Only six women have ever taken part in a Formula One race weekend, of which only two have successfully qualified to start a race. Despite the attitudes and the odds stacked against women, the future looks bright as initiatives such as the W Series are set to build on the legacies of the early pioneers of women’s motorsport.
Despite appearances, F1 is not a male-only sport, and women have competed throughout the history of motorsport. Maria Teresa de Filippis was the first woman to drive in F1 in 1958 and 1959 before retiring due to the era’s high risk of fatality. She inevitably faced sexism, with the director of the French Grand Prix preventing her from racing because ‘The only helmet a woman should wear is the one at the hairdresser’s.’ Her racing ability, however, demanded respect from her peers.
Even Juan Manuel Fangio, a legend of the sport with five world championships, thought de Filippis would drive too fast and take too many risks, proving at the very least that women have the fearlessness it takes to compete at the highest level of motorsport. Between 1974 and 1976, Lella Lombardi went on to show just how competitive women can be, becoming the first – and to this date the only – woman to score points in an F1 race, and she is still the woman with the highest number of race starts.
Since the groundbreaking performances of de Filippis and Lombardi, no woman has ever got to the start line of an F1 race. So has all progress stopped since? Absolutely not.
Susie Wolff is the most recent woman to have taken part in an F1 race weekend as part of her role as a test driver for Williams in 2014 and 2015. During a practice session at the 2014 German Grand Prix, Wolff posted a time less than two tenths of a second slower than that of the vastly more experienced Felipe Massa in the other Williams car. She demonstrated that in the modern era of F1, being a woman is still no barrier to being a quick driver.
However, being a quick driver is not always enough to become an F1 driver. Only the very best make it to this level, meaning that only the minority of women, who are already a clear minority group in motorsport, will make it to F1.
Tatiana Calderón is a case in point. She is perhaps the most prominent female driver of recent years, progressing to F2, the junior series to F1, and tested the Sauber F1 team car in Mexico in 2018. Reaching this level of motorsport is an achievement in of itself, however, Calderón struggled to prove herself in the 2019 F2 championship, and has since moved into endurance racing, where she has managed to demonstrate her ability.
So why is it that since de Filippis’s breakthrough in 1958, only one more woman has been quick enough to start an F1 race? Being fast enough to reach F1 usually comes from karting at a very young age, meaning that only those who aspire to race as children are able to develop the skills needed to reach the highest level of motorsport.
Motorsport is still very much considered a man’s world, with relatively few female role models in the sport. Up until 2018, the most visible women in F1 were “grid girls”. I do not think I need to explain how this was sending completely the wrong message about the role of women in all corners of society, let alone in motorsport. Driving is still considered a traditionally male behaviour: you need only watch an old episode of Top Gear to realise just how male-orientated the world of motoring is.
As society has grappled with gender inequality, sport has been a fantastic means of displaying the extraordinary feats women are capable of. Motorsport, however, has stalled in this respect and needs to push full-throttle to catch up.
Despite all this, hope is on its way. In January 2021, 16 year-old Maya Weug won the FIA Girls on Track – Rising Stars initiative, winning based on her speed and potential. She has become the first female member of the prestigious Ferrari Driver Academy, an elite group containing just seven other leading young talents, and one that has recently seen drivers such as Charles Leclerc and Mick Schumacher go on to have careers in F1. Such initiatives that seek out and nurture the best young female talents might just be the key to discovering the next female F1 star.
The most notable initiative in women’s motorsport has been the women-only W Series, which selects its drivers based exclusively on extensive assessments of their speed, fitness and potential. Unlike other race series, the drivers do not need to pay an entry fee, or carry financial backing from sponsors, a sticking point that has held back the careers of so many drivers. The series uses F3 cars, all of which are run by one team: Hitech GP, meaning that the machinery is completely equal, allowing for a fair and direct comparison between the drivers, and allowing them to display their pure talent and speed. These comparisons are much more difficult to make in F1 where the difference between the abilities of the different teams to produce a quick car can cloud any judgement of a driver’s out-and-out ability.
The inaugural 2019 season of the W Series was full of spectacular and tense wheel-to-wheel racing, with the drivers brilliantly showcasing their ability. Although Jamie Chadwick emerged victorious, Beitske Visser ran her close in a thrilling championship battle that saw five different race winners in just six races, showing just how competitive the series is.
Jamie Chadwick also became the only woman to have won a British Formula 3 race in 2018, and signed as a Williams test driver in 2019, setting her up as the leading light of women’s motorsport. At just 22 years old, the future looks incredibly bright for Chadwick as she works towards her dream of becoming an F1 driver, and will get the chance to reiterate her ability in the 2021 W Series. The new season will feature eight races on the same tracks over the same weekends as F1, which will massively boost the series’ exposure, helping people both outside and within motorsport take note of the talent on display in the W Series.
With the likes of Weug, Visser and Chadwick ascending the motorsport ladder, F1 may soon have the breakthrough talent who will inspire the next generation of female racing drivers. Despite slow progress, women have proved themselves to be infinitely capable, and are becoming increasingly visible in motorsport. This, in tandem with a gradual breaking down of gender norms and a concerted effort to increase diversity in all walks of life, will dramatically increase the chances of women breaking into the highest tiers of motorsport.