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EXCLUSIVE: The young woman who rose from a Harare suburb to the Formula One limelight



Trackside fluid engineer working with Mercedes-AMG Petronas team becomes first black woman to stand on F1 podium


It was always going to be in a year as upside down as 2020 that a disparate group of events that included the killing of a black man in Minneapolis in May colliding with the hard work and lifelong ambition of a young woman from Harare on a Formula One podium in Austria in July, absent of any crowd, would provide one of the year’s most endearing moments.

But this is exactly what happened when Stephanie Travers, the 26-year-old Petronas trackside fluid engineer working with the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One (F1) team, became the first black woman to stand on an F1 podium, an outstanding achievement in a sport dominated by European men.

The moment she stepped onto the podium, Travers became a powerful reminder of why it is important to eradicate gender bias, racism and inequality. Here is a woman who, through her talent, hard work and dedication, has risen to the pinnacle of motorsport, and all she required from society to seize it was a fair chance.

As with the outrage that followed the killing of George Floyd a few months before that brought the US’s long, suppressed history of racial injustice into sharp focus and highlighted the glaring reality that people of colour are still treated differently to everybody else, Travers’s incredible achievement posed a very uncomfortable question: why had it taken so long?

Staying fluid

In 2010, the Malaysian petrochemical giant Petroliam Nasional Berhad (Petronas) became the title sponsor and technical partner of the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 team. As part of its technical contribution, it custom-manufactures the Primax race fuel, Syntium gearbox and engine oil and Tutela transmission fluids the racing cars consume.

Petronas also staffs and equips the specialised mobile trackside laboratory that accompanies the team to all races. Extracting, testing and analysing the fuel, engine oil and transmission lubricant are the primary responsibility of Travers and her trackside laboratory colleague, En De Liow.

Over the course of a racing weekend, the duo will extract nine engine oil and six transmission lubricant samples per car, and 70-80 samples of fuel.

“I provide analysis of all the fluids we send trackside. In the case of analysing the fuel, we take a fingerprint from a fuel sample, and much like when you unlock your phone, the fingerprint has to match the standards of the ‘golden sample’ preapproved by the FIA [motorsport’s sanctioning body]. So much of the work I do at the beginning of a race week is to ensure the fuel complies with regulations,” says Travers.

There are serious consequences for getting the composition wrong — the team can be penalised and may forfeit qualifying places if it does not comply.

But the real expertise Travers provides is in the analysis of the engine oils and transmission fluids extracted from the cars after sessions. Over a racing weekend, Travers and Liow will analyse 132 oil tests, a process she describes as similar to what blood sampling does for humans — diagnose problems.  

“What we are looking for is excessive wear. The presence of a combination of different metals in the oil sample can pinpoint exactly where there is a problem within the engine or gearbox. This allows our engineers to rectify it before it becomes a catastrophic failure,” says Travers.

Reliability has been a major factor in the almost unparalleled dominance the team has enjoyed in recent years, having won almost three out of every four races, and all six constructors’ championships held since the start of the 1.6l V6 hybrid turbo engine era in 2014.

Mercedes-AMG Petronas are well on their way to doing it again this season as they are leading the table. Five of Lewis Hamilton’s six world titles have been won with the current team over the course of the last six years.

Travers and Liow, using their learning from the race environment, also work with the Petronas Fluid Technology Solutions team and the Mercedes high-performance powertrains unit, which builds the engine parts for the Mercedes F1 cars, to adapt and improve the fluids.

In a nod to her employer, Travers says this technology and innovation filters its way down into the fuels and engine oils Petronas designs for standard road cars “like South Africans get at all Engen [a Petronas subsidiary] forecourts”.

An amazing race

But being able to develop and use this expertise in the uber-competitive F1 environment meant Travers had to succeed in a process perhaps even more competitive than the racing itself. To step into the glamorous and rarefied world of F1, she had to beat more than 7,000 applicants in Petronas’s global talent search before landing the job.

This culminated in an Amazing Race-style assignment across the centre of Kuala Lumpur to find the CEO of Petronas Lubricants International, before undertaking the final interview that led to Travers joining the team in February 2019.

She says the induction into the team couldn’t have been any easier, with team members through to the drivers, Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, and team principal Toto Wolff embracing her “with open arms”.

But the spark that lit the flame for her passion for F1 came in her childhood.

“My dad [Bertram] had a real interest in Formula One and cars in general, and so did my mum [Maria]. It became a family activity on the weekend. We [including older brother Robert] would watch races and discuss them as a family. Even races such as [in] China, where you are waking up at 6am, we would all be there cuddled up watching the races together as a family and just enjoying following the team. So it’s something I always dreamt about from just watching the sport,” she says.

It was while Travers was attending Sharon School in Harare in 2004 that the family decided to emigrate to the UK. But far from cutting ties with the land of her birth, Travers has returned to Zimbabwe often, most recently in 2015 to see friends and family. She was in SA in 2019 for her nephew’s christening, as Robert lives in Johannesburg.

“Without their help and guidance, I wouldn’t be where I am now. They sacrificed a lot moving from Zimbabwe to the UK to provide us with a better life and to get us to where we are today,” Travers says.

In 2016, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering with first-class honours from the University of Bradford and subsequently read for her master’s at Imperial College, London, which she obtained in 2017.

“My dad is one of my biggest inspirations. When we went to university, he was so interested in the courses that we studied that he was studying my degree course alongside me! So he was able to help me and encourage us to think differently, think outside the box. It was just great to have him there and have him so interested in our education and careers,” says Travers.

Pursuing a degree in chemical engineering flowed from her enjoyment of maths and chemistry at school, but it was also congruent with her passion for motorsports and her dream to one day be involved in F1.

“I knew there were a few roles that chemical engineering could get me to in F1, like the one that I am in at the moment. So I went to university and did what I loved, as I knew that ultimately if I did not get into the motorsport environment, I would enjoy my job. That was the main thing, and that was something I was always told by my parents — it’s important to love what you do,” she says.

By the time Sunday, July 12 rolled around in Austria, Hamilton had done the business at the Red Bull Ring and qualified on pole, with Bottas starting in fourth behind Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz.

Hamilton would lead from start to finish, with Bottas eventually hunting down and passing Verstappen in the final laps to take second place and give the team a resounding win in the constructors’ title.

Once the constructors’ title is in the bag, team principal Wolff decides who represents the team alongside the drivers on the podium to receive the constructors’ trophy. Travers had just finished hanging off the pit wall celebrating the victory as the drivers came past when she was asked to go up to the podium.

her name is Stephanie Travers and she’s a trackside fluid engineer for Mercedes & Petronas. she’s also the first black woman that’s ever stood on the F1 podium.— dea (@Iandonorris) July 12, 2020

“I wasn’t expecting it at all; it was a surprise. It was a bit of a ‘are you sure it’s me?’ and they are like ‘yes, it’s you going up today’, and I was like ‘no, it can’t be me!’, but they were adamant. I didn’t even have time to inform my family and friends. But … my family are all F1 fans and they were watching anyway and were going crazy at the TV. It was such a surreal moment.”

Hamilton would later that day post appreciation for Travers on his Instagram account and highlight the historic moment of her becoming the first black woman to stand atop the podium.

“This is an amazing achievement and I just wanted to acknowledge her for her hard work, positivity and passion for her job,” wrote Hamilton.

“It was just fantastic for him to acknowledge the work that I do to power his car,” says Travers.


Travers says the reaction to her achievement has been incredible, but she wants to use her newfound fame to inspire black children and young girls to single-mindedly pursue their dreams.

“I decided to pursue this career path knowing it was a male-dominated field and I didn’t let that deter me from my dreams because ultimately I knew where I wanted to go in life. My advice for young aspiring engineers is that it’s important to work hard in your younger years and focus on your education so that you have a foundation for later on in life.

“That is … crucial. My parents always encouraged us to work hard and do our homework before we thought of playing or going out with friends because to get to where you want to be in life and to enjoy life to the fullest, you need to have that strong foundation and you need to be pursuing something that you enjoy.”


Financing Africa’s recovery.

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Financing Africa’s recovery: Is there an unfair risk premium on lending to the continent?

France 24’s François Picard leads a discussion in which Lionel Zinsou, former Prime Minister of Benin, and Marin Ferry, Asst. Prof. at the Université Gustave Eiffel, articulate their views on the treatment of African economies on the international bond markets and by credit rating agencies. Is there an anti-African stigma on the financial markets?

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Art & Culture

Modelling in Africa: Pursuing dreams, challenging perceptions

So what exactly does it mean to be a model in Africa in 2021?



France 24

They were supposed to come from Johannesburg, Brazzaville, Lagos and Abidjan but their travel plans were thwarted by the Covid-19 pandemic The eighth edition of the Lomé International Fashion Festival had to recruit models from closer to home instead, with a handful managing to travel to the Togolese capital from Ghana and Gabon. So what exactly does it mean to be a model in Africa in 2021? We hear first-hand from some of those in the industry.

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African Woman

Stunning images of elegance and strength

A book of portraits captures the style and resilience of West African women over the decades. Its author Catherine McKinley tells the story behind the collection.



When I was a teen I travelled from the US to Scotland with my family. On our first night in Edinburgh, we sat in a pub across from several Nigerian couples, resplendent in bell bottoms and African prints, paired with plaids and Harris tweeds. They were spinning the traditional textures into something chic, subversive and all their own. One woman wore a Shetland sweater under her embroidered dress, a wool scarf wrapped stylishly on her head. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. It was a simple new logic – style and self definition over everything.

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This woman came back to me in sharp focus again, years later. For almost 30 years I have collected photographs of African women. It began unconsciously, with the parting gifts of new friends I met as I travelled in West Africa, in Togo, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Niger. Studio photos and even point-and-shoot technology were expensive, and so taking photos was intentional and an occasion to dress. Scattered among these were priceless studio shots dating from the 1950s, 60s and 70s  from women I subsequently got to know very well over the years – well enough for me to call them my aunties.

Author Catherine McKinley was given portraits by women she befriended on trips to Africa (Credit: Yousseff Safieddine, Senegal/ The McKinley Collection/The African Lookbook)

At the time, they’d ordered the prints in multiples in order to share among friends or perhaps to be used in marriage bids, and still had copies to spare. Then, in the late 1990s, Western art audiences were introduced to African master photographers Malick Sidibe and Seydou Keita whose images, very similar to the aunties’, were transformed from intimate personal mementos into large-size – and in the case of Keita, nearly life-size – art objects. I returned to my cherished boxes of photos and began to look at them anew.

The women in African photographers’ lenses were in control of their image

More staid, with the subjects more formally dressed and perfectly groomed, and keeping with the modest, classic conventions of the studio, my collection of  photos did not share the insouciance and determined subversion that I’d witnessed in Scotland, and looked for ever since. But I had seen it alive on the streets of many West African cities, at funerals and family gatherings, fashion shows, and even in the way a plastic bag would be fashioned elegantly on the head of a woman standing selling in the rain. The plastic became like mink.

Mama Casset, photographed in 1960 in a studio in Senegal (Credit: Courtesy of The McKinley Collection/The African Lookbook)

What I was learning is that resistance is often there in African fashion, it just needs to be noticed. Two powerful tools of Empire – the sewing machine and the camera – both arrived along the Atlantic coast in the mid-1800s and were used initially in campaigns of violence, coercion, typology making and control. African women, from the very first encounters with these tools, would have approached them with an awareness of this power.

With my discovery of Keita I began to collect passionately – led very much by a love of fashion, and by a desire to make new sense of the world through the lead of my heroine in Edinburgh. It was the 1970s when I went to Edinburgh, and the images of Africa fed to us at that time swung from two poles: National Geographicwhich arrived in its brown-paper cover, suggesting something out of bounds, which was manifest in the photographs baring African women’s bodies.

African master photographer Seydou Keita captured this image in Mali in the mid 1950s (Credit: Seydou Keita/SKPE-Courtesy CAAC- The Pigozzi Collection)

Then there were Ebony and Jet magazines, evidence of another continent – black US celebrities at Independence celebrations, “hot” African-inspired fashions for the catwalk, commercial ads featuring the regalia of pre-colonial kings and queens. This Africa was a heaving, glorious thing, like the chests of actors LaVar Burton and Cicely Tyson in the 1970s TV series RootsBy the 1980s this Africa was replaced with images of poverty and war. 

Moment of enthralment

I’ve come to realise that if you slow down to read them, they tell their own stories, different from those Western magazines, whatever their political position, where the endless, brightly-dressed women are hard to discern under the surface of their presentation as archetypal mothers, sages, anthropologised tradition-keepers and nudes. 

Two ‘Ye-Ye’ girls in sunglasses, 1965, Mali (Credit: Abdourahmane Sakaly/ Courtesy of The McKinley Collection/The African Lookbook)

Here, we encounter faces at the same time as the dress. The faces are storied; the dresses and lighting set them off, instead of burying them. We take them in as intently as the drip of fashion. Resolutely, splendidly clad, in these images the objectifying elements are not present. Every scene is a highly constructed one, caught in a narrow moment of enthralment and detachment from what is brewing and being plotted in colonial and post-colonial situation rooms. Independence. Decolonisation. A social revolution by the young against the Pretenders, as the youth would call their parents, holding Keita’s bourgeois studio props. What’s not in the lens is the government conspiring with a nation’s elders to flog and send for “re-education” those mini-skirted trespassers and Afroed heads.

The dignity of the photographs insists that we consume them very differently

 The women in African photographers’ lenses were in control of their image; nudity was replaced with high-fashion clothing which could compete with European luxury, and many of the women would have sewn their clothing themselves. Those images too have the danger of becoming fetishised but the dignity of the photographs, and especially of the uncoerced sitters, insists that we consume them very differently.

Social change is reflected in the images, including this portrait taken in a studio in 1972 in Accra, Ghana (Credit: Courtesy of The McKinley Collection/The African Lookbook)

Where is the resistance? It is in what is worn – the choice of textiles, a button hole, simple nuances of colours or an altered line. It is in the choosing of a wax cloth or a threaded style that references, all at once, new city architecture, an outlaw Afrobeat song, and a warning to a rival. A black-and-white pattern evoking the architecture of the mosque and the earthly reminder to fix one’s eye not on human beauty but on the divine.

Every image in my collection is a love letter to African women

And so I collect photographs from Africa. And collect. With a hunger for the world of stories and for the remarkable endless possibilities for fashion that run through them. For the way images can do what writers and their audiences do together: write beyond the ending, leading you into a universe all your own. There is such a wide web of African photography. It’s become so wide it is hard to characterise all the types of work, and in them is all of the world of African style. 

Aunty Koramaa and Aggie, 1960s, Accra, Ghana (Credit: Courtesy of The McKinley Collection/The African Lookbook)

Every image in my collection is a love letter to African women, and the endless ways they upturn things, all with a penchant for newness, for modernity. Looking forward and crushing the past.

The African Lookbook: A Visual History of 100 Years of African Women by Catherine E McKinley is out now.

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