By Alan Baldwin
MONACO (Reuters) – Formula One has dispensed, since the beginning of the year, with female models parading on the starting grid but sponsors have been quick to fill the gap.
Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix, the most glamorous race on the calendar, will see male and female representatives of watch brand Tag Heuer positioned around the 20 drivers where the models once stood.
Instead of holding up the drivers’ racing numbers and posing for cameras, they will be brandishing iPads to take pictures that will be posted on social media and also relaying questions from fans.
There will also be so-called ‘grid kids’, known as ‘future stars’, although fewer than there have been at other races.
A Formula One spokesman dismissed reports suggesting the walk-on models were being brought back under another guise by Monaco organisers and in defiance of commercial rights holders Liberty Media.
He said that a majority of the five races so far had seen men and women deployed on the grid to promote the title sponsor — including airline stewardesses for Gulf Air and Emirates in Bahrain and Spain respectively.
“They are not acting as ‘grid girls’,” he added, using the term commonly used in Formula One to refer to the walk-on models.
“Grid girls, as we have seen holding drivers’ number cards, are not any more a part of Formula One”.
That distinction appeared lost on some, with drivers asked at a scheduled news conference about the apparent return of walk-on models to the Monaco starting grid.
“You won’t see much difference,” opined French driver Romain Grosjean. “When it was removed, I thought it was a good thing for women in the 21st Century because they were not used as just a board holder.”
Mercedes’ reigning champion and current leader Lewis Hamilton said: “There’s races where we’ve had guys standing at the front of the car, and there’s been a mixture sometimes at races in the past.
“I think Monaco is a very elegant grand prix and I don’t know how women feel about it.
“When we pull up to the grid and there’s beautiful women on the grid, that’s the Monaco Grand Prix, that’s a lovely thing — but I definitely don’t think that we should ever be supporting or pushing these women in general to feel uncomfortable.”
Formula One’s commercial managing director Sean Bratches said in February, when it was announced that the walk-on models would no longer feature, that the custom was “at odds with modern day societal norms.”
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar)