With Susie Wolff making the decision to retire from racing towards the end of 2015, I couldn’t help but notice there are very few women in Formula 1 that receive proper media coverage, if any at all. Susie is one of the few who is well known, and for some this may simply be when linked to her husband and Mercedes boss, Toto Wolff.
As a Williams test driver, Susie was seemingly going to be the next woman who would compete in a Formula 1 car. However, she admitted in interviews about her retirement that she felt she would never be allowed to race with Williams. I decided to investigate where the women are in Formula 1, whether we’re likely to see any on track in the near future, and what this could do for the sport.
A quick internet search for ‘female racing drivers’ brings up many articles about ‘the 10 hottest women in motorsport’ and ‘the 10 most appealing female race car drivers’. So maybe they do get some coverage, just not the right coverage. Looking further, it seems that most in these lists are from America. There are many famous female NASCAR or IndyCar racers, and they seem to be very popular. When it comes to Formula 1 however, the list becomes a lot shorter.
Historically, there have only ever been five women entered into a Formula 1 race, and only two have gone on to start a race. Italian driver Lella Lombardi is the most successful female driver in Formula 1: she was involved for three seasons, entering into 17 races and starting 12 of them. She became the first and only woman to score points in a Formula 1 race after a 6th place finish in Spain. It has now been 24 years since a woman was entered into a Formula 1 race, and those trying to break through aren’t able to get further than test driving.
Someone needs to prove Bernie wrong.
Maria de Villota – whose name may be familiar to some – was a test driver for Marussia. Unfortunately she may be remembered because of her tragic death, a year after a serious racing accident in which she lost an eye. The Spanish driver suffered neurological damage from the crash in 2012 and it’s thought that she died as a result of her injuries in October 2013. The FIA president Jean Todt stated that Maria was “a fantastic driver, a leading light for women in motorsport”. Maria was very aware of the importance of women in Formula 1, and the part she played in that, as Susie Wolff commented on how Maria gave her the role of carrying on the female success in the sport: “She very much said to me after it, ‘It’s now up to you to go out there and show them that it is possible’. She knew that women could compete at that level and that’s why, after her accident and her not being able to do that anymore, she just wanted someone to know it was realistic”.
There are two other drivers who may have flown somewhat under the radar, racers who have recently become test drivers, but as yet haven’t managed to make it onto the grid. Simona de Silvestro was named as an ‘affiliated driver’ for Sauber in February 2014, with the hopes of driving a Formula 1 car in the 2015 season. The IndyCar racer has had a successful career in America but, as many drivers do, has an ambition to race in Formula 1. Simona has since had her contract suspended and for now has her F1 dreams on hold.
That leaves only one female who is close to driving in Formula 1 at the moment. The former Lotus F1 team had a female ‘development driver’ for the 2015 season. Carmen Jordá joined the team in February 2015 and like many other female drivers, has always had an ambition of racing in the top level of motorsport, saying that she was competing since she was 10 years old and it has always been her dream to reach Formula 1.
A new generation of female drivers are now making their way through the ranks. 22-year-old Alice Powell is the only woman to have scored points in GP3, and wants to go on to compete in the top league. Even fresher talent, 15-year-old Sophia Floersch is a German driver looking to enter Formula 4 in the spring. She is currently the fastest female in Germany.
All the women in motorsport have entered with the same competitive mentality as the men, but are being held back when it comes to the high-end level.
Formula 1 chief Bernie Ecclestone may be contributing to the lack of women in the sport, having told media that they would not be taken seriously. Alice Powell responded to this viewpoint saying “someone needs to prove Bernie wrong”. He has instead suggested the possibility of a separate ‘showcase series’ for women, a concept that has caused controversy amongst female drivers.
Why would I ever look for a race where I was only competing against women?
Carmen Jordá has noted that she would prefer to compete against women: “It’s the only sport in the world that men can race against women. There’s not another sport where men and women compete at the same level. So it’s so much more difficult for a girl to make it than for a man”. Susie Wolff couldn’t disagree more: “It’s most definitely not the right way forward. I have raced my whole career in motorsport as a normal competitor. Why would I ever look for a race where I was only competing against women?”.
In the face of adversity, Susie Wolff has promised to support women in the sport after her departure, with the recent launch of her Dare to be Different campaign in January, in which she aims to inspire women to achieve their dreams regardless of the hurdles they face.
In theory, having women in the regular Formula 1 championship could be fantastic not only for women, but for the sport as a whole. It is inevitable that the next woman to make it to the grid will be the centre of attention, but over time I see no reason why they couldn’t be fully integrated into the sport.
There are many women working behind the scenes, and fans are used to seeing Claire Williams and Monisha Kaltenborn in the paddock and press conferences. Their presence in the Formula 1 world isn’t contested, and that could one day be the case for female drivers too.
There is a potential to broaden the reach of the sport, although there is a risk of the women being a ‘novelty’ rather than serious competitors, as demonstrated in the many ‘top 10’ articles that can already be found online.
However, I could see a future where women become icons within the sport, and follow in the footsteps of Lewis Hamilton, who has recently led the ‘Hollywood’ celebrity lifestyle whilst winning championships.
Women could bring lots of money to the sport. A new set of sponsors aimed at women could not only bring in money, but publicity for the sport and could encourage more women to race if they see a female driver representing big brands.
However, without Bernie’s support it will be difficult for the next female driver to make her way onto the grid. It will take strong character, and someone who is prepared to face the pressure of being the first female competing in the league for almost a quarter of a century.