The Danica Effect: 21st Century Women In Motorsport

James BroomheadAnalyst IMarch 3, 2009

Has Europe found its version of Danica Patrick? Is that woman Natacha Gachnang?

While researching for a different article (which should appear later in the year) I stumbled across a picture. That picture is the photo atop this piece of writing.

The woman in the photo is 21–year–old Swiss racing driver Natacha Gachnang, currently the only woman on the entry lists for the resurrected Formula Two Championship.

In signing up for Formula Two Gachnang has jumped from an international unheard of, into the glare of the sports press. This makes her, at least on paper, Europe’s highest profile female racing driver—with the lack of the fairer sex in either GP2 of Formula 1.

In separate articles to this photo, it is described how F2 was hoping for a “Danica Effect” with Gachnang, tempting in new sponsors and wavering fans to a totally new series, with a list of drivers largely unheard of outside their home country, or the nation(s) where they’ve been competing.

Fresh from the “Danica Effect” mention, I was struck by just how Patrick-esque the picture was. Patrick has never been shy of trading off the fact that she is a woman.

She was pretty much headline news when she was included in last year’s SI swimsuit edition, a quick Google reveals the spoils of an FHM photoshoot, and America recently had to sit through two ads while a perfectly good football game was going on.

I have no doubt that this “Danica Effect” does exist.

If it doesn’t tempt in new fans to the sport, there must be sponsors who flock to Patrick when they wouldn’t have considered being connected with her male competitors.

However, does her success mean that every female racer of the future will find themselves forced down the same route, competing not just on the track, but on the pages of men’s magazines?

And perhaps more frighteningly, is it eventually going to force the more non-photogenic female drivers off the tracks?

I’ve got no more knowledge of most of the non-British competitors (and I suggest I’m not the only one) lined up for Formula Two. However, this is the only photo I’ve seen of any of them outside of a racing environment.

Is it any surprise that it’s of a woman? No.

Fair enough, the photo is not new. The full picture shows a firesuit with “Campos Racing” on it, the team she has run with in the Spanish F3 series previously.

However, only now does it seem to have appeared on an international site. And under no circumstances has Gachnang found her way to F2 simply because of her gender and looks.

Her CV is as strong, if not stronger, than a large number of the other competitors, and if her cousin is anything to go by, she has talent.

Her cousin? Sebastien Buemi.

However, while Gachnang’s photos are not new, they fall well within the time that Patrick has been in public eye.

This marketing approach is almost entirely contiguous with Patrick’s tenure in Indycar. There are no pictures of Lyn St. James posing in a bikini, because it simply wasn’t the standard thing when she was racing.

So did Patrick herself cause this change, by being the first female racer to be willing to market herself this way?

Or perhaps more cuttingly, by being the first female racer that magazine editors thought “phwoar, we can sell that” about?

Or is it more to do with the sport, becoming more sponsor led?

You only have to look at the number of so-called “ride-buyers” in various championships to see just how far a big sponsor will get you in the current climate.

Or is it more media and societal, offering lady racers more accepted outlets to show themselves?

With increased Internet exposure, both for their racing and photoshoot exploits, the rise of the "lads mag" (and indeed the lads Web site) pictures of attractive women are never far away.

All of this means there is more to be gained, in fan support, fame, and sponsor money, than was ever available before. The “Danica Effect” is just one way of tapping into that potential.

However, the “Danica Effect” is not simply a matter of finding an attractive female racing driver, giving her a hair cut, stripping her to her underwear, snapping a few publicity shots, and waiting for the tidal wave of cash to roll in.

Just ask Susie Stoddart.

Susie who?


Stoddart is a British driver, who for the past few years has run in the DTM series, based in Germany.

Another Google search for her, or even a visit to her own official Web site, reveals she has been down the above route, but with no where near the same level of success, or publicity.

Could this be because Stoddart’s results in the DTM have been relatively poor? I think so.

Perhaps Stoddart’s very unknown–ness is the reason why the “Danica Effect” appears so successful. Perhaps she’s not the only one. But when it fails, due to the very fact it’s failed, no one knows about it.

The racing world does not tolerate failure, no matter what sex you are. The world can grow sick of the constant publicity for a female racer, something that may be happening to Patrick herself, and the backlash has the potential to be huge.

So, Gachnang. Good Luck. Get publicity, do photoshoots, get sponsorship, but don’t forget you’re a racing driver, not a mode,l and your job is to win races.