Lotus Sent the Wrong Message by Signing Carmen Jordá
Signing a female driver for her commercial appeal sends the wrong message about what women need to succeed in F1.
Lotus F1 Team
There was near industry-wide backlash earlier this year when Carmen Jordá was appointed as a development driver by the Lotus Formula 1 team. But this was nothing to do with a woman attempting to break into the 'man's world' of grand prix racing; it was because hiring Jordá, who finished 29th in the F1-supporting GP3 Series last season, sends out all the wrong messages about what a woman needs to succeed in motorsport.
GP3 sits two levels below Formula 1. Last season was Jordá's third in the category, but she never looked like scoring a point. However, Jordá excepted, from the 2014 GP3 field only runaway champion Alex Lynn has been able to secure a role with a Formula One team this season. The Briton, a former winner of the prestigious Macau Grand Prix, has joined Williams as development driver.
Runner-up Dean Stoneman won two races after replacing Jordá at the Korainen Motorsport team, but his next step was to the World Series by Renault. Having never won a race in her professional career, and with a best finish of 13th in three years in the championship, it's safe to say that Jordá simply isn't in the same talent bracket.
"Carmen will bring a fresh perspective to the team," said Lotus CEO Matthew Carter in a team press release. "She is a unique addition to the team and we are looking forward to helping her progress her goals as well as receiving the benefit of her insights and contributions to the development of the E23 Hybrid."
As one commentator put it, Lotus are insulting our intelligence.
The prevalence of 'ride buying' at the supposed pinnacle of global motorsport is no secret. Even with a rumoured $14 million sponsorship package, 2013 GP2 champion Fabio Leimer was unable to get himself a seat at Sauber (the very same team which faced the ignominy of having three paying drivers under contract on the eve of the Australian Grand Prix). Lotus are most certainly not above the practice either, choosing the well-monied Pastor Maldonado over Nico Hulkenberg after the erratic Venezuelan's spat with Williams, and recently adding the unheralded Chinese driver Adderly Fong to their already bulging development driver roster.
Fong has also shown nothing to suggest he is capable of racing in F1. But Jordá's gender is not entirely irrelevant in this debate, as some have made out. The FIA's stringent crackdown on Superlicenses following 17-year-old Max Verstappen's stratospheric rise means it is highly unlikely that she will get to drive the Lotus on a race weekend, if at all – reigning GP2 champion Jolyon Palmer is the team's official reserve driver – but what she brings in sponsorship money to sit in the simulator and listen in on the pits-to-car radio is offset by the wholly negative image it presents of women in motorsport.
After all, not all publicity is good publicity.
Rightly or wrongly, women in motorsport are put under the spotlight to a far greater degree than men, and arguably have to do much more to be taken seriously than their male counterparts. Therefore, as a means of bringing exposure to women's achievements, promoting Jordá to a role in Formula 1 is a spectacular own goal, patronisingly suggesting that women need not be judged on the same terms as men, but can instead get by on their looks.
Surely, this is not the kind of a message the sport wants to be sending out if it is to attract greater female participation? This concern was not lost on her female contemporaries.
"The news of Jordá joining Lotus has caught a lot of attention, but for all the wrong reasons, and sadly a situation like this reflects poorly on the rest of us," Pirelli World Challenge racer Christina Nielsen wrote on her Facebook page. "We want to be given a chance like this because people see a potential in us and because we earned it, not because of our gender or looks."
Motorsport is a rarity in that men and women can compete on a level playing field, but this notion of equality means little without credible role models to inspire girls at an early age. In Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn, Williams deputy team principal Claire Williams, and Audi's Le Mans-winning race engineer Leena Gade to name but a few, there are women in prominent positions across multiple disciplines of the sport who are fully deserving of their success. Yet worryingly few women since the days of rally star Michele Mouton have reached the heights in a driving capacity.
IndyCar racer Simona de Silvestro is one of the exceptions in this regard. After impressing with her underdog performances between 2010 and '12, then comparing favourably to 2004 champion Tony Kanaan after becoming the Brazilian's team-mate, the Swiss fan favourite has a plumb ride with Andretti Autosport this season. Unlike Jordá, you would be hard pressed to find anyone begrudging De Silvestro, who has podium positions and fastest laps under her belt, a drive that she earned on merit.
The problem, then, isn't that women aren't good enough – team boss Michael Andretti doesn't just hand out drives to anybody. Nor is it necessarily that they don't get the same opportunities as men – ask the 28 drivers who finished ahead of Jorda last season. It is that not enough women are starting in the first place. And that's not merely down to the extensive costs involved.
Simple maths suggests that if few women are inspired to take up racing, then the likelihood of any of them reaching the top and in turn, encouraging the next generation, is very slim. After all, of all the male talent in the world, only 20 can call themselves Formula 1 drivers.
It certainly doesn't help when their efforts to reach parity are persistently undermined by the perception that women are there primarily 'for the show' – in other words, to make the male-dominated paddock look that little bit more glamorous. It's something that the World Endurance Championship in particular has sought to confront by rendering the out-dated institution of the grid girl a thing of the past, but Jordá's appointment shows Formula 1 remains frustratingly behind the times.
Although F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone recently told Forbes that he believes it will only be a matter of time before another woman gets the opportunity to race in Formula One, he pointedly added that women "will never get a fair crack because they will be taken for other reasons... women would be taken for the fact that they can maybe pull in some sponsors and look better."
In many respects, Ecclestone is the embodiment of a sport that is out of touch with the real world. Though perhaps well-meaning in principle, his idea for a women-only series to run on the F1 support bill only perpetuates the notion that they aren't good enough to compete with men and reinforces the role of women as money-spinning PR tools. Unsurprisingly, it was panned across the motorsport world.
"I thought it would be a good idea to give them a showcase," he told The Guardian. "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.
"We have to start somewhere so I suggested to the teams that we have a separate championship and maybe that way, we will be able to bring someone through to F1. They could race before the main event, or perhaps on the Saturday qualifying day so that they had their own interest."
Gimmicks are evidently not the way to go about the problem, but it is a problem that needs to be addressed all the same. The foundation of the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission in 2009, mandated to create a sports culture that "facilitates and values the full participation of women in all aspects of motorsport," was at least step in the right direction, but there is still much work to be done.
In the meantime, good luck to you Carmen. Perhaps you will prove us all wrong.