“I received death threats for a month” Female Motorsport Fans Fight for Their Place in the Sport
Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner has received a fair number of negative comments on Twitter over Formula 1’s winter break. However, when he was interviewed by TalkSPORT he probably didn’t expect to end up in the middle of a social media storm for comments he made about female fans. His words were: “It’s bringing in a lot of young girls because of all these great looking young drivers.”
Most people on Twitter were pretty annoyed at the allegation that young women only watch Formula 1 because they are attracted to the drivers.
“It angers me that there’s constantly people telling me I’m not a real fan because I’m just a “teenage girl who watches the sport for the drivers,” says 18-year-old Lena Hernach who runs a motorsport Twitter account with over 17,000 followers.
“It’s also funny how people seem to forget that being passionate about a sport and finding an athlete attractive can co-exist,” adds the Austrian fan.
Dr Katie Sveinson, assistant professor in the School of Sport, Tourism, and Hospitality Management (STHM) at Temple University in Philadelphia, has written many academic papers on female sports fans.
“I think making comments like Christian Horner did, he has such a large platform - I think it can be very damaging when someone of power or authority makes comments that can dismiss women as sports fans,” says Sveinson.
Whilst you may picture a typical motorsport fan as a middle-aged man, this isn’t actually the case. In fact, in 2019, the Director of Marketing & Communications at Formula 1, Ellie Norman, revealed that 44 per cent of their fanbase were women.
Many people have put the growth in female interest in Formula 1 down to the popular Netflix series Drive to Survive. However, speaking to fans this doesn’t appear to be the case. Most of them put their love of the sport down to watching races with their dads as children.
“I think our father had a big influence because when we were younger there was only one TV in the house and on the weekends, our father used this one TV. We wanted to watch TV so then we had to watch Formula 1,” Desiree and Virginia Stubbe tell me.
The twins run an Instagram account dedicated to Formula 1, travelling around the world with the aim of meeting drivers and team members. They say they’re creating content for other fans to enjoy, describing themselves as ‘fans for fans’.
They have a slightly different perspective from some other fans. Desiree tells me over Zoom from their home in Germany: “we think that the appearance of the drivers is, of course, a reason why we watch Formula 1,” before Virginia interjects her sister, saying: “I think, for example, in volleyball, men, of course, watch this sport because they're attractive women with short clothes…Men do it with women, why shouldn't women do it with men? So, I think that's part of getting more equality into the sport or into life in general.”
Some people argue that shaming women for being attracted to drivers reinforces the idea that there is only one way to be a motorsport fan: by emulating how men are fans of the sport.
Dr Cheryl Cooky, professor of American Studies and Women’s Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Purdue University in Indiana explains how sports fandom is thought of as a male space and that comes with certain expectations.
“The kinds of ways that we see legitimate fandom is often built upon a kind of masculine model of what it means to be a sports fan and that excludes women…I think the idea of women fans being fans primarily or solely because of their attraction to male athletes is an attempt to delegitimize women’s fandom. And that delegitimization then ends up having the impact of reaffirming a kind of exclusionary space wherein fans are men.”
Lucy Ball-Wood, 19, a motorsport fan who works in social media for Racing Pride, an organisation that champions LGBTQ+ reputation in motorsport, says:
“I think that is one of the stupidest things that's ever come out of his [Christian Horner] mouth. He's done a lot of dumb things, but that one was right up there…There are women that aren't into men. Like, he's basically just assuming everyone is just a straight woman.”
These women all post regularly on social media about motorsport, sharing information about teams and discussing motorsport news. Whilst it has enabled them to build a community – many of them tell me about the friends they’ve made online – there are clear downsides to sharing content on social media.
“We just can't talk about anything technical, or a guy will come in and be like, you don't know what you're talking about. The general assumption is just that you don't know,” says Ball-Wood.
The comments these women receive online range from patronising to extreme bullying. Candice Leterrier, 20, says:
“I had the chance to go to the French Grand Prix. I received death threats for a month, I even received a message asking me to commit suicide.”
Some of the experiences women have online make them decide to hide that they’re a woman. Jodie, who runs a popular Twitter account, told me:
“When I first started the account, I think it was sort of more obvious that I was a woman because I had my pronouns in my bio. And then after I got a few comments of people being like, ‘oh, you're just a teenage girl, you don't know anything about the sport’ I took them out.”
The harassment of female motorsport fans doesn’t just take place online. When I asked Dutch fan Irene Van Der Sanden about her first time going to a Formula 1 Grand Prix at Spa in 2019, I was expecting to hear stories of the great atmosphere and exciting racing. Instead, she told me:
“When we walked past the orange [Dutch fans] campsite, I think every two minutes we were cat-called. That's not even an exaggeration. Literally every two minutes we were cat-called or people were shouting at us and it didn't exactly feel safe. I was glad we were a group of eight girls.”
So, what can motorsport do to make women be seen as legitimate fans? The sport has made some progress: removing grid girls and so-called “brolly dollies”. However, the decision not to penalise 2021 Formula 1 driver Nikita Mazepin after a video emerged of him groping a woman showed the sport still has a long way to go.
The situation with Mazepin also impacted female fans who spoke out against him. “When the situation about Mazepin sexually assaulting a woman came out, I got a lot of harassment for using the #WeSayNoToMazepin hashtag,” says Paige, a Canadian motorsport fan.
Professor Cooky tells me: “Organizations themselves, as well as the advertisers, the corporate sponsors and so on, those entities play a really important role as well in terms of marketing to fan bases in ways that don't perpetuate sexism, homophobia, misogyny, racism and so on.”
One thing is certain, there is no doubting the passion female fans feel for Formula 1. As Leterrier says: “Missing a Grand Prix is not an option, it would be like missing Christmas with the family, impossible.”