Formula One has only seen five female drivers compete in races and qualifying in its almost 70-year history – and now might be a good time for that to change.
We are currently in one of those eras in which one team and driver – Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton – are dominating the sport. The Briton will be gunning for his seventh title since 2008 when the new season begins in Melbourne on March 15th.
So how can F1 be made more interesting? How can its appeal be widened in a way which wins over new fans and generates fresh excitement? Surely one easy way is to get female drivers taken seriously and on the grid.
In recent years, the likes of Susie Wolff have tried hard to break down barriers in the male-dominated competition and show that women can compete at the highest level.
The Scot served as a test and development driver for the Williams F1 team between 2012 and 2015, and drove in pre-race practice sessions during 2014 at Silverstone and Hockenheim.
However, she eventually grew frustrated at waiting for her chance to claim a Grand Prix drive, claiming that she was fighting a losing battle in a sport in which, until recently, the most visible women were the race-day grid girls.
Pioneering women in F1
Wolff is one of five female racers who have featured in F1 since its creation in 1950. The first was Italy’s Maria Teresa de Filippis, who competed in five GP races but only finished in one – the Belgian Grand Prix in 1958.
The next women to follow her was compatriot Lella Lombardi who remains the only woman driver to have points on the board. She started started 12 races and managed to finish sixth in the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix.
Britain’s Divina Galica competed in four Winter Olympics as a skier but also took part in qualifying for three F1 races, the first being the 1976 British GP for the ShellSport Whiting team.
The follow season, she was handed the chance to replace Rupert Keegan at Hesketh Racing, but after failing to qualify for both the opening two races in Argentina and Brazil she called time on her F1 career.
Next came South Africa’s Desiré Wilson who lined up in qualifying for the 1980 British Grand Prix but failed to make the grid.
The last female racer before Wolff to try their luck in F1 was Giovanna Amati. Another Italian, she took part in qualifying in the first three races of the 1992 campaign but never raced in a Grand Prix.
Female success in other competitions
Women seeking to gatecrash the F1 party have usually found themselves given a chance by teams with little hope of taking on the manufacturer-backed outfits. But when female racers are given the right level of support, they can take on their male counterparts and challenge for honours.
America’s Danica Patrick (main photo) stunned the motorsport world in 2005 when she led for the Indianapolis 500 for 19 laps before finishing fourth. In 2008, she also became the first woman to win a major-league open-wheel race in a North American series when she won the IndyCar Series Indy Japan 300.
Patrick then moved from IndyCar to the NASCAR series, and became the first woman to take pole position for a NASCAR Cup Series event. Her eighth-place is still the highest finishing position ever by a woman.
France’s Michèle Mouton became an Audi works driver and won four World Rally Championship races. She had nine podium finishes and remains the only women to win a WRC race. In 1982, she was runner-up in the WRC drivers’ championship.
But who will be next to seek a breakthrough in F1? Jamie Chadwick, the inaugural champion of the women-only W Series, has moved closer to achieving her dream after joining Williams as a development driver but, as Wolff’s story shows, we have been here before.
So what will it take for women to finally take their place on the starting grid in motorsport’s most prestigious competition?
This season’s W Series winner will earn 15 points towards the 40 needed to gain the FIA Super Licence which any driver racing in Formula One needs. However, there is no guarantee that any number of points will open doors with F1’s teams.
Perhaps the winner of the W Series should at least get to try out for one of F1’s smaller teams. Who knows, if they succeed, they then might even get a chance with one of the bigger outfits?
I would also put forward the idea that any driver who finishes with less than the 25 points you get for winning a Grand Prix should be demoted, with their race seat given to an up-and-coming competitor.
Last season, for example, that would mean six racers ranging from Lance Stroll to George Russell would have been ‘relegated’.
Shaking up the grid
Another way of progression that could see more women in the driving seat is that every F1 team should have two female racers in their development line-up, with the main teams from F1 supporting them in the W Series to further expand their brands.
The first woman to make a breakthrough in this way doesn’t have to be the next Lewis Hamilton, but surely the likes of Jamie Chadwick are more deserving of a shot at racing in F1 than some of the drivers who are hired mainly on the strength of the sponsorship they bring in?
This ‘relegation’ concept would certainly shake up the industry and would make drivers even more keen to gather every point they possibly can towards the back of the grid. One point could possibly be the difference at the end of the season between staying in the sport and being demoted.
An all-female team?
Another idea which would certainly generate fresh interest in F1 would be to have an all-female race team and crew.
Critics might argue that having a such a team could be actually be seen as a negative for a woman driver – i.e. the only way she could get into F1 was through having an all-female outfit. However, once it became integrated into the sport and proven in competition, the other teams would start to see the potential of female drivers in real races, not just junior series.
Again, critics will say what if the all-women’s team came last every race? In F1, though, it’s a question of resources, not just driving talent, and if such a team had enough backing to properly develop and test its cars, it could ensure this wouldn’t happen.
It would certainly add a different dynamic to a competition where the outcome often suffers from being a foregone conclusion (see Hamilton, but also Michael Schumacher – seven titles in 11 years), and the rule-makers seemingly add a new layer of complexity every season.
Of course, F1 currently has lots of female fans, but how many more might it attract – to the delight of broadcasters, sponsors and advertisers – if women were competing and succeeding in the sport?