Home Global F1/Motorsport Women in Formula 1 – is the wait almost over?

Women in Formula 1 – is the wait almost over?

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Following the news that Susie Wolff is to become the first female driver to take part in an official Formula One session this year since 1992, Online Editor Jamie Klein takes a closer look at the history of women in F1 and asks whether the wait for the next one is almost over.

Without a shadow of a doubt, throughout its history, Formula One has predominantly been a man’s sport.

After all, every driver along with the majority of the engineers, journalists, trackside marshals and race officials are men, with the role of women traditionally having been restricted to the odd pit-lane reporter, glamorous grid girl and the nervous girlfriend willing their partner on from the pits.

There has admittedly been a smattering of female drivers thoroughout F1’s history, but their results don’t exactly make for earth-shattering reading. The first, the Italian Maria Teresa de Filippis, participated in three Grands Prix at the wheel of a privately-entered Maserati 250F in 1958, finishing tenth and last at Spa and retiring at the other two at Porto and Monza with mechanical failure.

Susie Wolff drove for Williams at the Young Drivers Test at Silverstone last year. Photo: f1-fansite.com
Susie Wolff drove for Williams at the Young Drivers Test at Silverstone last year. Photo: f1-fansite.com

17 years would pass before another woman got a crack at the F1 whip, in the form of another Italian, Lella Lombardi. She was somewhat more successful, even scoring half-a-point in her second race – the tragic, shortened 1975 Spanish Grand Prix at Montjuic – for the March team.

Though Lombardi failed to add to that tally in her remaining ten races, she was to find greater success in sports car racing and touring car racing before tragically dying of cancer in 1992. In the meantime, three other women tried but failed to qualify for an F1 race: Divina Galica, Desiré Wilson and most recently Giovanna Amati.

Amati, who drove for the Brabham team in 1992 before making way for a certain Damon Hill, was the last female driver to take officially take part in a Grand Prix weekend, and, 22 years on, there will be another in the form of Williams development driver Susie Wolff, who will be driving in first practice for the team at both Silverstone and Hockenheim this year.

But, whilst the 32-year-old Scot has proven competent behind the wheel, there’s no way Williams (or any other team for that matter) would select her for a race seat on merit – she hasn’t raced in single-seaters for the best part of a decade, whilst her results in DTM have been, to put it politely, less than stellar.

The decision to put Wolff in the car two practice sessions thus seems to be a little more than a marketing stunt, as is arguably the recent announcement by Sauber that Simona de Silvestro is to be an “affiliated driver” of the team this season, with a view to a possible race drive next year.

To be clear, de Silvestro, who now has four seasons of experience in IndyCar under her belt, is a far more promising prospect than Wolff, having securing her first podium finish in the category at Houston late last year. In fact, many insiders rate her as the best female active in motorsport at the moment.

But, just because she is one of the best women around doesn’t automatically entitle her to a space on the F1 grid. Indeed, even those with sparkling records stateside have tended to struggle to adapt to the rigours of F1 in recent years; considering de Silvestro only placed 13th in the IndyCar standings last season, you’d have to be brave to back the Swiss to be the person to buck that trend.

More to the point, it would be a shame to see a more deserving male driver miss out on a Sauber berth in 2015 in the event that de Silvestro gets parachuted into the seat without having first proved herself to a greater extent than she has already.

De Silvestro would be risking a promising career in IndyCar by racing in F1. Photo: carchix.com
De Silvestro would be risking a promising career in IndyCar by racing in F1. Photo: carchix.com

In some ways, de Silvestro’s flirtation with F1 is reminiscent of that Danica Patrick, who caused a media frenzy in 2008 when she became the first woman to win an IndyCar race at Motegi. An offer was made for her to test an F1 car, but she declined, aware that there would be no opportunity for her be to competitive and that her presence would thus be considered to be little more than a gimmick.

Indeed, Patrick is now the fifth-best paid female athlete in the world according to Forbes, meaning her decision to forego a chance in F1 to remain in the States, where, last year, she took pole position for NASCAR’s blue riband event, the Daytona 500, was unquestionably the right one.

So, where does that leave those hoping to see a woman join the F1 ranks in earnest in the near future? Of course, if Sauber do indeed decide to put de Silvestro in the car next year, there may not be much longer to wait. But there’s no merit in having a woman on the F1 purely for the sake of it – if the public see the presence of a female as a mere PR stunt, they’ll soon lose interest.

The trouble is that the perceived masculinity of go-karting, the starting point for just about every future F1 star, makes the female talent pool disproportionately small. And when you consider that somewhere in the region of 0.01% go-karters make it all the way to F1, it’s not hard to see why female drivers so seldom crop up in top-level motorsport.

One day, a girl will emerge who is genuinely good enough to take it to the boys, but this could take another five, perhaps 10 years.  Hopefully, then, it will be worth the wait.

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