Extreme E has filled its line-up with huge names and it’s easy to become dizzyingly star-struck when the likes of Sebastien Loeb, Carlos Sainz, Johan Kristoffersson and Mattias Ekström are involved in the fledgeling championship.
But what has become clear over the last few months is that the names of XE’s female drivers are less well-known. Even the most hardcore off-road expert could be forgiven for not being overly familiar with every participant. And that’s no reflection on the talent of the women of XE.
Many of the drivers have conquered the beast that is the Dakar Rally, well-known for being extremely challenging and requiring a certain toughness to complete. Carlos Sainz’s new team-mate Laia Sanz is a 13-time Women’s Trials World Champion and a five-time Enduro World Champion who came 27th overall and ninth in the motorcycle category on the 2015 Dakar.
Sara Price has an incredible 19 US motorcross titles to her name and currently competes in off-road desert racing. Molly Taylor was the first woman to stand on a Junior World Rally Championship podium in 2014 and became Australian Rally Champion in 2016, while Andretti United’s Catie Munnings was the European Rally Championship Ladies Trophy winner and Christine Giampaoli Zonca competed in the WRC’s first all-female rally team in the same year.
Cristina Gutiérrez finished second in Spain’s national off-road championship, and Claudia Hürtgen has had success across a myriad of touring and sportscar championships.
Also hailing from the world of circuit racing, Jamie Chadwick remains the reigning W Series champion after taking the inaugural title in 2019. And there’s nothing new about women flourishing in the most extreme areas of motorsport, there are examples from all across history. They’re just not the norm.
These drivers are certainly talented and deserve recognition as such, but equally, there are no WRC Champions, huge personalities that dominate motorsport, and listing ‘Ladies Trophy winner’ has a hollow ring to it in an arena where men and women compete together. These drivers are not stealing the headlines or being hailed as some of the greats of their era as their male counterparts are.
Looking at this alone, it almost seems that if this is the most that female drivers can achieve in motorsport then the misogynists could have a point when they claim that women simply are not as good at driving quickly around technical stages or circuits as men.
But of course, these drivers’ accomplishments are not all that women have to offer the racing world. They depict what a selection of women can achieve in a culture that is still hopelessly biased against them.
Women across motorsport continue to have to struggle against the novelty value of their gender and the impact that can have on securing sponsorship and other opportunities. Sexism, overt or otherwise, is still alive and well in racing, further acting as a barrier to all but the most determined.
But where does that determination come from when there are no role models, no female Sébastien Loeb to inspire and prove that whatever the detractors may say, women can do as good of a job as any of their male counterparts?
That’s where the likes of Extreme E and W Series come in. While the idea of segregation and female-only seats is unpalatable and undesirable in the long term, it, for now, provides female drivers with the profile needed to create real societal change.
It encourages girls and young women to become involved in motorsport both as drivers and fans and begins to change the narrative by showing motorsport as an arena where women can thrive. We live in a society where children are introduced to sports according to gender norms and as such the world is deprived of some excellent female racing drivers and talented male netball players.
Currently, only a small percentage of those with a racing licence are female. If you were to randomly pick out that same percentage of male competitors you are unlikely to hit upon Sébastien Ogier, Tommi Mäkinen or Colin McRae. By the numbers, the fewer female drivers participating in motorsport the less chance there is of finding the next superstar.
XE’s positive discrimination is a little different from that of W Series in that it allows female drivers to prove themselves against not just their male counterparts, but some of the best male talents in motorsport.
W Series demonstrated that women can be exciting racers against each other, but did nothing to show them being capable of taking on the men. XE does and that opportunity is exciting.
If XE can provide the role models needed to bring to motorsport a fresh wave of women then it will have changed the game entirely. The 1950s-esque attitude to gender would lose its grip and teams and sponsors can treat drivers as drivers, rather than a novelty female driver and the necessary PR campaign around that.
And at some point, in years or decades from now, all being well, XE can quietly drop the rule of each team containing one male and one female driver. Because as a result of the series’ gentle manipulation of its gender balance, entry lists across motorsport will be split roughly 50/50 on merit, without the need for artificial aids.
A bit like Formula E incorporating mid-race car swaps in its early years, mandating a male and female driver is a necessary evil to bring about a greater good and we’ve seen that mastermind of both series Alejandro Agag has past form for changing opinions and making change happen.
XE sells itself on embracing the future of technology, leaving the environmentally damaging 20th century behind. But perhaps its true legacy could be being the driving force behind motorsport finally leaving its 20th-century attitude to women too.