Grid girls are traditional? Not exactly...
F1 ‘grid girls’ and their retention has been quite the topic recently. BBC Radio 5 Live devoted a special programme to it. Ross Brawn has confirmed the grid girl’s use is “under strong review”. Mark Webber had gone further and called the practice “dated and inappropriate”.
There are several questions around their presence. Whether it puts F1 at odds with the society around it, and increasingly so. Whether it damages F1’s image and by extension its ability to attract investment and the like. Whether it is in keeping with a sport that is making explicit efforts to encourage more women in as drivers, technical personnel and other roles. Whether the ‘grid girl’ brings much positive regardless of these points.
WEC for one abandoned them a couple of years back. Even F1 has wavered, for example utilising ‘grid boys’ instead in Monaco in 2015.
Of course there is no shortage of those who defend their use, and several lines of argument are employed. A common one is that they are ‘traditional’. But as is often so, and often so in F1, things aren’t quite that simple.
As Duncan Stephen pointed out on Twitter a couple of years ago when the matter was again being discussed, “those saying grid girls are traditional, did Jim Clark have a grid girl? Or Fangio? It’s not traditional; just a relic of the sleazy ‘70s”.
Quite. But we can go further about how the female role in F1 once was. Loosely prior to those ‘sleazy ‘70s’ mentioned. And it was brought into sharp focus by the recent sad passing of the astonishing figure of Bette Hill – mother of Damon; wife of Graham.
Those saying grid girls are traditional, did Jim Clark have a grid girl? Or Fangio? It’s not traditional; just a relic of the sleazy ‘70s - Duncan Stephen
She is an extraordinary F1 presence and not simply due to her relation to two world champions.
David Tremayne has paid glowing tribute to Bette in recent days, and in so doing described an F1 from the 1960s and early 1970s when Bette supported Graham racing in which the role of drivers’ partners was rather different.
“They were an intrinsic part of it all,” he said of them, “part of the team, and also a valuable support group in the bad times, and entertainers via The Doghouse Club which they formed.”
The latter was the female equivalent of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, and took up many tasks vital both to F1 ticking over as well as to its unique camaraderie of the time. “[It’s] where I was kept growing up,” noted Damon, “with the wives and the girlfriends of drivers.”
And Bette had a pivotal role in it.
“It was usually Bette who made the first greeting overtures to the new girls, as they found their way,” Tremayne went on.
“I can see Suzy Hunt at Jarama, an absolutely beautiful girl dressed all in white with a white turban, she was just sensational,” he quotes Bette saying. “And she was standing at a five-barred gate, just leaning on it. Practice was on and she didn’t know what the hell to do or where she should be.
“I went over to her and introduced myself, and said why didn’t she come over and sit with a group of drivers’ wives, team managers’ wives, mechanics’ wives and have a cup of coffee. And she said, ‘Do you think I can?’
“I’m not patting myself on the back. I did that for her and I did it for a number of those girls, because I had been there a long time and their fellas were too busy even to consider what they should do.”
They were an intrinsic part of it all, part of the team, and also a valuable support group in the bad times, and entertainers via The Doghouse Club which they formed - David Tremayne
But it wasn’t just that which made Bette astonishing. She also was extraordinary in her stoicism, not least in the aftermath of Graham’s helicopter accident in late 1975, wherein he and all five other passengers – including driver Tony Brise and several Hill team members – perished. And on top of everything else it led to the Hill family’s financial ruin.
But it’s not just that either, or at least not precisely. For more clues we can look at the 1965 edition of Autocourse where there is an essay by Elizabeth Hayward titled ‘The Women Behind Them’.
As the title indicates it examines the role of the F1 driver’s other half in mid-1960s F1. At points it amuses the modern senses given the extent that gender politics have moved on in the half century plus since it was written. But still it is fascinating in that it brings home the myriad and often towering demands of F1’s women at the time, that seem utterly at odds with the modern stereotypical grid girl role.
First off it was an age where danger in motorsport, and prospect of death in action, were very real and frequently realised. And this brought particular demands.
“She must be – or become – a special sort of person if she is to make a success of being a racing driver’s wife/girlfriend/mistress,” explained Hayward. “She has to come to terms with danger, first of all.”
Bette has learned to be tough, the hard way. [She has] learned to disguise her feelings to the point at which she can look you in the eye and deny their existence - Elizabeth Hayward
And Hayward went on to outline that this brought a challenge akin to a high wire tightrope walk. “The girl who makes a fuss in the paddock before the race, a kisses her driver ‘goodbye’ with tears in her eyes, won’t last two minutes. Scenes are out.
“Neither must she go to the other extreme and wish him luck with excessive gaiety.”
And Bette was singled out, Hayward describing her as “exceptional” and noting that “Bette has learned to be tough, the hard way.
“[She has] learned to disguise her feelings to the point at which she can look you in the eye and deny their existence.”
But emphatically Bette and others of her ilk were not there for stiff upper lip support only. They had a more tangible job to do. Hayward takes up the story again.
“The wives of the Grand Prix drivers are to be seen throughout the practice sessions and race days, come wind and high water, imminent or recent childbirth, sitting hunched on the pit counters of the world working at stop watches, time sheets and lap charts with distilled concentration.”
This was the day before automated electronic timing. It had to be done manually within each team, and it habitually it was a driver’s better half that did the job.
The wives of the Grand Prix drivers are to be seen throughout the practice sessions and race days, come wind and high water, imminent or recent childbirth, sitting hunched on the pit counters of the world working at stop watches, time sheets and lap charts with distilled concentration - Elizabeth Hayward
And they did not just look after the timing for their partner’s car, or only for the cars in that team even. They had to time all of the cars out there. And during races they kept a lap chart on top of it all. Pat Surtees – John’s wife – was thought particularly skilled at it.
And of course Bette played her role. “You rarely see the BRM pit without Bette’s dark head bent over the time board,” Hayward confirmed.
While in something that seems unthinkable to the modern ear, deciding starting grids sometimes was a case of these various time keepers getting together and comparing notes as the centralised timekeeping was often unreliable and sometimes non-existent. While in the 1973 Canadian Grand Prix – when a host of mid-race pits stops in a wet-to-dry race, then an early attempt at a safety car intervention, caused major confusion – they went a long way to deciding the race result.
And remember all of this had to be done in a period in which the fate of her partner, and his safety, may be unknown. Even if he was posted missing she had to put concerns aside and continue without a blip.
“If she is worth her salt, she has to be unaffected by the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ of the crowd, by other people coming into the pits, and the commentary,” Hayward continued.
“She is a member of a team. Even if her man’s car does not come round, she must go on pressing her stop-watch, or logging the times, or charting numbers. If she loses track, all her effort is wasted, and she has let the team down.
Even if her man’s car does not come round, she must go on pressing her stop-watch, or logging the times, or charting numbers. If she loses track, all her effort is wasted, and she has let the team down - Elizabeth Hayward
“What goes through a woman’s mind when the man she loves is missing? She would be odd, indeed, if her stomach did not turn over and her heart did not skip a beat. But she does not have hysterics on the pit counter. She does not run round the track to find out what happened. She presumes he is all right.”
Often though they didn’t feel put upon, instead they were glad to have something to take their minds away from the stresses mentioned. “It is useful both to the success of the team and the wife’s nervous system,” said Hayward of the task. “For the watching woman, a race can be intolerable without work.”
Changed days. Sadly it seems the role of women in F1 over time has been an oscillation rather than an upwards trajectory. But still if you catch anyone suggesting that the traditional role of women in F1 is to be decorative, tell them to think again.