At the French Grand Prix last week, car maker Renault shined a light on the much-anticipated ruling that women drivers are now permitted to be behind the wheel in Saudi Arabia. Renault has over 100 years of racing history with speed records and wins in rally and endurance racing, and of course Formula One.
At their home track of Circuit Paul Ricard in Provence, Renault demonstrated their love of motorsports with the Passion Parade featuring 17 race cars, built between 1902 and 2015.
History was indeed being made that day as Aseel Al-Hamad of Saudi Arabia, drove the very car that took the checkered flag at Abu Dhabi in 2012 at the hand of Kimi Raikkonen. Her drive took place on the same day the ban on female drivers was lifted in her home country. After the parade, Renault Sport tweeted, “Her verdict is indisputable: Driving definitely boosts empowerment!”
In an interview with Reuters, Al-Hamad said, “I believe today is not just celebrating the new era of women starting to drive, it’s also the birth of women in motorsport in Saudi Arabia,” she continued, “The most important thing I am looking forward to is to start seeing the next generation, young girls, trying (motorsport).”
Al-Hamad is no stranger to fast cars and racing. An owner of a Ferrari 458 Spider, she is the first female member of the Saudi Arabian Motorsport Federation and a member of the Women in Motorsport Commission created by the International Automobile Federation (FIA) which is the governing body of Formula One.
While primarily dominated by men, women in Formula One are not entirely foreign. Tatiana Calderón of Colombia is a development driver for the Sauber team, and currently racing in the Formula One support series, GP3. Susie Wolff was the most recent and historically one of only two women drivers in a grand prix weekend, as a development driver for The Williams team. Now, Wolff is making history as the first-ever female team principal in the history of Formula E, with the Monaco-based Venturi Formula E Team. Monisha Kaltenborn became Fomula One’s first female team principal when she ran the Sauber team, and Claire Williams, head of Williams Martini, is guiding her team through the series’ challenging times.
It’s not only drivers and team managers who are finding it difficult to make headway in the Formula One world. Amidst the recent explosion of scandals involving sexual harassment, Liberty Media, the new owners of Formula One decided in January to stop using “grid girls” at the races because they felt the image didn’t represent their brand values.
Traditionally, the models’ job was to mark each driver’s spot on the grid by holding a name placard before the race, and then welcome the winning drivers onto the awards podium after the finish. They were usually dressed in outfits created by world-renowned designers and reflecting the culture of the country hosting the race. Formula One saw a huge backlash from fans and models alike who saw them instead as an important part of the culture and glamour of the Grand Prix circuit, and some race organizers are finding ways to include them in their program in their own way.
While many see the lifting of Saudi Arabia’s ban on women drivers as a leap in progress for women’s rights in the area, some see the decision as being made simply for economic reasons. Lower oil prices are hurting the bottom line in Saudi Arabia’s budget and the result has been many government jobs being cut. The country’s Vision 2030 plan to increase women’s presence in the workforce could have played a role as it would make it much easier for commuting women to enter the job market.
Whatever the reason, celebrating is still in order as one more barrier is broken down, allowing more women in the world to move forward and pass another milestone on this long road.