Driving Change

by Petrol Mum
Zoe Whittaker

Zoë Whittaker has been a part of the motorsport fraternity for more than thirty years as a professional race car driver, working in Formula One, and now as the organiser of long-distance road rallies. Over the years Zoë has seen many changes to how women are perceived in the motorsport community, but the recent decision by Mahindra Racing Formula E team to hire a female AI influencer was definitely a first for her.

The passion for classic cars and every aspect of motorsport started when Zoë’s father brought home his first classic car when she was 12 years old, a 1966 Corvette Stingray. After starting her racing career in Formula Fords Zoë then moved on to classic car races and rallies in the United Kingdom and Europe.

The earlier part of Zoë’s working career was spent with BAR Honda Formula One where she loved working together as a team. For Zoë is was like a huge family who were all there for one thing…to win!

“Working in motorsport isn’t all about race day; there is a lot more that goes on behind the scenes that spectators don’t see, and working as a team makes race day run smoothly.  You build up trust with not only your other work colleagues but also your suppliers.  If one person reneges on their side, then the whole team suffers,” Zoë told Driven Women Magazine.

Zoe Whittaker

After working in Formula One Zoë single-handedly organised and ran the first-ever rallies in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. While in the past few of years, Zoë has been the organiser and fundraiser for The Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride in West Yorkshire, UK since it started in 2021.

From her road rally experiences Zoë has seen that the organisations like the Vintage Sports-Car Club and the Classic Car races do struggle to balance motorsport traditions with innovation. Zoë believes the people who are on the boards of these clubs are old-fashioned and don’t like change.

“If they don’t keep up with modern innovation and audience engagement, these races will soon not exist, as no one will be entering the races.  We have to encourage the next generation to be able to race historic cars as well as modern cars to keep the sport alive, and the truth is, it is not all about modern racing, such as Formula One and E,” said Zoë.

From Zoë’s first-hand experience, more broadly efforts are being made to increase diversity in the motorsport industry with initiatives such as outreach programmes, mentorship opportunities, and addressing barriers that may disproportionately affect certain groups. Motorsport organisations increasingly recognise the importance of fostering diversity, and steps are being taken to make the sport more inclusive at all levels. Still, in Zoë’s opinion a lot more needs to be done.

“Motorsport is a global phenomenon, with fans from various cultural backgrounds. There is a need for diverse representation as it reflects the broader population and fan base. Having a diverse group of participants adds to the sport’s global appeal and helps attract fans from different parts of the world. It allows fans to identify with a variety of drivers, fostering a sense of inclusivity and connection to the sport.

Motorsport has always been seen as a sport for the mega-rich. Still, there are opportunities for it to embrace diversity, which can contribute to innovation and creativity within the industry, leading to new approaches, technologies, and strategies,” explained Zoë.

In the paddock and on the racetracks, Zoë never experienced any challenges when actually racing. In the early years of her racing career, Zoë was focusing on continuous improvement and honing her racing skills. By demonstrating high levels of skill and competitiveness, Zoë helped break down barriers and gain respect within the motorsport community, and very quickly, the men treated her as much of a competitor as them.  Off track, there were even more respectful to Zoë, but on track, it was every man or lady for themselves because they were all fighting for pole!

However, when it came to working in motorsport, especially when Zoë passed 40 years of age, she found that herself and other women her age, are and have been historically underrepresented. Zoë encountered many challenges, including stereotypes, lack of opportunities, limited sponsorship, and gender bias. For Zoë overcoming these challenges often required a combination of determination and resilience, which she has but many may not persist.

The recent introduction of a female AI influencer called Ava by Mahindra Racing Formula E team was meant to be an exercise in the promotion of diversity and inclusion in motorsport. But to many it appeared as if the big bosses wanted to control what a woman had to say about their team.

“Their AI lady came with a ‘stereo type’ image and that’s not a true representation of women in motorsport. How can an AI avatar express the sheer adrenalin and excitement that only a human can express when it comes to racing?” questioned Zoë.

The outpouring of support by fans and media alike who called for the ‘sacking’ of the AI influencer identified something very important for Zoë: people buy into people and want real, genuine comments and behind-the-scenes stories from real people, not robots because people identify with people.

“I appreciate Mahindra was aiming for a more sustainable future for the team, but it doesn’t make sense to have an AI person interact with their audience when they already have a full team of drivers, mechanics, sponsors, etc., all of whom are real human beings. If they wanted to become more diverse and inclusive, they should have just hired a female from the on-set.  Nicki Shields has been the presenter of Formula E for more than ten years, and viewers adore her,” added Zoë.

Although the Mahindra situation was unfortunate, we must acknowledge their quick response, willingness to listen to their fans, and their commitment to do better. Now comes the good part: will they keep their word?

In Zoë’s experience, men are very welcoming of women in motorsports, but women must make them accountable to implement change. One of the things Zoë is committed to is giving speeches and training at industry events that are predominantly male-dominated to give them the tools to identify how they can expand female participation within their organisation. The willingness is there; they just need to speed up female involvement according to Zoë.

Through her own business – Driving with Zoë – Zoë organises long-distance road rallies where it’s her mission is to bring awareness about everything these countries, she arranges classic car tours in have to offer other than the amazing roads, scenery but also to get immersed in the culture and traditions.

Zoë Whittaker also coaches and mentors up-and-coming racing car drivers and women who may need a little push to get into or need the mentorship to stay in the motorsport industry. If this is you then you can get in touch with Zoë via her website zoewhittaker.com

Photographs Supplied.

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