If there’s one question that’s guaranteed to stir up controversy amongst motor racing folk it’s that on-going poser as to whether or not a woman will ultimately win a F1 World Championship Grand Prix. Now before you even start hitting the Twitter sites with a barrage of opinions, I want to stress that this month’s Money, Egos and Speed is not going to look at who, or even when, this might come about. It is, however, an article about women in motor racing, or to be more specific, it’s about three particular women in motorsport.
The first, I had the pleasure of competing against early on in my career. The second was a driver for whom I was able to secure sponsorship so that she could compete in an F1 Grand Prix. Then there was the celebrity racer with whom I shared duties as a Judge in a national beauty contest!
I’ve chosen these three on the basis that I had an involvement in each of their careers. Yes, I know there have been other high-profile female race drivers. For a start there was Lela Lombardi who raced in the F1 World Championship, whilst Lyn St James in her Indycar and sportscar career was a highly regarded competitor. Then of course there was the late Emilio de Villota, so sadly missed by everyone. I watched Lela and Lyn race on several occasions, but was never directly involved in their careers in any way.
So who are these 3 ladies who have so impressed me in different ways?
Let me start with Divina Galica. Some people are just born with the skill and dedication to succeed in whichever sport they choose. I would put Divina in that category. As if competing as a downhill skier in the 1964, 1968 and 1972 Winter Olympics wasn’t enough, she was also Captain of the British women’s downhill ski team at these events. Divina achieved 2 World Cup Podiums, held the British record for downhill speed-skiing at a terrifying 125mph and finished in the World’s top ten in the Giant Slalom competition. Just for the record, some twenty years later she competed in the 1992 Winter Olympics in downhill speed skiing!
If anyone doubts that women have got what it takes to succeed at the top echelon of motor racing, you only have to look at Divina’s career.
So, as you can imagine, when I first lined up alongside Divina Galica on the starting grid of a Formula Ford race at Brands Hatch in 1975, my second year in the sport, I knew I was facing a tough competitor. I was right and Divina and I had some great tussles over the next 18 months before she deservedly progressed up the motor racing ladder.
Within 18 months of starting her Formula Ford career, incredibly she was competing in the British F1 Aurora Championship, racing a Surtees F1 car. It was an indication of the strength of the motor racing scene at that time that Britain had its own national F1 Championship. Competing against some really top quality drivers such as Tony Trimmer, Divina finished on the Podium on three occasions, gaining two 2nd places as well as a 3rd. Sadly, she never had the chance to drive for one of the well-financed teams and was always having to punch well above her own weight in cars that hadn’t been prepared to the same level as those of some of her rivals.
Divina eventually moved to the United States of America and for many years worked as an instructor at the world-famous Skip Barber Racing School, eventually becoming its Senior Vice President. She also continued competing successfully in a host of different motorsport categories, including ThunderSports and Truck Racing. When Skip eventually sold his school, Divina became a Director of an on-line racing simulation company. We met up at the Autosport Show last year and she is still as passionate about motorsport as ever.
If anyone doubts that women have got what it takes to succeed at the top echelon of motor racing, you only have to look at Divina’s career. Apart from her proven race-driving skills, she had to overcame obstacle after obstacle to succeed, at a time when in motorsport, it really was a man’s world!
I never raced against Desiré Wilson, whom I first became aware of in South Africa, back in 1975. She had become the country’s national Formula Ford Champion, the prize for which included a trip to Europe. Motorsport in South Africa in the 1960’s and 1970’s was hugely popular, with its own strong national F1 Championship, massive support from the automotive manufacturers and of course, the South African F1 Grand Prix was an extremely popular port of call on the F1 World Championship calendar.
The first time I met Desiré and her husband Alan was at Kyalami in 1981. I was delighted to have the chance to play a small role in helping her secure a one-off F1 drive that year with the Tyrrell team in the Grand Prix. Because of the on-going FISA and FOCA political wrangle, some teams were ordered not to attend the South African race. They were effectively those backing FISA, namely Ferrari, Renault, Alfa Romeo and Osella.
It was my first year as Manager of the Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit, and as I’ve explained before in a previous feature, knowing that despite the absence of some teams, we’d still have a crowd in excess of 70,000 people, I’d organised a tractor race on the morning of the Grand Prix. To bring this about, I concluded a sponsorship deal with Deutz, the German tractor manufacturer, which resulted in them supplying 24 brand new tractors for some of the F1 Grand Prix drivers and some South African TV celebrities to race in this unique charity event. BBC TV commentator and former World Champion James Hunt had also agreed to take part in this slow-speed spectacular around the famous Kyalami Circuit.
In those days, it wasn’t uncommon for some F1 teams to offer a big-name local driver a chance to drive on a one-off basis in a particular GP. That’s what happened at Kyalami. Ken Tyrell offered Desiré the chance to compete in the SA Grand Prix in one his cars. It would mean that she would have the hot-shot American driver Eddie Cheever as her team-mate.
The only condition put on the offer was the small matter of sponsorship. She needed to bring what was at that time, a fair chunk of money with her, around £35,000!
To my delight, a phone call to the Deutz Marketing Director with whom I’d arranged the tractors for the race, bore fruit. A financial extension to that tractor-sponsorship was agreed, enabling Desiré to join what was a very wet grid for the start of the 1981 race. She’d qualified 16th out of the 19 cars, not a bad performance when you consider that she had very little testing time.
Whilst running in 12th place after 51 laps, the treacherous conditions caught her out and she slid into a barrier. Her more experienced team mate had already dropped out by this stage, having aqua-planed across the track and into a concrete wall, whilst exiting the pits. At one stage, she’d been as high as 6th place before finding herself on the wrong tyres for the changing conditions.
Nevertheless, a lot of people were very impressed with Desiré’s performance and Ken Tyrell in fact offered her a drive for the remainder of the year, but securing the level of sponsorship required proved to be an insurmountable problem. It may be of interest to know that it was Michele Alboreto who eventually joined the Tyrell team, the start of a brilliant career, bringing a high level of sponsorship with him.
Sadly, after the race at Kyalami, it was decided that it would not count for World Championship points.
After the setback with Tyrell and the potential drive, Desiré went on to build a tremendous career that included 2 World Championship sportscar wins at Monza and Silverstone, driving with Alain de Cadenet and saw her race in more than 130 different cars at 100 different tracks around the world. She also has another enviable claim to fame. As far as I can ascertain, she is the only woman ever to have won an F1 race. Desiré’s victory came at Brands Hatch in 1980, in the British based Aurora F1 series, piloting a Wolf WR3. It’s a record that she can justifiably be very proud of.
So that’s Desiré Wilson, a great talent, destined not to reach her full potential more through an inability to secure major funding when it mattered rather than because of any failings on the track.
It brings me to an Olympic Silver medal winning show jumper who took the big step across to single-seater motor racing and found that it wasn’t really to her taste. Ann Moore, on a horse called Psalm, won a silver medal for Great Britain in the 1972 Munich Olympics. Three years later that maestro of marketing and promotion, John Webb, who so successfully ran the Brands Hatch motor racing circuit, came up with another potential revenue generating concept. He’d witnessed the success of former Olympic ski racer Divina Galica, in her switch to motor racing, under his guidance. Now the prospect of repeating the process, but this time with a very successful and high profile show-jumper, greatly appealed to him.
Instead of Ann starting in Formula Ford 1600 as Divina had, which in my opinion would have been the best training ground for her, she was thrown in at the deep end with a drive in an Elden Formula Ford 2000, sponsored by local company Rolatruc.
In hindsight it was a mistake and sadly Ann never really came to grips with the car, in what was by then a highly competitive category of racing. By mid-season she came to the conclusion that she no longer had the time available to commit to becoming a competitive force on the track and that was the last we saw of her in a race car.
However, I did meet her again. One of my early Formula Ford sponsors was the huge American corporation, ITT. You can get an idea of how long ago this was because around that time ITT ran an annual national beauty contest in the UK. I was invited to be one of the panel of judges in 1976, along with Ann Moore and two other Olympic athletes, David Bedford and Andy Green. It was a memorable experience and certainly one that I’m never likely to repeat! In the photograph you can see not only Ann Moore, but the one attachment that you needed in the seventies as a race driver…a meaningful moustache!
So, when people talk about the potential of the new generation of women racers, such as Susie Wolff and Simona De Silvestro, the latest women to test an F1 car, my mind goes back to the three women in this feature. I’ve seen for myself what women can achieve in motor racing at a time when there were so many more barriers in their way. There’s no question that a female racer has just as much chance of being successful at the top echelon of the sport as a man. It depends on her level of skills, her fitness and most importantly, her levels of determination to succeed, no matter what stands in her way.
Then there is just on one more essential requirement. It’s the ability to secure the extraordinarily high levels of commercial sponsorship necessary to drive for the top teams in whatever category is relevant.
Now on that front, I do know a book that might just help…!