Where Are The Female F1 Drivers?
When researching for this post, I was surprised to find out that women have had a long history in F1 – albeit a short one. The first female driver to compete in an F1 race was Maria Teresa de Filippis back in 1958, eight years after F1’s inaugural championship season. Filippis made 3 Grands Prix starts and 5 entries in her F1 career, with two race retirements and one tenth-place finish. The years have gone by since, and while other women have taken part in F1 races, there has still never been a full-time female F1 driver. For this article, I dove into the timeline for that to happen and a method to bring more female racers into the top levels of motorsport. To help me with this important subject, I spoke to Will Buxton [F1 Journalist and Presenter], Louise Goodman [ITV BTCC and F1 Presenter], and Lee McKenzie [Channel 4 F1, Rugby and W Series Presenter]. Enjoy! If you like this post, be sure to follow On The Pit Wall on Instagram at @otpwblog
The breeding ground for the next generation of racers is karting. It is often referred to as the bottom of the ‘pyramid’ of racing. I wanted to know whether there is a built-in stigma stemming from karting that prevents girls from wanting to compete. I turned to Lee for her opinion.
“There are a lot of girls that start karting, whether it’s because their dad or brother did it or because it’s easier to stick them in a kart than have them stand cold at the side. There is a noticeably large drop-out rate though, and this isn’t just in motorsport. It’s something that a lot of governing bodies are trying to work on. From around the age of 13-14, other things happen with girls. They start to get a little more distracted or want to focus on their schoolwork. It’s hugely different. . . the way that girls and boys grow up. I think the challenge is keeping them [girls] there. The more girls that do karting, the more likely they are to stay in. It’s hard if you’re the only girl with twenty to thirty guys at karting every weekend. That’s not going to be easy.
I think it’s vital that once the talent is there, it’s encouraged. Max Verstappen’s sister is the perfect example of that. Victoria is an extraordinary racing driver, so was Max’s mother, Sophie. David Coulthard talks about what a great driver Sophie was – almost better than Jos – who she married! I filmed with Max and Victoria, and she at that point had sort of given up with racing. That was a real shame because even Max said how good his sister was.”
Lee makes a good point when emphasizing that it’s not just a lack of women in karting or a lack of talent – it’s the dropout rate that’s the problem. That prompted me to think about my stance on one (controversial) way to keep women involved in racing: positive discrimination. This is defined as, “the practice or policy of favouring individuals belonging to groups regarded as disadvantaged or subject to discrimination. . .”
Will made an excellent point when I asked him about this.
“I struggled with this at the start but then when I took it at base level, it’s no different to when we used to have British F3, European F3, Brazilian F3 – Formula BMW did the same with Formula BMW Americas and Formula BMW Asia. You have regional championships to give people from those regions the opportunity to shine. Then they move up to the next level and then the next and then the next. You’re not going to go from the W Series straight to F1 as Champion. You’re still going to have to go on your path, be it to go from F3 to F2 to F1 or wherever you might end up, even Indy Lights. It’s not a guaranteed path. What it does do is provide a platform as an education and provides a shop window for people in F3 and F2 to say ‘yes, I’ll take a Jamie Chadwick or I’ll take an Alice Powell’, whoever it might be. That’s big, and for that, I don’t see it as being any different to the regional championships we used to have.”
Will explained this further with an example. He said if at the entry-level of karting there are 2000 kids but only 20 people in F1, the chances of making it to F1 are very slim (1 in 100). And if all those 2000 kids in karting are boys, then all the racers at the top are going to be boys. If 1 out of all those 2000 is a girl, then there is only a 1 in 100 chance of her making it to F1. But if 600 of the 2000 are girls then there is a much higher chance one will make it to the top.
He went on to say, “The more representation you have in the lower formulas, the more chance there is of making it through. You’re only going to get involved at the bottom if you see it as a possibility. You’re only going to see it as a possibility if you see people who look like you and are like you doing it. F1 is all men, but now we have W Series – and the W Series is supporting F1. They’re all women, and they’re talented and quick. Hopefully, that starts to resonate with girls aged 4 or 5, ‘I want to be like Jamie Chadwick, I want to go race’. Great. Then the numbers in karting increase, year after year to the point where there’s a higher percentage therefore a higher chance that they get to the top. A phrase used a lot over the last few years, whether that’s gender, race, sexuality, nationality is ‘if you can’t see it, you don’t want to be it’. That’s huge. The fact that it exists is really important.”
Will is correct that positive discrimination is similar in concept to the regional championships. However, one issue with positive discrimination for people is the fear that the female racers just become ‘token female drivers’. Louise confessed to me that this is a concern of hers.
“I know lots of female racing drivers; they have similar thoughts. They’re all competitive animals and they think it’s about who’s quickest. Who’s best at the job. Not which female is best at the job. I can’t wait for the day that we’re not having these conversations because it’s no longer an issue. I think there has been quite a big change in the last few years, though.”
A current example of positive discrimination is in Extreme E – which Lee, Will, and Louise all agreed works well for the series. In Extreme E, each team has one female driver and one male driver. It has attracted some of the top male and female driving talent, sponsorship and involvement are growing and the formula (pun intended) seems to be working.
Finally, our conversation turned to the question of when will there be a full-time female driver in F1?
Lee’s honest opinion is “I don’t think it will happen in the next few years. I think best-case scenario it will happen in around five years’ time. Frankly speaking, if we see something in the next ten years, that will be incredible. I hope my timeline is wrong, I really do.”
Louise referenced a point Will made earlier, “I wouldn’t want to put a specific X number of years for the timeline. For me, the important thing is changing perceptions at the bottom level. We need to increase the pyramid for females and ethnic minorities. So many young drivers that I speak to, boys, when you say, ‘how did you get started in racing?’, yes some of them will have a family connection, but a lot of them say ‘well, it was a friend’s birthday party, and we went karting’. How many people take their 10-year-old daughter karting for a birthday? I think the problem is not always within the sport, but outside of it. There is still this perception that motorsport is for boys, which is not the case at all. Motorsport is for everybody. Thank goodness, ideas are changing now. I think we need to raise awareness and education, and that’s what’s going to get people who are now thinking ‘maybe this isn’t for me’ to think, ‘ok, maybe this is for me’.”
While the struggles of women are as genuine as ever, it would be remiss of me to write an article like this without mentioning the inequality that minorities also face. In August of 2020, Natalie Pinkham said that “Formula One is 88pc male and 91pc white. . .” That’s shameful. Progress is slow but it is happening. Both F1 and motorsport are consistently growing in diversity. About time. There are now several spectacular women and minorities in senior roles in F1 who serve as incredible role models to both fans and enthusiasts. Below I’ve linked some organizations/blogs/podcasts committed to increasing diversity in motorsport, which I’d highly recommend that you check out.
A massive thank you to Will, Louise & Lee for all their help, advice and insight! The organizations I mentioned above are linked below;
Racing Pride: an organization dedicated to “positively promote LGBTQ+ inclusivity within the motorsport industry and among its technological and commercial partners”.
Girls On Track UK: Girls On Track hold “events to inspire girls and women into seeing and believing that there is a rightful and valuable place for them in the motorsports industry”. Fun Fact: Both Lee and Louise are ambassadors!
Driven By Diversity: their mission is to “educate individuals and organizations on the value of diversity and inclusion in motorsports”. Find my interview with their podcast co-host, Steph Turner, here!
Cover Image Photo Credit: Axon Driver Solutions (the image is of Silverstone Circuit)