Meet Caroline Grifnée, the Rising Female Star in the Formula E Paddock
Caroline Grifnée, the sporting manager of the Renault e.dams Formula E team, tells us the story of her life in the sport.
Photo: François Flamand/DPPI
There is no doubt that women belong in motorsport. For high-achieving examples, look at former World Rally Championship star Michèle Mouton, 2001 Paris Dakar Rally victor Jutta Kleinschmidt, Formula One points scorer Lella Lombardi, Le Mans ace Anne-Charlotte Verney, and former IndyCar star Simona de Silvestro.
And we're not talking about high-heeled, scantily clad grid girls. Since the 1930s, female racers have competed behind the wheel, first in the endurance categories, before gradually expanding their presence across all series. Formula E (FE) is no exception.
Having become a familiar face in IndyCar and at the Indy 500 since 2010, De Silvestro is now also competing in the all-electric series with Amlin Andretti. Admittedly, the Swiss has yet to score any point after the opening three races in the 2015/2016 campaign, but 1997 F1 world champion Jacques Villeneuve did not fare any better before recently leaving Venturi.
In this very male-oriented environment, several women also occupy senior management positions, including Sauber F1 team principal Monisha Kaltenborn, Audi Sport's No.1 race engineer Leena Gade in the World Endurance Championship, and Renault e.dams sporting manager Caroline Grifnée in Formula E.
"Initially, I was not destined to work in motor racing," the latter says. "I wanted to become a surgeon. But my parents organised a racing championship in Belgium for over 20 years, so I have always had a foot in motorsport. I gradually climbed through the ranks until I joined DAMS two years ago. It was a 'passion-over-reason' kind of career decision. Now I'm Renault e.dams' sporting manager."
Although motorsport is not especially renowned as a progressive arena, Caroline insists she has never had any particular issue. "There are a lot of women in Formula E's marketing and communication departments. However, I think Simona and I are the only ones involved on the racing side of things. I don't see it as a problem though. It's quite the contrary actually. I've almost always worked with men only. I am more worried at the prospect of collaborating with women to be honest."
Grifnée certainly brings a breath of fresh air to Renault e.dams, while also offering new perspectives for the team. "I am a sensitive person. If a man were to occupy my position, I think things would be different. Being a woman enables me to be closer to everyone and exchange more freely." But Caroline also knows that it can be a double-edged sword, with everything potentially unravelling very quickly.
"I feel like you always have to do twice as much to get respected. And as soon as you make the slightest mistake, it hurts your credibility. When you talk to men about it, they don't always agree but that's how I see things from my standpoint. Not that I'm upset though. I appreciate this is part of the challenge and you have to deal with it. I like working with men because they go straight to the point. They don't beat around the bush. When something's wrong, you get told immediately. Nothing is left hanging up in the air."
Formula E is often presented as a pioneering series in terms of sustainable development and technical innovation, but can it achieve similar breakthroughs in the fields of gender equality and women's rights?
"Right now, in order to maximise publicity and media exposure around Formula E, the organisers will try to get big names like Villeneuve or guys who are starring in other series such as WEC – Sébastien Buemi, Loïc Duval, or Stéphane Sarrazin. Formula E is a hotly contested series, and there have not been that many women racing in top single-seaters categories. That's why it's hard to focus communication efforts on that at the moment." And why De Silvestro's achievements are all the more remarkable.