Everywhere you go it seems to be Danica Patrick this, Danica Patrick that. Formula 1 websites are full of news about her, even though she has only tenuous links to Formula 1 itself. On GrandPrix.com, for instance, in the past couple of weeks we have had these stories: ‘Danica talks about F1’, ‘Patrick wing fetches $42,650’, ‘Danica for Indianapolis’, ‘Cover girl!’, ‘The Danica effect quantified’. Check out the Indy 500 website. The second most prominent headline is ‘‘Danica Mania’ Drives Brisk Merchandise Sales At Indy’.
So who is this Danica Patrick person then?
She came fourth in the Indianapolis 500. She also has the good fortune of being a woman. In one sense it’s great, in another sense it’s not.
Don’t get me wrong, finishing fourth in the Indy 500 is a marvellous achievement. I didn’t watch the Indianapolis 500 — infact I never have; I don’t really ‘get’ oval racing — so I don’t know for myself how good she was. But apparently she is the first woman to do this, that and the other.
But let’s put it in perspective. She finished fourth, which means that three drivers were faster than her. And how much about those three drivers have we heard about? I caught a couple of headlines about Dan Wheldon. That’s it. Infact, I’m finding it difficult to even find out who finished second and third.
Now think about how many drivers from American racing series have made it into Formula 1 over the past ten years. Er, well there’s that dinosaur Jacques Villeneuve, who was good for about one and a half years, only when he was in the best car. And there’s Alex Zanardi who just couldn’t get back to grips with Formula 1 after spending so long away. Then there’s terminal hot-head Juan Pablo Montoya. Not to forget the highly mediocre Cristiano da Matta. All of them won championships in America, and struggled in F1.
Watch an IndyCar race, on the other hand, and sometimes it’s almost like a dumping ground for F1’s also-rans, has-beens and drivers who were quite promising a few years ago (Tomaš Enge anyone?). Danica Patrick finished fourth in one race.
Of course, I think it would be great for a woman to compete in Formula 1 again. Embarassingly for the sport, motor racing must be almost unique in that it has actually become more difficult for women to take part in it over the years.
There hasn’t even been a serious attempt to create a separate women-only category. I do vaguely remember an ITV programme from last year called Formula Woman. It seemed to be part lower-formula car racing, part reality show. It was, of course, terrible tokenistic tosh.
Unfortunately, I have a feeling that when a woman drives a Formula 1 car in the future, all the focus will simply be on the fact that she is a woman, and nothing to do with her driving talent. The overblown coverage of Danica Patrick over the past few weeks is proof of this. Already, Patrick’s image is far closer to that of Anna Kournikova than Lindsay Davenport.
There were rumours that Patrick would drive a BAR Honda at Indianapolis this weekend. That one showed up the overblown coverage of Patrick, because it turned out not to be true. But it’s conceivable. In the world of Formula 1 where image gimmicks are so important, mid-grid Formula 1 teams may clamber all over each other in order to employ such a woman. But for all the wrong reasons.