The role of women in the paddock has changed: in the past they were often timekeepers to hide their fear of sadly frequent accidents. Today, they are protagonists with many roles, not only wives or companions, but also journalists, team engineers, press officers or attractive supporters of the drivers on the starting grid
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Josefa Idem Guerrini is a German sprint canoeist. She married an Italian and lives in Ravenna with her husband and two children (who eat snacks with her in a series of television adverts, but that’s another story…) In July, Josefa, aged 48 and known as Sefi, will be in competition in her eighth Olympics: one for Germany, seven for Italy. During her career, she has won one gold medal, two silver and two bronze, plus five world titles. Sefi is clearly a very special kind of woman. But her status as such was truly tested one evening in Savona some years ago, in the municipal theatre covered in gilded stucco. A newspaper had announced an awards ceremony for local champions, what the French define somewhat clumsily as “les enfants du pays”, and had managed to attract Eddie Irvine, the Northern Irish Ferrari driver during the peak of the Schumacher era, along to the event. He was also, of course, a notorious womaniser. Irvine was fretting because, having been summoned to Maranello, he had other things to do, and other things on his mind. He was also blissfully unaware that he had another two hours to go, because, at the end of the presentation, there was also going to be a special award for him: a piece of pottery that he would almost certainly end up lobbing into the first rubbish bin he came across.
A journalist who knew Irvine was asked to calm him down, to distract him somehow. Luckily Josefa was also there to receive a prize; luckily the journalist knew Josefa; luckily Josefa is fluent in English, as well as German, Italian and Romagnolo; luckily Josefa agreed to talk to the Ferrari driver, telling him about her canoe, her competitions, above all enveloping him with her beauty. Irvine became calm, attentive, and even polite when they gave him that piece of pottery. That evening the journalist immediately thought of Corinna Schumacher, Michael’s wife, German like Josefa, and with that same sweet, energetic determination. He then thought of all the women in the pits that he had seen over the years. The first were those who were the special personal company of Enzo Ferrari, who lived a good chunk of his life in the paddock and exercised his impalpable, yet perceptible, tyranny, sharpening his genuinely Italian, or rather Emilian, voyeurism.
Then his thoughts turned to the many years of F1 coverage: the wives, fiancées, aspiring stars, the simple curious dreamers seeking autographs. and those who appear onscreen via increasingly intrusive technologies. He decided that until then he had understood nothing, that if Josefa and her tender beauty were enough to intoxicate and paralyse Irvine, to the extent that it was she who was checking her watch by the end, the journalist realised that women are worth more for what they actually are, than for how they appear. One further digression, a curve before looking down the straight at the theme of women in the F1 environment. This journalist has long had an idea of staging a photographic exhibition featuring women who watch motor racing. The images would show the changing role of women in this milieu: from being dressed in black on the far-off balconies of their rustic homes in the Sicilian countryside when the Targa Florio passed by, to walking along in bright-coloured skirts by the side of the road for the 1,000 Miglia, to their increasingly glamorous presence at tracks, first happy beneath the podium, then active and serious, concentrating on their hand-held stopwatches while standing in the pits.
Changing clothes, make-up, hairstyles, poses, expressions, attitudes, duties and powers. Yet, with the sense that if progress meant emancipation, this new F1 world is somehow colder than it once was. Today the women of racing are destined to be present in spaces at the back, where the pits become a room and she is the housewife. The only ray of sunshine comes when a TV camera lingers on a smile of joy or a grimace of trepidation accompanied by the voice of the commentator fleetingly mentioning her name. Now, everyone understands the rules of the game. Drivers are increasingly swept away by events: media commitments now further increased by the technological monsters that nibble away at every privacy but inflate every personality; sponsorship commitments that claim a lot of time in exchange for a lot of money; and finally the aggressive claiming of spaces, for work reasons, by other women who, whether he is married or not, steal a photograph and a smile beside him, the hero. Once visits by women who were famous or whose beauty was celebrated were near-Messianic events and dangerously distracting. There was even a ban (which we would now define as akin to sexism and hypocritical) by Enzo Ferrari, who, precisely because he loved women, knew that they could herald a variety of things and did not want them around men and cars. When one of his drivers died, Enzo told us that at the funeral he had to play the part of a traffic cop to direct three grieving women, each unaware of the existence of other two, away from each other. If anything, Enzo accepted them if they were able to stay behind the barrier. Now, with some exceptions, there are many women around the drivers, from the assistant who holds up the card with his name at the start to the implacable press officer who blocks any risky questions.
Not that you don’t see celebrities. Now, thanks to the cameras, a model such as Naomi Campbell, who would once have been talismanic in this type of world, now seems to be there for everyone, while in the past Delia Scala was clearly only there for the great driver and character Eugenio Castellotti. And she was noticed more, even if she was a much lesser known personality, a soubrette of the theatres and the music halls of post-war Italy. Her presence had a more profound impact.
And now, of course, we know everything, thanks to powerful media revelations, appearances and celebrations: new relationships, separations and reconciliations. Sometimes even children. Are there really any secrets left? I have seen many women of F1. I have enjoyed certain direct acquaintances, and some intensely erotically charged visual contacts. I have seen housewives in the pits who did not know how to dress for the occasion, and the big-haired blondes who are charming when they were silent. I have seen busy journalists and photographers, efficient PRs, and bored companions. I have seen laughing but also crying. I have given La Guide De La Femme Québécoise, written by a friend of mine from Montréal, as a gift to Canadian francophone Joanne Villeneuve, Gilles’ wife, who in return gave me the honour of wringing out the just washed nappies of little Jacques outside their motor home. Finally, I will attempt to formulate a hypothesis: the vamps (a word that comes from vampire; did that ever occur to you?) have almost disappeared from this dramatically different world, even giving up the temptation of the newly empowering media of mobile smartphones that can echo their insights on Facebook and Twitter around the world in mere seconds. In their place are almost exclusively real women, women with a role. Stars too, but real stars. In the world of appearance at all costs, F1 has found its own order, and it is not a bad one: motor racing is a serious thing and at stake in a game, let’s not forget, there is always a risk.
Published on The Official Ferrari Magazine 17 issue May 2012