It is when lights out is just minutes away that Rachel Brookes says the Formula One excitement is at its peak – when she is in the pit lane watching the anxiety rise as drivers run around for last-minute toilet breaks and interviews. That is, she says, the "real pinch-yourself moment".
Brookes, a presenter for Sky Sports F1, is all the more aware of her privileged position in the paddock because she grew up watching motorsport. She recalls: "I used to sit in front of the TV with my brothers on a Sunday afternoon watching the Grand Prix, so for me to actually be standing there, one they're incredibly jealous, but two, I appreciate every second of it. It's an incredible sport and we're very, very lucky to work in it."
Despite a life-long love of the sport, it wasn't something Brookes thought she would be able to work in until Sky acquired the broadcast rights. She says: "I wasn't going to let anyone else get the job to be honest." After going through the interview process, complete with powerpoints, Brookes got the job. Now she is one of the most recognisable women in F1.
Speaking to GiveMeSport, Brookes explains that her journey into the sport wasn't straight forward. It is clear, however, listening to her describe her route in that she is determined once she sets her mind on things.
Brookes started in radio working on breakfast sports, but after a spell at Talksport, she realised she wanted to work in sports. She set out to get a job at Sky Sports News and for five years persisted in writing to the boss trying to persuade him to hire her. Eventually, she explains, he invited her in for an interview and she got the job.
Her main focus, to begin with, was cricket. "It was the only sport I could see a space for me to get in terms of women working in cricket," reflects Brookes. "And there had been some other women who paved the way, Anita Rani did the Cricket AM Show for Sky so I knew they were open to women working in cricket."
As soon as F1 was on the table, Brookes recalls: "I applied for one of the jobs on it immediately."
From the outside, F1 can seem like an allusive sport, flush with money and lacking in visible women. For Brookes however, when she started in motorsports she says: "I found it probably one of the most welcoming sports."
In contrast, she found that fans in cricket took some convincing. "I was doing reports from the boundary edge and women just didn't do that," Brookes explains. "Some of the fans were quite difficult when I started in cricket, but they soon bought into it once they realized that you are just as passionate about their sport as they were, and just as keen to know and learn as much about it, and then report as they would if they were there."
Brookes' conclusion serves as a good piece of advice for anyone looking to follow in her footsteps or get into a sport themselves: "Ultimately I think you have to be passionate about whatever you're working in, and if it's motorsport, as a woman, you will get on and you will get into motorsport."
In fact, despite the absence of women racing, when she started Brookes found that there had always been many women working behind the scenes on the sport's media and PR. Now she says women's participation in the sport has increased even further.
The scene Brookes sets out is of women holding a whole spectrum of roles in the sport: "Now the paddock is full of aerodynamicists, strategists, engineers, all women. I've seen a big change in that and I think that's brilliant because the more there are, the more girls see on TV that there's a woman on the pit wall dictating the strategy in the race or there's a woman aerodynamicist telling them if they change this part, this way, they'll get a 10th a lap extra out of the car.
"I think that is fantastic and I do as much as I can to push the promotion of the women who work in the sport."
When it comes to seeing a woman on the grid, Brookes is candid about the difficulties facing drivers. It is something that she wants to see, but she says: "I genuinely don't know how we do it because I want her to be there on her own merits."
She elaborates: "I think it's very, very hard for any driver at the moment. Sponsorship for any driver to get into F1 is incredibly expensive, so it's either looking like a benefactor or a rich family and then once she's in I want her to fly. I'm desperate for a really good female driver to be coming through the ranks."
Brookes is optimistic that it won't take too long to happen, especially with initiatives such as the FIA's Girls on Track which aims to get more girls interested in working in the sport. "The more we do these things, the more chance we have of getting a driver on the grid," Brookes concludes.
It's not just in the cars either. Brookes describes her niece attending the programme for a day and encountering STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – for the first time. "Now she wants to be an engineer," says Brookes, illustrating the power programmes like this have to inspire.
Brookes spoke to GiveMeSport before the coronavirus pandemic caused the F1 season to be postponed, but what she was looking forward to in the new season was seeing the continuation of Carlos Sainz's journey after Renault didn't keep him on.
"He ended up at McLaren, which might have seemed some people like a last resort but he's turned it on its head. He's been phenomenal now to the point where the Italian journalists discuss the fact that Ferrari is keeping an eye on what he is doing.
"I love that turn around in his career and his tenacity. It's not an easy sport and you are dictated to a certain extent by the car you've got underneath you but he's getting everything and more out of the car he drives and I think he's an exciting talent to watch."
It's too early to say what this season will look like but other drivers Brookes will be watching include Lando Norris and George Russell. She says: "We've got some great young drivers coming through who have personality that they're willing to put out there on social media, getting fans engaged. It gives the paddock a lift and I think it makes it a more entertaining place to be."
Getting to know these personalities and discovering unexpected relationships is another thing Brookes loves about being in such close quarters with the drivers and teams when she is reporting. She describes the paddock as "a funny microcosm of the human population" with surprising conversations continually catching her eye between rival team members.
She likes discovering unlikely friendships, she says, giving the example of Lance Stroll and Esteban Ocon. She explains: "Lance Stroll and Esteban Ocon are great, great friends and yet Lance took Esteban's seat at Racing Point. So you'd assume automatically in any other walk of life that they wouldn't get on but they're actually great friends. It's a real family in the F1 paddock and I suppose the friendship took me by surprise."
When the sport does return, whatever it looks like, Brookes will be bringing the thick of the action to our living rooms, inspiring girls who are watching the sport like she did to follow in her footsteps. That is something to look forward to as much as the racing itself.
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