It will come as no surprise to many that motorsport is a hugely male-dominated industry with women representing a minority both on and off track. In the sport’s 67-year history, only one female driver has ever scored points, and only 5 have been given the opportunity to attempt to qualify, compared to over 800 men. It is not necessarily a question of equality, but whether the opportunities are there and are well-known enough to give females a chance to influence and partake.
The history of women in F1 is both a long and a short story. Maria Teresa de Filippis became the first female F1 driver when she took part in the 1958 Monaco Grand Prix. 31 drivers entered, with only half reaching the qualifying time. Although de Filippis was one of those who didn’t make the grade, she had put down a marker for women.
Maria Teresa de Filippis was decades ahead of her time, though this meant she faced discrimination from those in positions of power. At the French Grand Prix, she was prevented from racing by the race director who according to her in a 2006 interview said “the only helmet a woman should wear is the one at the hairdresser’s”. A statement that nowadays would shock, but unfortunately, is not an opinion fully left in the past.
It would be 15 years before another woman would follow in her footsteps. Lella Lombardi entered 17 races, starting 12 between 1974 and 1976, and remains the only female driver in history to have scored points in F1. Lombardi finished 6th in the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix, scoring what remains the most important points for women in F1.
Britain has also produced a female F1 driver who attempted to enter the 1976 British Grand Prix. Divina Galica was a former winter Olympian who took up motorsport as a second career.
The theme continued with Desiré Wilson when she became the only woman to date to win a version of a F1 race in the British Aurora F1 Series. She also became the only female driver to lead a F1 Grand Prix, impressing many team bosses.
More recently, Giovanna Amati entered 3 races in 1992; however, after failing to qualify she was replaced by future World Champion Damon Hill, who also failed to qualify for 6 of the following 8 races. Even in the ruthless world of F1 in 2017 it’s hard to imagine a team to drop a driver after just 3 bad races.
Formula One hasn’t been without female racers since then though with several having tested for teams. Katherine Legge tested for Minardi in 2005, Carmen Jorda for Lotus F1 in 2015 and Tatiana Calderon only this year joined Sauber.
The most famous and arguably the most influential of these is Susie Wolff. Signed as a test driver by Williams in 2012, she became the first woman to be involved in a Formula One weekend since Amati when she drove in a practice session at the British Grand Prix in 2014.
However, she retired after the 2015 season when she felt that her dream of having a permanent seat in a F1 car was just out of reach. Speaking after her retirement she said “it became clear that I wasn’t going to get onto that starting grid, so the decision was pretty easy in the end to make”. Wolff also said “(F1) is very competitive, and it is not just competitive for me because I am a woman… there are so few opportunities”.
The current situation is vastly improved from past decades with more and more women being seen doing important jobs that are integral to the success of teams. In 2012, Monisha Kaltenborn became the first woman to be appointed to the Team Principal role of a F1 team. Kaltenborn said “…don’t let yourself get intimidated by some unqualified comments that you’re a woman.” Unfortunately, after over 4 years in the job she parted ways with the team she had worked with since the late 1990s earlier this year.
Alongside Kaltenborn in running a F1 team is Claire Williams, daughter of Sir Frank she is the Deputy Team Principal of Williams F1. Starting as a communications officer in 2002 she worked her way up until in 2013 when she was appointed Deputy Team Principal, with father Frank retaining the Team Principal role. A hugely influential figure in motorsport she remains a shining light for women in senior F1 roles.
F1 drivers are not quiet about their desire to see more women in the industry with 4-time world champion Lewis Hamilton saying only this year that “a Miami race and more ladies in the paddock” were amongst the things on his wish-list for improving the sport. Expanding, he said “more access for the women, there’s too many dudes in the paddock”, although the phrasing of his comments is questionable, ‘the women’ were pleased to see that he had acknowledged the issue and, crucially, the sentiment was there.
Not everyone in such powerful positions has been so supportive. Former ‘big boss’ Bernie Ecclestone said in 2016 that women would ‘never be taken seriously’ in F1 because they ‘aren’t strong enough to drive quick enough’, because as we know it takes immense strength to push your foot down on the accelerator.
The future of women in motorsport is certainly looking brighter with more entering the industry every season. In 2016 Susie Wolff launched the initiative ‘Dare to be Different’ along with the Motorsports Association. Their aim is to inspire, connect and showcase women who work in every aspect of racing. The community continues to grow, with ambassadors such as Tatiana Calderon, Ruth Buscombe and motorcycle racer Maria Costello, they continue to inspire.
In terms of a female driver, the future looks strong although maybe not immediately. Other formulas have been embracing women with Formula E having 3 female drivers since its inaugural race in 2014, and Calderon currently racing in GP3 (a F1 feeder series).
In engineering there has been a huge change in attitude with Claire Williams saying in 2017 “what we’re seeing now is more women coming up and applying…within the academies, within the engineering apprenticeships. In fact, for last year’s Randstad Williams Engineering Academy we had more females applying for places than we did males.”
It seems like there has been a huge shift in attitudes and hopefully in the coming seasons we will see the proof of this. With initiatives such as ‘Dare to be Different’ and an increasing number of female role models, hopefully future generations wont even have to have such a discussion.
(heading picture credit: Getty Images)