- The Inside Line
Power and the girl racersKate Walker February 24, 2014
So far 2014 has not been a bad year for women in motorsport. Simona de Silvestro has joined Sauber as an affiliated driver, and Susie Wolff's development role for Williams has been expanded and will now include at least two Friday practice sessions, making the Scot the first woman to take part in an F1 grand prix weekend in over twenty years.
But involvement in motorsport - irrespective of gender - is about far more than the upper tiers. Whatever happens in the F1 paddock, or in the top tiers of other racing categories, must also be reflected further down the ladder, creating opportunities for engagement and advancement at all levels if efforts to attract a broader demographic to motorsport are to be taken at all seriously.
While signing individual female drivers with racing experience and a decent profile is no bad thing - providing the women in question merit their positions, and haven't been drafted in as a box-ticking PR measure - the most interesting piece of news concerning women in motorsport in the past week actually came from Qatar.
The FIA is made up of scores of national member clubs who group together to form regional bodies. In the Middle East and North African region (MENA), one of the most high profile of these member clubs is the Qatar Motor and Motorcycle Federation (QMMF). The QMMF last week played host to the first 2014 meeting of the FIA's Women in Motorsport Commission, where 50 delegates from around the region met to discuss ways and means of increasing female involvement in the region's motorsport activities.
Since its inception in 2009, the Women in Motorsport Commission has existed not to parachute drivers into high profile slots but to be an effective and organic means of increasing involvement throughout motorsport, whether getting women to volunteer as marshals, try their hands at amateur club racing, or to develop the interests and tools needed to pursue a technical role with one of the teams. Despite some uninformed (and largely unfair) criticism in the commission's early days, it is a serious and intelligent initiative.
As a regional motorsport base, Qatar has a strong tradition in rallying (particularly cross-country). The Losail Circuit plays host to the FIM MX Grand Prix and to MotoGP, and was one of the tracks considered for this season's F1 winter tests. It is one of the key centres of MENA motorsport, but it is also a country whose profile in the racing world is still growing - Nasser Khalifa Al Atya, QMMF president, recently became FIA Vice President for Sport in the Middle East.
By taking ownership of improving female engagement in motorsport, Al Atya has been able to paint himself as a progressive force in the MENA region, something that will serve him well politically in the long term.
Having the regional conference in Qatar was also politically beneficial to the FIA, who sent along some of their heavy hitters: WiM Commission President Michele Mouton and Deputy President for Sport Graham Stoker. Strengthening relationships with member clubs and deepening ties with regional efforts to boost involvement in motorsport were two of FIA President Jean Todt's election promises, after all.
It was a win-win on the publicity front for all parties involved, although the event got very little coverage outside of the regional press, due to its billing as a seminar (aka talk over action). But in order to have regional action there must first be a dialogue, and it was heartening to see representatives gather to discuss the myriad of ways in which enthusiasm and engagement could be drummed up among the women of the Middle East.