The racing world of Formula 1 has unquestionably been dominated by men. But the male gender has not been exclusive to the F1 scene, as there have been 5 women over its near 70 World Championship seasons who have graced the sport with their participation. But why has the world not seen a successful female F1 drivers? Is it that physically taxing that it can only be handled by males? Have women not been given a chance? How else would one explain the 5 women versus over 800 men that have participated in the sport on the top level?
The answer lies somewhere at the crux of all those points, and yet it is not specific to one area. In a conversation with BBC Sport, Williams development driver Susie Wolff discussed some aspects of women’s participation in the F1 circuit. She made a great point about people’s impression of there not being enough women in the sport in saying that there are only 24 spots available per season. Considering that there are thousands of talented male drivers who try to break into the F1 world, it is only fair to keep in mind that tons of males don’t make it in either, not just females.
Adding onto that, there are certainly fewer girls who aspire to become race car drivers and only a small percentage of those girls attempt to get into racing as a career. One of the main issues, according to Wolff, is there have not been any inspirational female figures in the sport yet for girls to aspire and look up to, while young boys have plenty of male role models to dream about becoming one day.
Wolff added that it’s genuinely hard to be a woman in a man dominated world. Women have to work harder and prove themselves at a higher level to achieve the same level of success that men can achieve at a lower one. But she herself doesn’t race to prove anything to anyone, nor does she care what opinion men on the track have of her. She races because she loves racing, and that is the core at the heart of any aspiring racer.
Laughing off clearly sexist comments by Bernie Ecclestone who commented that she would be a huge asset to F1 if she looks as good behind the wheel as outside of the car, Wolff notes that it is perfectly fine to be feminine, and love feminine things, and still aspire to be the best racer in the world.
She agrees that naturally, women are not as prone to take risks, but women in racing are of a different breed. She also outright dismissed the foolish notions that the sport is too taxing on a woman physically as the reason there are fewer women in it. Wolff argues that research has shown that preparation for a race is 30% physical and 70% mental. True, upper body strength is needed in order to have the energy to drive longer before getting fatigued, but a large part of that is endurance rather than muscle mass. Endurance improves blood flow, which allows more blood to get to the brain and allows the driver to concentrate more optimally on the tasks at hand.
Having a well built, competitive car paired with a supportive and enthusiastic team is more of a key than most other things. Some of those factors have been a problem thus far. Of the 5 women who have had a chance in F1, three never qualified for a race, mostly due to subpar vehicles that they were tasked with racing in. For example, in 1992 Italian Giovanna Amati attempted to qualify in her Barbham three times and failed. That same year, Damon Hill won the championship, but just 4 years later failed to qualify in that same car as the one Amati drove in 1992.
In 1975 Lella Lombardi became the first and only woman to score points in a World Championship, but it was only half of a point because the race had to be stopped early. She went on place 6th in that race and entered 14 more races that year.
Wolff herself has been a developmental project working with Williams in a touring car for multiple seasons as the team prepares her for a jump into Formula 1.
So when will women begin to appear on the Formula 1 grid? Wolff believes that it will happen in the coming decade. She knows there are several women more than ready to make the jump at this point and many people in the sport are eager for this to happen. They just need some teams to take a chance on letting them prove their racing acumen.