I’ve once made a point in previous entries on A Motorsports Blog that I feel that the generally negative reception towards Sauber F1 Team principal and CEO Monisha Kaltenborn’s tenure in both positions since 2012 is not motivated solely by the team’s recent sharp decline in performance, but enhanced by the fact that she is the only woman of colour who has ever held a major position of leadership in Formula 1’s sixty-six year history.
In the wake of the decision of the Supreme Court of Victoria, Australia, which ruled that Sauber’s former test driver Giedo van der Garde must now race for the team which has already signed rookie Felipe Nasr and second-year driver Marcus Ericsson to full-season deals, I no longer feel that the enhanced backlash towards Kaltenborn, her gender, and ethnic background are not somehow connected.
As covered extensively by veteran F1 reporter Adam Cooper, the terms are that Van der Garde, per the original terms of a contract he had signed in 2014 when he joined Sauber as the third driver behind Adrian Sutil and Esteban Gutierrez, is obligated to run the full 2015 season, and not either Ericsson or Nasr, who each come with their own wealthy investors behind them who can issue an appeal just as Sauber did, and it would be expedited. In Ericsson’s case, their backers already paid for him to race in 2015 with an estimated budget of as much as €60 million.
I’ve made the point that Van der Garde, in the grand scheme of the overall pool of talent of drivers that are racing, or could be racing in Formula 1, has yet to prove that his merit at the highest level on a consistent basis. Brilliant mixed-weather drives in Monaco and Belgium two years ago aside, the Dutch driver still scored below 50% in every major intra-team statistical category in 2013, against a teammate in Charles Pic who is considered by all but a small handful of avid F1 followers to be a borderline F1-caliber talent. Comparatively speaking, Felipe Nasr has accomplished way more as an F1 prospect, and Marcus Ericsson drove against far more experienced and capable teammates last year.
It’s all water under the bridge now. Van der Garde will race in Australia, and either Nasr or Ericsson will not. In the first case of a driver winning back his contractually-guaranteed race seat since Alex Caffi used his power of attorney to reinstate his seat at Footwork Grand Prix – which also deposed another Swedish driver, Stefan Johansson, in the process – Van der Garde has now been deemed justified in taking his case to the supreme court of two different countries who have both ruled in his favor. And no amount of arguing based solely on esoteric advanced sporting metrics can override a double whammy of a trans-national judicial ruling.
This is no longer about Van der Garde for me. It’s about Kaltenborn. It’s about the fact that while her team’s legal defense of why the plaintiff should not be allowed to race on the grounds of safety is full of holes, and while she is ultimately responsible for the contractual calamity that resulted in this case going to court on the week of the race, the accompanying commentary running along the lines of “I have never liked Monisha Kaltenborn and this sequence of events reinforces this opinion,” or “Monisha Kaltenborn has destroyed a once proud organization,” or “This would never happen if Peter Sauber still ran the team,” is uncomfortably commonplace, and I am no longer sure that this is not further fueled by Kaltenborn’s gender or ethnicity.
First off, Peter Sauber still owns two-thirds of the team that bears his name, serves as president of the board of directors at Sauber Group, and he personally hand-picked Kaltenborn to succeed him as team principal. Mr. Sauber is not a frail and helpless passenger on whatever ship may or may not be taking on water at this point.
Second, Kaltenborn did not just waltz into Sauber during the middle of 2012 as the team founder planned to step down from his role as principal. Kaltenborn, already a lawyer with a master’s degree, served as CEO of Sauber going back to 2010 in the start of the post-BMW era, and still holds this title in conjunction with her duties as team principal. As the CEO of Sauber from 2010 to 2012, she oversaw the acquisition of technical director James Key, and drivers Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Perez, who would drive the team to their best season as an independent constructor. They should have won races, multiple races. They should have, with their success that year, acquired a title sponsor that they’d been missing since Red Bull and Petronas both left the team from which they were brought into Formula 1. It didn’t happen.
What successes Sauber had with Kaltenborn still in a position of leadership years earlier are too easily, if not deliberately, forgotten in place of the failures of recent memory. Before the saga of this week, it was the first pointless season in Sauber’s twenty-two year history. Esteban Gutierrez didn’t pan out as a prospect, but the popular Kobayashi was fired to make room for him. Nico Hulkenberg went back to Force India, and Adrian Sutil failed to adequately succeed him. Sergey Sirotkin and his Russian investors failed to hold up their part of an agreement that would have made him the youngest F1 driver in history, and they had to give Robin Frijns the boot. James Key bolted for the chance to one day succeed Adrian Newey as the technical guru at Red Bull. In every chain of this sequence of misfortune, all the blame falls on Kaltenborn.
And it falls hard and heavy. Harder, and heavier, than it would on any other midfield team boss. Bob Fernley blocks a previous proposal from Manor to re-enter the World Championship so that Force India could try and secure the share of the prize money that would be forfeited if they didn’t show, because Vijay Mallya‘s team may or may not have blown through their last few dollars? The widespread sentiment of “Screw Force India!” that followed it will die down in a week, tops. Guarantee it. John Booth signs an average, yet well-funded driver like Will Stevens and not Kevin Magnussen to lead their new team? Manor are just doing everything they can to continue to survive – but that’s another rant. The brass at Lotus F1 Team can do everything they can from failing to secure its top assets, to chasing fraudulent investment deals, to sacking their social media coordinator at the insistence of their biggest investors for daring to protest Russia’s infamous anti-LGBT legislation and in doing so, alienating the majority of its fans – all in a perceived attempt to run the Enstone factory into ruin as the original Team Lotus was twenty years ago? All they had to do was sign with Mercedes-Benz at the end of last year and all was forgotten.
And with time, the tenures of infamous team owners like Andrea Sassetti or Jean-Pierre Van Rossem are remembered with whimsy and nostalgia, even if most of it is purely ironic.
Hypothetically, if Mrs. Kaltenborn was instead Mr. Kaltenborn, I am almost certain, and I am willing to double down on this belief that I’ve been criticised for voicing already on a number of forums – that whatever blame has been placed on Mr. Kaltenborn for Sauber’s struggles would be lightened immensely. Mr. Kaltenborn would not be pinned as the sole cause of the team’s decline. They would point to the absence of sponsors, a meager budget, or not having James Key any more to design the cars, or jet fuel melting steel beams, or Obamacare, or literally anything but the team principal.
If you are not convinced that gender plays no role in the criticism, it’s a pitiful effort to convince yourself in my view. Compare the reaction when prolific male drivers like Magnussen, Jean-Eric Vergne, and Raffaele Marciello were “stuck with meaningless third driver roles” in the off-season, to the reaction that Susie Wolff received when she was named to the same third driver role at Williams, and how all of a sudden, that third driver role was so vitally important to the team’s success that it absolutely, positively, could not be wasted on a sub-par talent like Wolff. The importance of that same role suddenly shot up for no reason other than the driver that was assigned the role.
Or when Carmen Jorda was named to the even less meaningful role of development driver at Lotus just weeks ago. The amount of outrage generated could power the sun in the skies above when Lotus gave the GP3 Series’ most notorious backmarker the equivalent of a token photoshoot and a future public demo run for the team, because she’s a “development driver” which, to these people who were outraged, means that Jorda would somehow be single-handedly responsible for the progress of the Lotus E23 when the reality is that 99% of the actual development will be handled by the race drivers and their engineers and not a “development driver.” There wasn’t this same overwhelming venom when the somewhat underwhelming Jordan King was named to the same role with Manor, where his father is a principal investor – and unless I’m mistaken, isn’t that at least in the ballpark of the textbook definition of nepotism?
If you are not convinced that race and ethnicity would not be a factor – Monisha is of Indian descent, after all – then consider this: Nobody was fabricating outrage article after outrage article complaining about British athletes, namely British racing drivers, as “tax exiles” until Lewis Hamilton, a Black British man, won his second title. Even after every British World Champion driver going back to Jim Clark had at some point or another left their home in Britain and lived in a tax haven like Monaco or Switzerland or the Isle of Man.
And once Hamilton came out of his shell in recent years and began to embrace that part of his culture, suddenly he was seen by many as “arrogant” or “immature” or even “thuggish” for doing so – but when that passive racism is superseded by outward racism in the form of idiots turning up to the track in blackface or leading degrading monkey chants at a podium ceremony, these same critics would leap to Hamilton’s defense if only to save their own face. I would sincerely hope this does not befall Jann Mardenborough or Darrell Wallace Jr. when they eventually begin to succeed at the highest levels of racing, but I should know better than to be that optimistic.
Also, the most polarizing, if not the most hated, driver in Formula One right now is Latin American. The driver seen as the most incompetent in recent memory is South Asian, just like Kaltenborn. How many Japanese drivers who race in the West are referred to as “reckless kamikaze drivers” out of sheer laziness and stereotyping? I gave up trying to count a while back. And every Grand Prix held in a country in the Middle East or in a part of Asia that isn’t Japan, might as well be held in North Korea or in an Iranian war zone because in the eyes of your average xenophobe, there’s no difference. This can’t be a coincidence.
I can’t help but think of Leena Gade, engineer of the Audi Sport Team Joest team that has won three of the last four times at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with drivers Andre Lotterer, Benoit Treluyer, and Marcel Fassler. I consider her to be the most amazing woman in racing today, certainly one of the best racing engineers in the world, in any discipline of racing. And after being shut out from opportunity after opportunity to break into Formula 1 as an engineer early in her career – something that was the centerpiece of a television commercial starring herself – she’s now said she no longer needs the validation of a Formula One tenure because what she has already accomplished in endurance racing is more than sufficient.
To be honest, and it is a sickening thing to think given her credibility, but I’m not sure if Gade would even be welcomed by the Formula 1 fans. Not after they’ve already heaved the only other woman of Indian descent to have a role of leadership right under the bus. And whatever further damage and hatred is inflicted upon Sauber and upon Kaltenborn in the aftermath of all this will certainly continue to create an unwelcoming atmosphere for other women, especially women of colour, who might aspire to race, or run a team themselves, or be an engineer or mechanic – and actually try and attempt to chip away at that glass ceiling.
Quite a number of fans would say they want a more diverse world of motorsport, where drivers of all genders and all ethnic backgrounds succeed and are given fair representation. But if the case of The People vs. Monisha Kaltenborn is a benchmark for what support these people would receive when they fail, then that supposed desire for diversity and representation is nothing more than a fraud. It would just be lip service from people struggling with varying degrees of effort to repress their prejudices.
And as such, I can no longer trust that the criticism is not motivated by misogynistic, racially-fueled prejudice as much as it is the actual deeds done. And that is what has left me livid over the whole damn saga.