By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - The world endurance championship, whose annual highlight is the Le Mans 24 Hours sportscar classic, is getting rid of the 'grid girls'.
In a move that will be applauded by many, and is sure to dismay those accustomed to seeing scantily-clad beauties posing next to cars before a race, the FIA-backed series is adopting a more progressive stance.
"From Silverstone next week, you will see that for any race we will do -- no grid girls like in the past," WEC chief executive Gerard Neveu told Reuters after a presentation on Thursday for the opening Silverstone six-hour race.
"For me that is the past. The condition of women is a little bit different now," he said.
The use of models, also referred to as 'race queens' or 'umbrella girls', to stand by cars with flags or placards displaying drivers' numbers has long been a feature of Formula One.
It has also been a bone of contention for those seeking more equality and less sexism in a male-dominated sport, although in some series where women racers have joined the grid the 'umbrella' role has been taken by a man.
Toyota's world champion Anthony Davidson said it was about time things changed.
"I talk about this with my wife quite a lot, and we both agree it's actually pretty backward," the Briton, who has also raced in Formula One, told Reuters.
"It's old school to have such a concept as grid girls. Surely the world's moved on? And motor racing should follow quite closely what the rest of the world's doing in that respect.
"I think that's a really nice touch, a modern touch as well, from the WEC to take that aspect of racing away. It is a bit sexist."
Neveu said the cars would line up diagonally opposite the pit wall and grandstand as if for an old-style 'Le Mans start'.
In Le Mans of old, before safety concerns stopped the practice, drivers would run across the track to the cars but at Silverstone there will be a rolling start.
Neveu said the changes were all part of catering for a new audience.
"The sport is sport, but around it we can do many things," he said. "We will have a DJ, entertainment, many things on the grid. The show will start from the grid...but the star at the end is the sportscars and the drivers of the car."
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Martyn Herman)