Women's Sport: Natalie Pinkham's life in the pit lane

Natalie Pinkham has been reporting on Formula One for ten years and during her career, she has seen some crazy things. 

The Sky Sports F1 presenter recalls being in the pit lane at the 2013 Germany Grand Prix when Mark Webber’s tyre wasn’t fitted properly. She says: “His tyre started bouncing down the pit lane and people were jumping out of the way. I’ve seen pretty dramatic things.”

On another occasion, Pinkham was there when a fire broke out in the Williams team’s garage at the Spanish Grand Prix in 2012. She remembers: “I was literally outside the garage and my cameraman put his camera down, ran in and started pulling people out.

“It’s a reminder that motorsport is dangerous, but in terms of the excitement and the adrenaline of it, you have to have your wits about you. It is a live motorsport environment and you have to be aware of and respect that, but that’s where the thrill comes from.”

Given these tales, it is no surprise that the presenter prefers the pit lanes over the studio. She explains: “I definitely prefer being out there and in amongst it. There’s nothing quite like a live pit lane environment. You’ve got the cars all around you.”

It did take a little while for her to adapt to working in a setting with so much going on around her. Pinkham recalls: “It’s funny because when you first join it you don’t know where to stand, you think: ‘Oh god I’m always in the way!’ But actually, you learn a sixth sense after a couple of years and you know how to tiptoe in and out of the places you can and can’t go.”

Hearing Pinkham talk, it’s clear that she loves her job and the sport, stating emphatically: “How incredible! What other sport can you almost touch the cars and the competitors just before they’re about to go at 300 kilometres per hour?”

“I know that a lot of people feel that it’s elitist and that it’s inaccessible,” she adds. “But I think that’s changed and I think the fact that we’re able to get that close and personal to the start of the race is a massive tick in the box for F1 in terms of bringing it alive for the fans.”

Pinkham is a familiar figure in the world of F1, but it hasn’t always been a sport with visible women. This was particularly the case when she started, but she says it isn’t something that impacted her career. She explains: “I had always loved the sport as a fan and 5 Live approached me about being a pit lane reporter and I jumped at the chance.

“It was a dream come true for me to go around the world following the sport I love and obviously it’s an incredible and somewhat overwhelming experience when you first walk into the paddock but everyone soon makes you feel very at home.”

It is also a landscape that Pinkham says is changing. In recent years there have been renewed efforts to get women onto the F1 starting grid with several women working as test drivers, and the creation of the W Series, an all-women race that from this year will give competitors some of the coveted points they need for their super licence.

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The sport isn’t there yet, the last woman to race in an F1 Grand Prix was Lella Lombardi in 1976. But Pinkham says it is becoming more equal: “I think first and foremost our sport is a meritocracy so if you work hard enough and you’re passionate and you’re committed then it doesn’t matter what gender you are, where you come from, what the colour of your skin is. It’s just about your commitment to the sport.

“There isn’t any room for misogyny and sexism.”

A big driver of this change, according to Pinkham, is down to the lack of grid girls who haven’t featured in the sport since the 2018 season. That was “a watershed moment” she says.

“Certainly with grid girls, there was the objectification of women,” she explains. “What I wanted to see is more women in this sport and the problem with having grid girls was that women were just standing in front of a car holding a banner and being judged solely on their looks.

Pinkham says she thinks that acted as a barrier for women entering F1. For her, taking grid girls out of the sport sent a strong message: “It showed women that there are plenty of roles that are accessible and that it’s a viable career choice, whether you want to be a team principal, to be in PR, to be an engineer, or to be a driver.”

Although it’s a recent change, Pinkham has noticed its impact almost immediately: “I’m now seeing a real groundswell of energy, enthusiasm, and change in as much as women now feel that they have got a place and they have got a career in F1.”

We talked before the coronavirus pandemic caused the postponement of the 2020 season, but Pinkham is excited about the up-and-coming talent that could be on show later in the year. 

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“I’m looking forward to the battles, as with every year, but we had a handful of rookies last year who feel like they’ve bedded in,” she explains. “I feel like there’s a changing of the guard now you’ve got the likes of Charles Leclerc, Max Verstappen, Lando Norris, George Russell and Alexander Albon.

“They are so excited and they are so hungry and they’re not inhibited in any way. They’re all-out racers and so it will be really interesting to see how they start asserting themselves on the older more experienced drivers.”

Pinkham says that with contracts coming up for renegotiation in 2021, there is a lot on the line and drivers will have points to prove: “I feel like this year you’re going to see the gloves coming off, the drivers fighting with their teammates and all of those around them in the pecking order for points, race wins and podiums.”

That’s not to say that Lewis Hamilton isn’t still a formidable challenge. As Pinkham says, in a Mercedes, he will be “incredibly powerful and a difficult opposition for anyone to overhaul”.

If she had to pick anyone to dethrone him, who would she put her money on?  “The two people that I see doing that are Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen who are very young and very hungry. It’s quite hard to do it but the talent is there.”

Only time will tell when we finally see racing back on our TVs, or a woman on the starting grid, but one thing is for sure – when the season does start, Pinkham will be there bringing all the action and excitement.

Watch every race of the 2020 season exclusively live on Sky Sports F1

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