Why Haven't There Been Many Female Drivers in Formula 1!
There Are Many Reasons Why!
There are multiple reasons that female drivers aren’t competing in Formula One. We look at a few:
Society and Encouragement
Equality has come on considerably in the past decade. But there is still much to be done. Most modern Formula One drivers have started karting by the age of 6, and as this is still not considered a ‘young girls sport’ – girls that do show an aptitude for racing tend to start too late. The relatively dangerous nature of motorsports may deter many parents from encouraging their children to participate – but as girls are often (frustratingly) seen as the ‘more delicate’, the need to protect them is greater. Attitudes are changing. Slowly.
Motorsport is one of few sports where (in theory) men and women are able to compete as equals. But this rarely happens at mid-level competitions and never (currently) at the highest level.
There are multiple complex reasons for this; including the simple fact that because young girls don’t see themselves represented in the sport – they don’t consider this as a potential career.
Up until recently, the most prominent women seen at the Formula One race were the Grid Girls. These scantily clad females were banned from the sport in 2018 due to their ‘outdated’ nature. During the first year of the ban - it was defied in Monaco, then later in Russia.
Their presence added to the ‘old boys club’ impression of the sport and was no longer in keeping with its desire for equality. But again, opinion was divided:
Dutch politician Roy van Aalst said “only a huge idiot can see a beautiful woman and see a problem… the rest of the people love it. It is part of motorsport.”
Sean Bratches, MD of Commercial Operations at Formula One explained that the decision had been made because the inclusion of Grid Girls was now “at odds with modern day societal norms.”
The removal of the Grid Girls continues to be talked about. Often by former Grid Girls who loved their job and want to make it clear that they didn’t feel exploited. Many of the drivers also seem to miss their presence, including Lewis Hamilton who replied to whether they should be reinstated by stating “I think women are the most beautiful thing in the world, so yeah.”
There are always people resistant to change. But the reasons for the Grid Girls removal run deeper than a conservative desire to remove titillation. It is the first step to changing perception of women in the sport. To pave the way for them to be equals and race alongside the men. Perhaps when this has been achieved there could be grid people?
Embarking on a career in Formula One is expensive for everyone. In the past few years - a sport that was already expensive - has grown considerably and is now a multi-billion-dollar global phenomenon.
To compete in Formula One is a rare prize afforded to few. Before drivers can reach the pinnacle of motorsport they need to jump through multiple hoops: Formula 4/Renault, up to F3, then F2 before they can participate in F1. Mercedes Team Principal Toto Wolff has estimated this cost at around 8 million Euro.
Because of this you either need wealthy parents or an exceptional talent to encourage sponsorship from an early age. This reduces the field considerably whether you are male or female.
Despite the female talent, the lack of female stars at the top-level means that there is no precedent for sponsoring them – and so continues the vicious cycle – there will be no female stars at the top level without sponsorship. Sponsors simply don’t want to risk millions investing in something ‘unproven’.
Women will need to be even better than men to get noticed (still true in many aspects of life) and with the odds against them beginning a motor racing career/getting the support they need to achieve excellence – this remains a ‘long shot.’
And because of the lack of female participants, Formula One cars are naturally designed around the male physic. This helps to perpetuate the argument that the female body can’t cope with the physical pressures of the sport. However, we know that women can train their bodies to be strong and withstand significant pressure. But how much current investment will be put into designing the perfect car for women?
So, what can be done?
A female only competition - The W Series (with a $1.5 million prize fund) began in 2019 to give women a ‘step up’ to the higher levels of motorsport. Intended as a way for women to support their racing careers and reduce the obstacles that they currently face in motor racing.
Since 2021 The W Series became a support series to Formula One – giving the series a huge platform to promote female drivers. And as we have discussed; promotion and sponsorship are an essential part of growth within the sport. The series travelled with Formula One to 8 races in 2021.
But this act of segregation has drawn criticism from many in the motorsport community.
“Those with funding to help female racers are choosing to segregate them as opposed to supporting them.” (British IndyCar driver Pippa Mann)
Transgender racing driver Charlie Martin added:
“As racers, we want to compete against the best drivers – regardless of age, race, sexual orientation or gender – and prove we are the best at what we do.”
It is clear that a fundamental downside is that the series will prevent women from competing against the men that – should they succeed – they will be racing against in the future.
But as women aren’t currently making it through to Formula One; if they can aim for the W Series then they are creating a better chance at gaining sponsorship or supporting their career by using the prize money to get to the next level.
Worryingly, in 2022 the series was reported as having ‘significant financial difficulties’ and the final two rounds of the season were cancelled because of this. However, the W Series CEO Catherine Bond Muir said she was confident that the series would continue in 2023. Lets hope so.
Women were competing in the 1950s – what happened?
We can only imagine the sexism that the first ever female Formula One driver Maria Teresa de Filippis faced from within the sport in 1958. She started 3 races; but didn’t score any points and is reported to have retired from the sport because of the high fatality rate at the time.
The only female driver ever to score a point – actually just half a point – in Formula One was Italian Lella Lombardi in 1975. The most experienced female driver in Formula One history - Lombardi started 12 races (17 entries) between 1974 and 1976 and was the last female to get past the qualifying stages to race. 47 years ago…
Since then, female drivers have failed to qualify. British driver Divina Galica (1976-1978) had 3 entries – but no starts. South African Desire Wilson (1980) had 1 entry and no starts. Italian driver Giovanna Amati (1992) had 3 entries and no starts.
British driver Susie Wolff (2014-2015) was the last female driver to compete in a Formula One session at the British Grand Prix in 2015. But as Wolff wasn’t in contention for a race seat – she retired and eventually moved into team management
So, what does the future look like?
The most successful driver in The W Series is Jamie Chadwick. She won the first series in 2019 with Hitech GP, in 2021 with Veloce Racing and 2022 with Jenner Racing. There was no competition in 2020 due to Covid.
In 2019, Chadwick became the 2nd driver to join the Williams Driver Academy. And in December 2022 Andretti Autosport announced that they had signed Chadwick to drive in the 2023 Indy NXT.
If we are looking for a female to break through to Formula One in the near future – Chadwick is getting herself into a positive position to achieve this.
Every incremental achievement of female drivers helping to: make female sponsorship commonplace, encourage young girls to take up the sport and improve the standard of female racing is to be applauded. Each is a step towards men and women driving against each other in a Formula One race. These things take time. But what a moment that will be.
Please read our page about how the F1 Academy has set up an all-female driver category for Formula 1, to train and equip young female drivers for advancement to the highest level of the competition.