Following the BBC article quoting Sir Stirling Moss’ comments about female racing drivers, a Badger reader named Bridget who’s more qualified on the subject of female brains than us has put together her thoughts – thoughts based on science.

This morning, when I logged into twitter, I happened upon an article on the BBC’s website that induced the kind of spitting indignation I usually reserve for the Daily Mail. The comments from Sir Stirling Moss fit somewhere on the spectrum between “sexist” and “plain old anti-women”. So, in order to not fly off the handle, I thought I’d look at this objectively as a biologist.

Sexism in motorsport is not new. The belief that women aren’t able to handle racing in the top levels of motorsport is as old as the sport itself. The belief stems from when Formula 1 started, an era when the notion of women doing anything other than cooking, cleaning, and tending to the children was unthinkable. The problem we face now is that the world has moved on in its attitudes to women, and people in F1 circles, for example Sir Stirling, have not. I note that Bernie Ecclestone’s comments in the article were less sexist than those he’s made before, but they still leave a lot to be desired in fostering an environment where women are seen as equals.

The obvious objection to women in F1, although not one that Sir Stirling raised, is whether they can handle the physical challenge. An F1 driver’s heart rate during a race is in the region of 170-190 beats per minute, a level of exertion that most elite athletes – male and female alike – see as a challenge, not an insurmountable obstacle. Likewise, the lateral G-forces drivers are subjected to are high, but not so high as to exclude women on principle if those women engage in adequate resistance training.

The major challenge facing racing drivers is more in the spectrum of mental capacity. In order to race safely at the speeds achieved in Formula 1, a driver needs quick reflexes (for example, changing direction quickly in response to seeing another car emerge from one’s blind spot), the ability to anticipate challenges (for example, think a few corners in advance and position the car accordingly), and good spatial reasoning (that is, knowing the dimensions of one’s car and how much space it needs on-track). While there is a difference between male and female brains, the difference doesn’t lie in reaction times, or the ability to anticipate challenges.

Schumacher back on top

Did Michael suffer more brain-fade being older? – Credit: Mercedes AMG F1 media

Reaction or reflex times vary from individual to individual, and are more dependent on age than sex. This is why drivers struggle to respond to overtake manoeuvres as they age (see Michael Schumacher’s crash record in his last few seasons for example). Therefore, as long as a female driver was reasonably young, she would have no problem keeping pace with the men on track.

Neuroscientists are finding more and more that the ability to anticipate is an intrinsic part of the human brain. This basic hard-wiring does not appear to vary between sexes, according to the current literature. However, as the brain matures, the ability to make rational decisions based on this anticipation improves.

I do concede that, on average, female brains are less able to handle spatial data than male brains. This would be the only potential sex-specific down-fall facing a female racer. However, human brains are marvellously adaptable, and spatial problem-solving is a trait that can be learned. If a woman races from early childhood, it is not unreasonable to assume that her spatial reasoning will be trained to a level that was comparable to her male peers.

As to whether a woman has what it takes to compete mentally, I refer you to the work of Jaak Panksepp. All humans feel fear, rage, panic, lust, care, play, and an instinct to seek. They’re evolutionarily beneficial, and hard-wired. While we have the ability to suppress the less pleasant of those neurological systems (animals will turn off their fear, rage, and panic systems, even when it is stimulated by electrodes in the brain), we – and by that I mean every animal that has a testable nervous system – find seeking and playing pleasurable. Competition is an elaborate combination of seek and play – two of the most fun things humans can do with their clothes on.

More testosterone means acting out your revenge more - Photo via pastormaldonado.com

More testosterone means acting out your revenge more – Photo via pastormaldonado.com

I have one final point to make on the difference in ability between men and women. Psychologists have observed that women are less likely to enjoy revenge. If they do take revenge, it’s more likely to be with words than violence. This different perception of vengeance means we are less likely to see incidents like Maldonado’s side-swipe of Hamilton in Spa from female racers.

Having said all of the above, women are at a disadvantage in racing. Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.”. While he was discussing consciousness, the adage applies to the human reality as well. Many studies show that encouragement from spectators improves athletic performance. Concomitantly, discouragement impedes it. “Lady racers” face that same challenge; nobody speaks out in public in support of women’s ability to successfully compete in Formula 1, and the nay-sayers are given a lot of air time.

The problem facing them is not overt criticism, but insidious exclusion. It’s notoriously hard to find sponsorship these days, especially as a female racer. The media tell stories of female racers and team staff as curiosities, not contributors. Some go as far as to routinely introduce Susie Wolff as “Toto Wolff’s wife” rather than as “Williams’ development driver,” as though she’s in the paddock to be Toto’s arm-candy, not to contribute meaningfully to Williams. Susie Wolff herself has spoken of the lack of ladies’ bathrooms in paddocks, forcing her to run further than other drivers for her pre-race pit-stop.

While these are all subtleties, they nonetheless will affect a driver’s head-space. They’re all factors that are toxic to a success-friendly environment. If Formula 1 is serious about including women, the whole sport needs to foster an environment where women are unreservedly treated as equals.

About Bridget: She has a bachelor of science from Rhodes, with a double major in Botany, and Human Kinetics & Ergonomics. While saving for her MSc in the neuroscience of novelty-seeking genes, she keeps herself occupied working in fun investments, googling the night away, and watching as much motorsport as possible. Her previous, more comedic F1 work can be found here on sidepodcast too.  You can follow her and get in touch via Twitter.

Bridget Schuil aka @mma_brij

Bridget Schuil aka @mma_brij

Bridget Schuil aka @mma_brij

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  1. Interesting post Bridget.

    Stirling Moss is living in the very distant past. This comment goes hand and hand with his comments on safety. They are out of date and no-one sensible listens to them.

    I can see no reason why a woman could not race successfully in F1 but the reason it hasn’t happened is simply that no woman has ever come close to winning a serious junior championship.

    Unfortunately Susie Wolff did not earn her Williams test role as many of the women who have sat in F1 cars have not earned the right to be there. If she had not married Toto she would never have become a test driver. I saw a tweet earlier that said she started 71 DTM races and scored 4 points. Paul di Resta by comparison started 43 and in consecutive years finished second, third and first in the championship. Add that to beating his team mate Vettel to the Euro F3 title and you have someone who deserves an F1 drive.

    I think the basis of your post is sound other than the point on reaction times. In reality fast reactions play a very small part in a driver’s ability. I remember reading Eddie Irvine saying that he could not believe how bad Schumacher’s reactions were the first time they were tested together.

    • @Stephen Yes, his comments are out-of-date, but they still get air-time for viewership stats. It’s really unfortunate.
      There are women doing well in the US (I’m looking at Silvestro and Long, more than Patrick, as pretty and popular as she is)…but none of them seem to cross the pond :(
      I concede she most likely got the job because of Toto…but she kept it, despite his jumping ship. Maybe she’s a really great test driver? (Maybe she was smart enough to sign a multi-year deal to cover herself before he changed sides?) Maybe we need to stop hiring girl-racers (and racers in general) based on who they know not how they drive (and start shopping for girl-racers in non-European series, because there are some quick girls out there, they just don’t race much in Europe).
      If reaction times are not important, why is it included in the battery of tests F1 drivers need to perform? Just curious ;)

      @max Yeah, I’m serious. Sponsors tend to want a sure thing; it’s hard to prove oneself as a driver when everyone’s shouting a chorus of “women can’t handle F1″. That said, most of the women who make it to testing roles achieve it because of (family) money.
      Re: Schumacher – I agree, he was still better than most. However, he made a few too many rookie-type mistakes for someone who had won seven world championships.

      @reefgirl She’s his sister; he probably still sees her as less accomplished than him, because he raced F1 and she didn’t.

      @Jim Jackson Strictly speaking, intelligence is a very subjective measure. The IQ test is a timed problem-solving challenge…so in a sense it measures the ability to process different kinds of information at speed in a stress situation. The results for both genders fall along a bell curve with not much variation. Women are better multi-taskers on average, but multi-tasking leads to poorer performance in each individual task.

      @Swifty You’ve hit on a debate that’s been raging among feminist theorists since Carla Bruni (conveniently married to one of the most influential men in Europe, and therefore far more privileged than 99% of women) said feminism was dead. I agree with you: what we need in single seater racing is for girl racers to be given drives on the strength of their talent, not money or PR (although that rationale would exclude a few current male F1 drivers).
      Don’t forget in your list of things a future female F1 champion needs: a family who encourage her and believe in her (and don’t say unhelpful things like “You can’t go to the track with your brother; racing’s not lady-like, dear”).

    • Not sure there is much actual ‘science’ in this article but I think Sterling Moss’s point was that to succeed at the highest level of F1 you need to be able push the limits of risk taking to the extreme. No one would deny that on average men are more predisposed to take risks than women therefore on the extreme end of the distribution you are far more likely to find a man than a woman – not that it is impossible – just a lot less likely.

      I don’t claim to know what it really takes to compete at that level, Sterling Moss does – I’d say his opinion is probably more valid than most, it is a shame that it is viewed as sexist as it is clearly not meant that way. At no point does he say women shouldn’t try or shouldn’t be allowed.

      Women are accepted as safer/better drivers on the roads (by insurance companies who put their money behind it!) and that is because they are LESS likely to drive fast/dangerously/drunk/aggressively/etc etc i.e. they take less risks driving compared with men. That is good on the roads – bad for F1. Again I would stress this is an average effect NOT an absolute.

      • I tried to not reference to science journals, as most people find them impenetrably dense reading, if that was your objection to the lack of science in my piece. Remember also, it’s a blog post written for a generalist audience, rather than a research article written for academics. If you’d like the references, DM me.

        My point was that, while there are sex-related differences, to generalise and say “women can’t” is a very closed-minded view. Fair enough, he’s from a different generation and that’s his opinion. However, not all women were created equal in terms of competitive nature, and the desire to succeed in a field that one is passionate about isn’t limited by the shape of one’s genitalia.

  2. “It’s notoriously hard to find sponsorship these days, especially as a female racer.” Are you actually serious? A team would do anything for a half decent woman racer because of the exposure that would bring a team. Why do you think previous women drivers who were extremely poorly qualified were in F1, including Suzi with her mediocre DTM career.

    The Schumacher comment is a poor example as he has relatively few crashes compared to a lot of other drivers but every one is blown out of all proportion because of who he is.

  3. I understand that the very best racing drivers are no more intelligent nor have faster reactions than many ordinary people. Their unusual qualities stem from the ability to rapidly process vast and varied amounts of information. Maybe this unmentioned factor is more gender specific…or not!

  4. Swifty? Huzzah! says:

    Susie Wolff is hardly an ideal role model for women in F1. She’s had a mediocre career in junior formula and touring cars — to put it kindly — and she’s conveniently married to one of the most influential men in F1 right now, who, let’s face it, got her the gig as “development driver” for Williams. Add to that, she’s 32 years old, never driven an actual F1 car in anger and doesn’t have a superlicence.

    The first serious female driver in F1 is right now about 11 or 12 years old, has a very wealthy family willing to bankroll her passion, lives in a place that has good racing heritage, is attractive and speaks well as is vital for sponsorship, and just so happens to also be remarkably quick… For men, that’s a million to one to shot, so for women that’s a billion to one. Good luck to whoever she is because she’s needs lots of it.

  5. Excellent article Bridget. I remember seeing accident stats some years ago where it indicated that female drivers were far more likely to have accidents at junctions whereas for males it was excess speed and leaving the road……

    It was mooted then that women’s lesser spatial awareness was the significant factor.

    • Interesting! I’d not read that study. It could also be hesitant driving (most of the women I know who’ve had accidents at intersections had them because someone couldn’t decide if they were in or out and got hit while deciding). Although it could be because they’re not confident in the dimensions of their vehicles ;)

  6. There is also research that shows that reaction times do not decrease anywhere near as much in older athletes if they continue to compete. So, older drivers can keep their reactions if they don’t take a break from competition.

    To the subject at hand though, I find the spatial thing interesting. Not the mentioned sex difference, because I’ve heard that before as (a scientist with an interest in gender differences myself), but rather the information that training from an early age would reduce or possibly eliminate this difference.

    That’s interesting to me because it goes do the way we raise boys and girls into parallel cultures. As women’s sport becomes more prominent, and as sport becomes more and more a part of girls’ youth, perhaps we will see this difference between the sexes decrease.

    • I’d love to see someone in the sports science/ergonomics field gather empirical data on drivers’ physical and cognitive performance as they age. I have no doubt that performing at such a high level over a long period would delay the onset of…er…let’s go with “senescent slowing” of brain processes. Perhaps the decline we saw in Schumi – as much as I rate him as a driver – was because he took a long holiday from F1?

      Well, performing tasks repetitively forms pathways in the brain; brains are more trainable in children than adults (I refer you to the article on Einstein’s brain structure, WRT the effect his musical education had on its structure); it stands to reason that if a skill was learned in childhood and repeated often through to adulthood, that skill would carry through.

      To be honest, I’m with you on the training effect of gender identity. In STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, we see the same thing – girls are discouraged from entering them by parents and teachers, but do well when they persevere. Encouragement/discouragement has a long-term effect on performance, so repetitive, subtle signals from parents may be responsible for part of the sex-related differences we see in adult performance.

  7. You fall into an unscientific trap when you say “I do concede that, on average, female brains are less able to handle spatial data than male brains.” because, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, its not strictly relevant.
    Elite women drivers would far out perform average male brains, the only question would be whether any outlying women reach the required level of performance (not what level the average reach), and whether there are enough of them who do for any to have all of the other required traits.
    In other words its not the average we care about, but the probability of an outlier being in the right place at the right time. If you concede anything you might concede that there are too few opportunities for the small population of capable women to be identified and nurtured.

    • I’m aware that elite female racers would run circles around an average man on most performance tests. However, most of the nay-sayers jump in with comments like “women can’t…” “women have less ability…” and put elite female racers in the same category as women who use their rear-view mirrors exclusively for lipstick application, simply because of their sex. I was protecting myself against a flood of comments on how women aren’t as good as men at spatial perception.
      Maybe the question we should be asking is how to identify and nurture the talent out there, rather than whether women can handle it?

  8. Not sure there is much actual ‘science’ in this article but I think Sterling Moss’s point was that to succeed at the highest level of F1 you need to be able push the limits of risk taking to the extreme. No one would deny that on average men are more predisposed to take risks than women therefore on the extreme end of the distribution you are far more likely to find a man than a woman – not that it is impossible – just a lot less likely.

    I don’t claim to know what it really takes to compete at that level, Sterling Moss does – I’d say his opinion is probably more valid than most, it is a shame that it is viewed as sexist as it is clearly not meant that way. At no point does he say women shouldn’t try or shouldn’t be allowed.

    Women are accepted as safer/better drivers on the roads (by insurance companies who put their money behind it!) and that is because they are LESS likely to drive fast/dangerously/drunk/aggressively/etc etc i.e. they take less risks driving compared with men. That is good on the roads – bad for F1. Again I would stress this is an average effect NOT an absolute.

  9. conor macleod says:

    Your criticism of Michael Schumacher was completely unfair. You seem to forget Michael didnt get pole round the most demanding circuit of them all in terms of reaction, vision and reflexs, Monaco. Also at 43 years of age he was right on the pace and even quicker than most in the wet where reactions are everything. Just watch Spa 2012 practice where it was wet, Michael caught the car after it aquaplaning through el rouge, when ten minutes previously the young talent Paul Di Resta didnt react quick enough and went off. Also some of the his overyaking was breathtaking its a shame all people remember is the two crashes he had last year which any driver including a younger Michael could have done.

    • On the contrary, I rate Schumi very highly as a driver. I was merely pointing out that his performance in his second career was not what we had come to expect from him in his first F1 career, and using it as an example of a slight age-related decline. The full effects of the decline aren’t really noticeable until after the age of fifty…but we don’t have any fifty-something year-old F1 drivers.

  10. Susie is getting way to much coverage as there are much more skilled and successful female drivers in other racing divisions. It’s self defeating to put her as some trailblazer when all this ignores the underlying reason: her husband was the executive director of the Williams Grand Prix team.

    I watched part of the documentary and it’s completely fairytale stuff. The filmmaker is her brother and like all good filmmakers they can present things in a certain way. Nothing objective about it just promotion.

    Of course you could say that she’s still at Williams even though her husband has moved teams but how bad would it look if Williams kicked her out after her husband left? All that positive publicity will be insignificant to the extremely bad publicity they would receive with countless self titled ‘experts’ and resulting twitter drones damaging the Williams brand.

    For a woman to race in F1 she would have to be the female equivalent of Alonso/Vettel/Hamilton in speed because of the extreme conditions of F1 racing. Nothing sexist about it but if say hypothetically only 0.5% of males can withstand the specific physical strains (i.e. neck muscles) of F1 racing then comparably only 0.1% of women could withstand them. Thus you will always have a smaller pool of talent to choose from.

    Through all this though Toto and Susie Wolff will of course be sitting happy over all the new sponsorship interest (and resulting money) they will get from this exposure. It’s not exactly like Toto Wolff is living hand to mouth…

    • Indeed. We really do need serious women racers (I’m looking at you, Alice Powell, when you’re ready) to find enough sponsorship for F1 without marrying an exec first. Although, if we were to exclude all the drivers who were on the grid because of their big sponsorship packages, we’d be excluding a fair chunk of the grid.

      My point is that, even if only 0.1% of women and 0.5% of men can handle it, that’s still a 1:5 ratio of drivers we don’t have on the grid at present.

  11. Couldn’t agree more. I rember watching Leyla Lombardi in RoC at Brands when in my view the cars were harder to drive than today and she was as good as any mid-team driver. Moss’s view is piffle and that of a sexist old man. I can’t see why anyone thought it valid to to make public. Great piece by the way (interesting MSc choice too).

  12. Raymond Clements says:

    You seem very easily riled Bridget! I don’t understand! With the massive pressures to attract sponsorship, score points and advertise their cars does anyone imagine for one second that an F1 team manager would overlook a fast women driver just because he had a sexist outlook. These people are in the sport for one reason only – to win! The desire to win and be successful overrides everything as far as they are concerned. They would employ my granny as a driver if they thought that she could win a championship for them. So why the (very predictable) hysterics – what about the facts – there are no women drivers in F1! Why don’t women stop whining, do some work on establishing the real facts behind their absence from F1 and go for it! The sport would be all the more interesting for their involvement.

  13. Some good points here but I would make another – the discussion above and in the media seems to be reverting to generalisations about ‘men’ or ‘women’ as a group. But we all know that those who have the unnatural ability to drive racing cars are very different from the rest of us! I only started following the sport after tobacco advertising was banned – but what a time that was. I saw Lewis Hamilton’s first F1 season and was reminded of the young Luke Skywalker in Star Wars pod racing with his special abiliites! So if we accept that these drivers are in a class of their own it follows that we cannot talk of men and women as a group here but only ask whether there are any of these amazingly gifted people who are also female. As soon as one asks that question the answer is ‘probably’ and immediately one thinks of how they could be ‘discovered’. That leads to girls doing Karting – it is not rocket science is it? Are talented girls being successful at Karting and then being ignored? Are boys recruited and not the girls who have regularly beaten them on the track? If not we have to go back a step. = how do children start Karting? Are there any girls if not what barriers are there? You get my drift?
    Oh and the toilets point is daft – not all countries have separate loos in schools and offices and there are always cubicles because men like a certain degree of privacy too – if I was a female driver I would give a blast on a horn and announce I was coming in and they had better take note! It will happen – but she will need to be consistently better than all her male peers be alert for sabotage and quickly be discovered by a (male) mentor like Ron Dennis!

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