishes as a driver and a race win as a team owner. Simona de Silvestro followed up wins in Formula Atlantic with an IndyCar podium too, before her F1 aspirations were put on hold by a contract dispute with Sauber after a year occupying her own development role with the Swiss outfit. While neither Danica nor Sarah have shown any serious desire to build a career in Formula 1, Simona gave it a go on the back of a very respectable career to date and made it no further than driving a 2 year old car on a private test day.
The message sent out by a sport that turns away de Silvestro while welcoming Jorda, then, must surely be that yes, women are welcome, but only if their legs are long enough and their pout seductive enough to satisfy the sexists. Perhaps you’ve arrived here after browsing one of the many articles on the same subject, reading through the comments threads and – go on, since you’re there – adding your own tuppen’orth while you’re at it, with a mind that’s already made up and an opinion formed of the very clearest crystal. Perhaps the man writing this blog entry thought the same thing when he first heard the news. Perhaps, though…
What follows is only a thought, something to mull over, to consider. It’s widely thought that Carmen Jorda brings with her a not-inconsiderable amount of sponsorship money, which will be particularly useful to the perennially cash-strapped Lotus outfit. Money talks in a language we all understand, a language in which the bearer’s gender makes no difference. We’ve briefly spoken of Jolyon Palmer, whose career is backed by Comma, an automotive oil company. Pastor Maldonado comes to Lotus bearing gifts of his own, these ones from PDVSA, the Venezuelan government-backed oil and gas company.
Simona de Silvestro had no money to bring to a Sauber team fighting to stay afloat. Adrian Sutil had a 2015 race deal in his pocket with the same team but was cast unceremoniously aside when Felipe Nasr produced USD $15 million of Banco do Brasil cash. Marcus Ericsson took the second Sauber seat with sponsorship deals thought to be of a similar value. While Kamui Kobayashi returns to Japan to race domestically, having failed to nail down an F1 drive despite being blessed with speed and the belief that every corner in the world represents an overtaking opportunity if you’re rude enough, Manor Marussia are preparing to feel the benefit of Will Stevens’ personal backers, as Caterham did during their farewell appearance in Abu Dhabi last year.
Formula 1 is increasingly the preserve of those with the manufacturer backing or the personal funding to support its ever-increasing costs. Those costs, those increasingly unsustainable costs of competing in a sport too racked with individual self-interests to ever consider its collective future health (another rant, for another time), apply to all, whether male, female, black, white, yellow. Carmen Jorda’s arrival in F1 is igniting a debate, as it should, but in a sport where drivers of both genders are increasingly being assessed on the same wallet-heavy criteria, the debate being had is the wrong one. Increasingly, it seems that male and female competitors are equal in the way that matters most to the teams in the lower reaches of F1, those outfits who act as an entry point for emerging talent. No matter who you are or how you look, if your bank balance ain’t large enough, you ain’t getting in.