By Steve Keating
INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - While Formula One flirts with the idea of a female driver, girl power is already as much a part of the Indianapolis 500 as turbo-charged engines and the winner chugging cold milk in Victory Lane.
Swiss Simona de Silvestro, Brazilian Ana Beatriz and Britons Pippa Mann and Katherine Legge represent the four women who will take the command to start their engines alongside 29 men at the famed Brickyard for Sunday's race.
On the other side of the Atlantic, however, the only women on the starting grid at the Monaco Grand Prix, which will also run on Sunday, will be the glamorous models holding placards with drivers names on them.
"It doesn't matter if they are male or female, the car doesn't know the difference," Legge told Reuters. "I don't think about it, there are just 32 other drivers out there and me."
Formula One has not had a female driver for decades, with Italian Giovanna Amati the last to try and get on the grid when she failed to qualify in 1992.
The only woman to appear on the score sheet was Italian Lella Lombardi who finished sixth in the shortened 1975 Spanish Grand Prix and was awarded a half point.
Development driver Susie Wolff is pushing Williams to give her a proper test and keep alive her distant dream of one day racing alongside the men in Formula One.
Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone has been supportive of her efforts, according to Wolff, even if publicly he has stated that he does not see any woman driver on F1's horizon because there was nobody good enough at present.
"It will take a female winning races in GP2 (Grand Prix 2 series)," said Mann. "You will know because she is a winner in GP2 that she is extremely accomplished and do a good job but to get to that point we are going to need more females on the ladder in Europe."
Like all sports, motor racing is a results-based business and none of the four women on Sunday's grid are expected to end the day in Victory Lane.
Legge, who had a test with Formula One tailenders Minardi in 2005, will start from the last row for the second consecutive year after posting the slowest qualifying speed, more than five miles per hour slower than pole sitter Ed Carpenter.
Beatriz, making her fourth Indy 500 start, and Mann, her second, will line up alongside each other in Row 10 just ahead of Legge.
De Silvestro, who has made it to the finish line only once in three visits to the Indy 500, earning rookie year honors in 2010 when she placed 14th, will launch from the 24th spot on the grid.
"My goal for Sunday is to try to stay out of trouble, to try and stay on the lead lap and then if we could somehow sneak up into the top 15, top 10 ... that is a realistic goal," Mann told Reuters. "My game plan is to be fairly cautious because I'm not going to win the race on the start from where I am."
Such modest objectives, however, are unlikely to get a driver noticed by sponsors, fans or Formula One recruiters.
De Silvestro may be the one female IndyCar driver currently on F1's radar, the Swiss gaining steady respect for her fearless and resilient driving although she has yet to record an IndyCar series victory.
Growing up in Switzerland, the 24-year-old driver admits her dream is to drive a Formula One car and hopes to one day get the opportunity.
"Being from Europe I have dreamed about F1 and it is still a dream but right now I am really lucky to be in IndyCar," De Silvestro told Reuters. "It would have to be the right opportunity and done in the right way.
"You have to be wise about the opportunities."
Girl power is nothing new at the massive Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Janet Guthrie having long ago shattered the glass ceiling when she became the first woman to qualify for Indy 500 in 1977.
But no woman has ever won on the sprawling oval. Danica Patrick is the "Queen of the Brickyard" having come closest with a third place finish in 2005 and remains the only woman to lead a lap at the 500.
Patrick, who is also the only woman to win an IndyCar race, proved women can go wheel-to-wheel against the men and added to her reputation when she jumped to NASCAR and grabbed the pole at this year's Daytona 500.
A combination of sex appeal and skill, Patrick has become one of the most recognizable names in motor sports and a marketing titan, earning her fifth spot on Forbes list of the world's top- earning female athletes.
"It's still something different but amongst the drivers I feel accepted," said de Silvestro. "At the end of the day we all wear a helmet and we just try to do the best job we can in the race car."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)