x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

On the F1 sidelines, the ladies with driving ambition

Why the Formula One Wags are an integral part of the grand prix show.

Jenson Button and Jessica Celeste Michibata have become one of the most recognisable couples in the world.
Jenson Button and Jessica Celeste Michibata have become one of the most recognisable couples in the world.

Formula One is here, with its entire glamorous spectacle. It arrived in Abu Dhabi in a flurry of high-octane activity - flashes of brightly coloured cars, greasy and focused pit mechanics and the dashing drivers, the demigods who risk their lives with every lap. The team owners are fretting and strutting their stuff, chomping on cigars, edgily eyeing their share of the season's prize cache, which was US$648 million (Dh3.115bn) last year. Grand prix indeed.

But away from the action on the track, there is another attraction, one that provides welcome and decorative relief from the palpable testosterone. Floating above all the petrolheads, often on six-inch heels, are the feminine foils, every bit as streamlined as those found on the cars. They are there to support their men, usually to the detriment of their own career - unless, of course, that career needs publicity.

Meet the Formula One Wags.

Unlike other sports, the wives and girlfriends of F1 drivers have little team pack mentality. This girl needs to be solitary and happy in her own company because each team has only two drivers. That's once she's on the inside track and has actually snared a driver. There are only 28 of them in the world and competition for the pole position next to one is as fierce as it is on the track.

To begin with, how does one find one of these elusive racers? There's no local nightclub that appears in the gossip rags, bar the rather pricey Amber Lounge, and only 19 races a year that are, somewhat vexingly, all over the globe. You'd have to be pretty solvent to follow the circuit and hope to catch the eye of a driver should he pause for an oil change.

However, a canny girl would note that most of the Formula One frontrunners own homes in Monte Carlo, so you could holiday in the sunny principality of Monaco and take your chances. This would be a good advice if you are breathtakingly good-looking. The F1 boys have sharp eyes and are known for their ability to assess a curve at 220mph, so their women tend to be superbly aerodynamic.

Even the ladies who weren't models when catapulted into the spotlight have the capacity to become so, and are happy to oblige. Isabell Reis was an economics student when she met the German driver Timo Glock in 2008 but now is a bona fide model, with her degree to fall back on should her relationship hit the skids.

These girls aren't following the football Wag aesthetic of a Barbie doll - all blonde hair, fake nails and orange tan. They may be from the same family tree but they are a superior breed from their football cousins; they are classy, more individual and influential. Their look is subtly different, definitely more expensive and, as the average salary of a Top 10 F1 driver is US$18.4 million per year, perhaps understandably so. Oversized shades and expensive oversized bags are a must, as are the flowing tresses and short skirts, as the hot locations form a perfect backdrop for their shapely pins. No need for boyish trousers for this lot - it's ultra girly and feminine all the way.

Earning money from the sidelines is where it's at: no woman is going to earn any from actually racing an F1 car. Between 1958 and the early Nineties, there have only been a few women competing at this level, none of them driving in decent cars. Bernie Ecclestone, the pint-sized flamboyant F1 mogul, explained to the journalist Beverly Turner in 2004 that we may never see another: "No one will take them seriously or sponsor them financially, therefore they're never ever going to get into a competitive car." (See "Five former F1 female drivers" below.)

Therefore, a clever girl has to weigh up her options and be willing to go that extra mile for the man she's supporting. Sponsors are the bankrollers, with Red Bull pouring an estimated US$240 million into Red Bull Racing and Toro Rosso throughout the 2010 season. More than 520 million people globally watch F1 every year, and a Formula One Wag knows what every marketeer knows: it's all about brand recognition. Jensen Button's model girlfriend, Jessica Michibata, recently joined him at the TAG Heuer stable and she can surely afford her own bottle of bubbles come podium time.

So to compete in this world of riches, Wags have to think outside the (VIP) box. This is the bastion of male-dominated sport and it's every woman for herself. It's an aggressive game and a Wag must seize every photo opportunity to enhance her status. If you ever see a pictorial of race day you will see the F1 girl, smiling and smothering everyone with kisses. She's no mere pit babe. This girl has access, not only to her own man but also to others. Corinna Betsch may be the daughter of a scaffolder but she is now Mrs Michael Schumacher. Betsch was the fiancée of another German F1 racer, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, teammate of Schumacher in Mercedes-Sauber, when she became close to Michael. Publicity-shy Corinna married Schumacher in 1995 and is now feted as a perfect wife and mother. He once gave Betsch a Swiss ranch as a gift. Not too shabby.

Luckily, as F1 drivers are not a particularly tall bunch, averaging at 5ft 9in, it is easy to tower above them. Several of the wives are keen sportswomen, with Jenni Dahlman-Räikkönen, the wife of Finnish former F1 world champion Kimi Räikkönen, switching from modelling to equestrianism, a sport she has in common with Betsch. She was also fearsome in the pit, keeping an Alsatian dog by her side to ward off unwanted attention. Now that's confident, but she wasn't crowned Miss Scandinavia for her intellectual assets.

The rewards may be high, but the pressure is immense. Not only are Wags constantly fighting off wannabes, but many of these women have their own careers, too. Fernando Alonso's wife, Raquel del Rosario, is a Spanish pop star. There were rumours that their marriage was over in 2009, but only rumours. Not so lucky are Lewis Hamilton and Nicole Scherzinger, who after four years together have split. Commentators cite her new commitment on The X Factor USA as a contributing factor because it meant that they could not spend as much time together. Regardless of the reasons, the chequered flag has been waved on their relationship.


The ones who got away...

For all the glamour of life in the fast lane, unfortunately, there are casualties. These are the ladies who were feted for their championship credentials but who are now pursuing other interests

Nicole Prescovia Elikolani Valiente Scherzinger

BORN June 29, 1978; she is seven years older than Lewis Hamilton.

NATIONALITY American. Born in Honolulu to a Filipino father and a Hawaiian-Russian mother.

CAREER Singer who is best known as the lead vocalist of the Pussycat Dolls and is a judge on the American version of The X Factor USA.

EX-F1 WAG STATUS Scherzinger met Hamilton at the MTV Europe Awards in Munich in 2007, forming a power couple dynamic that kept the paparazzi enthralled. Sadly they split last month, citing work commitments.


Louise Griffiths

BORN July 31, 1978.


CAREER A pop singer with the girl band Orchid. In 2001 they recorded the single Sound of the Underground, but never managed to release it. Girls Aloud liked it and, err, took it, releasing the song the following year. The song went to No. 1, and in a double whammy Griffiths's voice was still on the single, though she never received any credit. Orchid never recovered and Griffiths's singing career was over.

EX-F1 WAG STATUS Engaged to Formula One driver Jenson Button from 2003-2005, but continuing her run of bad luck, Button broke off the engagement a few months before the wedding.


Heidi Klum

BORN June 1, 1973.

NATIONALITY German-American.

CAREER The famous supermodels is also a television presenter, actress, fashion designer, businesswoman, TV producer and sometime singer. There is nothing this blonde dynamo can't turn her hand to and plenty that she does do turns to gold, earning around $16 million in 2010.

EX-F1 WAG STATUS Flavio Briatore, with whom she shares a daughter, was the managing director of Renault's Formula One team. Briatore and Klum were close in 2003 but famously fell out before she met her second husband, the pop singer Seal, with whom she has three other children.



Five former F1 female drivers

Maria Teresa de Filippis (Italian) Started on the grid in May 1958, but scored no points even though she participated in five Grands Prix over the 1958 and 1959 seasons for Maserati and then Porsche

Divina Galica (British) Racing in 1976 and 1978, attained three DNQs (Did Not Qualify).

Giovanna Amati (Italian) In 1992 got three DNQs. Previously undertook one test in a Benetton.

Desiré Wilson (South African) In 1980 took part in only the British Grand Prix, and then in the non-championship South African Grand Prix in 1981. Two months prior to the British GP, on April 17, 1980, Wilson won the Aurora F1 series, becoming the only woman to win a Formula One race of any kind.

Lella Lombardi (Italian) The Formula One female star so far, who raced from 1974 to 1976. Lombardi is the only woman to score points in Formula One. Even though, due to the shortened distance of the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix, only half-points were awarded. Lombardi became the only female to ever finish in the top six at a Grand Prix, subsequently finishing 21st in the World Driving Championship that year with her half-point.

Anyone on the horizon? Nope. The inherent sexism in the industry sees to it that women in F1 have a purely decorative and supportive role.



The Wags who rev the engines

Jessica Celeste Michibata

BORN October 21, 1984, Fukui Prefecture, Japan.

ROOTS Michibata's father is from Argentina, of Spanish-Italian ancestry, and her mother is Japanese.

JOB Model.

F1 DRIVER Jenson Button (McClaren).

STAYING POWER Well, this young woman is an odds-on favourite after her main rival (Scherzinger) ran out of gas on the final lap. She holds the No. 1 spot on the podium for now.


Raquel del Rosario

BORN November 3, 1982, Teror, Gran Canaria, Las Palmas.

ROOTS Sultry Spanish beauty.

JOB Pop star with El Sueno de Morfeo.

F1 DRIVER Fernando Alonso (Ferrari).

STAYING POWER She's been around the track a few times with husband Alonso and has her eye on the end game, despite marrying him young.


Hanna Prater

BORN 1987, Heppenheim, Germany.

ROOTS German on her father's side and British on her mother's side. Let's hope she inherited her mother's sense of humour.

JOB Studied design at uni in Baden-Württemberg.

F1 DRIVER Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Racing).

STAYING POWER She was with him when he started out but we'd advise her to concentrate on other interests too. She may need that famous sense of humour one day.


Isabell Reis

BORN August 30, 1985, Saarbrücken, Germany.

ROOTS German.

JOB Model, former economics student.

F1 DRIVER Timo Glock (Virgin).

STAYING POWER With her forecasting credentials, she'll have a better idea than us.


Vivian Sibold

BORN May 15, 1985, Hamburg, Germany.

ROOTS German.

JOB Interior designer. Did up Lotus's motor home.

F1 DRIVER Nico Rosberg (Mercedes).

STAYING POWER Well, they look surprisingly alike and happy and for some couples that's a winning combination. Definitely an item for the coming seasons at least.


Correction: This article was amended to reflect that Heidi Klum and Flavio Briatore have a daughter, not a son.