Formula 1 Still Waiting for Next Woman to Conquer the Road to the F1 Grid

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Joe Saward
·12 min read
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Photo credit: Fairfax Media Archives - Getty Images
Photo credit: Fairfax Media Archives - Getty Images

From Autoweek

  • This week, Beth Paretta announced an Indianapolis 500 effort with driver Simona de Silvestro, leaving some to wonder, 'when will a woman return to the Formula 1 grid'?

  • Lella Lombardi, pictured above, is the last woman to race in Formula 1, and her last race in the series came in 1976.

  • Efforts including the W Series and the now 10-year-old FIA Women & Motor Sport Commission breeds hope that a woman will soon be back on the F1 grid.

The news that Simona de Silvestro will be racing for a female-led team at the Indianapolis 500 is big news in the United States, but it has led to some asking why there are no women racing in Formula 1.

People say that there must be something wrong with Formula 1 because there are no women on the grid or even in high-profile leadership positions. And these days, of course, no one dares to say that this might be because there has been something wrong with all the women who have tried. So what is the truth?

Are women not good enough for F1?

The FIA set up a Women & Motor Sport Commission 10 years ago—that’s right, it’s been 10 years since efforts began to increase female involvement in the sport. Those who know F1 well will tell you that F1 is not sexist. It does not matter your background. If you can do a better job than the best you will be given the respect you deserve. It is a high-speed meritocracy and there are a lot more women in the sport than one might think, although they are generally in the background, working as lawyers, accountants, marketers and organizers.

Photo credit: Bryn Lennon - Formula 1 - Getty Images
Photo credit: Bryn Lennon - Formula 1 - Getty Images

In the last 10 years, there have been two female team principals. Well, that’s not actually true because although Claire Williams ran the Williams Formula 1 team and did everything that a team principal would do, she was always only given the title of deputy team principal. That was not a sexist thing, but rather in respect of her father and team founder Sir Frank, who was still team principal in title, although he ceased active involvement when Claire took over. She stayed from 2013 to 2020. The team flattered briefly with Mercedes engines but then faded away.

Monisha Kaltenborn was the other, running Sauber from 2010-2017. She did this very well, but in the end a new owner wanted to change things. She departed. The new team boss has not done any better.

Photo credit: ullstein bild - Getty Images
Photo credit: ullstein bild - Getty Images

“With the team I have never had any situation when I felt I was not being treated with respect, because I am a woman,” Kaltenborn said at the time. “Even with the other teams, there were no real problems. There was someone early on who thought I was Peter Sauber’s translator, but he was from a different generation and in that generation they did not understand it as much they do now. I do know, though, that he felt really bad about it afterwards, when he found out what I did.”

There are and have been for many years a lot of women involved in all aspects of the sport—except the driving. Bernie Ecclestione was famous for surrounding himself with female lawyers, and the new owners Liberty Media had added others in important positions. There are a lot more woman engineers and mechanics than there used to be, but still no drivers.

But a look back through the history of the sport shows that women cannot be discounted. Elizabeth Junek took on the men and led the Targa Florio in 1928, ahead of such names as Louis Chiron, Giuseppe Campari and Alberto Divo. In the end, mechanical trouble dropped her to fifth, but she had the men covered that day. Sadly, she quit the sport a few weeks after that race when her husband was killed racing.

Photo credit: Grand Prix Photo - Getty Images
Photo credit: Grand Prix Photo - Getty Images

Since the F1 World Championship began in 1950, only two women have qualified for Grands Prix. Maria Teresa de Filippis, who raced Maseratis in 1958 and 1959, was never truly on the pace, but she blazed the trail for those followed. Lella Lombardi competed in 12 F1 World Championship races between 1974 and 1976 in various different teams. She finished sixth in the accident-shortened Spanish GP in 1975, scoring half a point in the World Championship.

One can argue that Desirée Wilson, who took part in the South African GP in 1981—for all intents and purposes a World Championship F1 race—was more competitive, but she is never counted as having raced in a championship event because the race was excluded from the World Championship by the FIA. It was at the height of the FISA-FOCA War—a political fight over commercial control of the sport.

Photo credit: Steve Etherington - EMPICS - Getty Images
Photo credit: Steve Etherington - EMPICS - Getty Images

Wilson is the only woman to have won an F1 race, beating a decent field three times in the British F1 Championship (a Formula series in the U.K.) in 1980. Since then, only two others have ever tried to qualify: Britain’s Divina Galica and Italy’s Giovanna Amati. Both were talented, but failed to qualify for Grands Prix because they were saddled with cars that were simply not competitive. Amati tried to qualify for three races in 1992, but failed in all attempts in a Brabham. Her replacement, F1 world champion Damon Hill, also failed to qualify the car in six of the eight races he entered with the team.

So, it is true that it has been 29 years since the last woman tried to race in F1. There have been others who have done tests and practice sessions, but the last to participate in an F1 race weekend—doing Friday free practice —was Susie Wolff at the 2015 British Grand Prix. Nearly six years ago.

There are many initiatives going on, notably the W Series—the championship for female race drivers—and Ferrari’s ongoing search for a young woman to join its Academy, but will these make a difference? Jamie Chadwick turned a W Series championship into a reserve role with Williams, but even she admits she's not ready for F1.

A driver needs sponsorship to climb the ladder—and it is the same problem for men and women. In some respects, it is a similar problem to countries wanting to have F1 stars. We would all love to see an Asian driver winning races, but we still have not seen it happen. Why? Because the right person has yet to come along and get the breaks needed.

So it is not about sex, nor even talent or money, it is about having everything right – and getting the chances.

Photo credit: Alexander Demianchuk - Getty Images
Photo credit: Alexander Demianchuk - Getty Images

When the Commission was first launched, Michele Mouton, who was a hugely successful rally driver, winning World Championship events and finishing runner-up in the title to Walter Rohrl in 1982, was named president. She remains in that role 10 years later.

“Can a girl get to Formula 1?” Mouton said at the time. “Sure, if it is the right girl, with the right skills and the right opportunities. It is a simple truth that women do not often get a chance with a top car; they do not get sufficient testing. You need all of that but I am sure that a girl can do that. That, though, is not the real question.

“The big question is whether a woman can win in Formula 1 and I am not so sure about that. Men and women are different. We are not built the same way and I think the biggest difference is in terms of emotions and sensibilities. I never had a problem going at top speed with a 300-foot drop right next to my car, but on a race track when you are doing 300 km down a straight you feel lighter, more exposed, or at least I did.

"I think that women have a stronger sense of self-preservation than men. It is an instinct that is more developed in the woman than in the man. And I think this is important when you come to that last hundredth of a second. A woman can work up to the top level but men will just do it. Boom. Flat out. I hope that I am wrong in my analysis and that it is not really like that but that is what I think.”

Photo credit: Daniel Kalisz - Getty Images
Photo credit: Daniel Kalisz - Getty Images

It was an interesting reflection, but Kaltenborn did not agree.

“I really don’t believe that there is any physical or mental reason why women cannot be successful,” she said. “I believe that the problem is one of acceptance and getting the right support. In racing these days, people are willing to accept that women can be competitive with the very best drivers, but very few women are coming up the racing ladder. I think this is because there is a point in their careers when they need the right kind of support and they are simply not getting it.

“That moment comes when they are trying to make the jump from karting—where women have long been quite successful—and getting into racing cars. That is a big step but when a boy says: ‘I want to go racing’, there is a certain amount of caution from his family, who may think that it is important to get a proper education and things like that.

“When it comes to a girl saying: ‘I want to race’, there is no support at all. It is treated like something ridiculous and impossible and the girls do not have the means to fight against that attitude, because they need money to go racing and usually at that age money comes from the family or from friends of the family. They also need support as they try to prove themselves in cars and that is quite an intimidating thing as well.

“I am sure that if we can get over that problem there will be plenty of women capable of racing F1 cars, but that is obviously going to take some time to overcome the problems that exist.”

When you look back there have been a couple of women racers who might have made it in Formula 1, but things did not go well for them. Ten years ago Danica Patrick talked to Bernie Ecclestone about F1. She was then 28 and in the process of switching from IndyCar to NASCAR. She had more to lose than to gain from switching to F1 and was at the wrong stage of her career to make such a move. She opted for NASCAR, made a fortune as one of the world’s most marketable role models for young women. Patrick won once in IndyCar, but was winless during six-plus years in the top-level NASCAR Cup Series.

Photo credit: JOSE JORDAN - Getty Images
Photo credit: JOSE JORDAN - Getty Images

Katherine Legge was given a test session with Toro Rosso in 2005, but Simona de Silvestro, who is in line for an Indianapolis 500 effort with Paretta Autosport in 2021, was probably the biggest lost opportunity for Formula 1. In 2014, Kaltenborn agreed to run a testing program for de Silvestro at Sauber, as “an affiliated driver.” She was 25 and a very exciting prospect.

“I have always thought like a race car driver,” de Silvestro said. “If you stay in karts that is all you are going to do, if you got to cars maybe you can achieve your dream and it was kind of no-brainer to go and do it. I was supposed to go to race in England in 2006, but the sponsorship fell through and my dad found a sponsor to race in Formula BMW in the U.S.”

And so she ended up in the U.S., where she didn’t win races.

“If I had been in a better team, maybe I would have had better results but I don’t think I would have matured as much as I have,” she said at the time. “I feel now that I have a lot of confidence. I learned a lot about myself. I knew that I was fast, but it is only when you push to the limit that you find out some things.”

Many were impressed in 2011 when she crashed a Indianapolis and her car flipped in flames. She suffered burns to both hands. Two days later she was back at the Speedway, her hands bandaged, and she qualified her car at 224 mph.

The late Dan Wheldon was impressed.

“Ninety-five percent of the grid couldn’t do what Simona did,” he said.

De Silvestro's results in Indy cars were enough for F1 teams to look at her seriously enough to give her a chance. Outside the car, she perfect. She was smart, funny and spoke five languages: German, Italian, French, English and Swiss German. She was then well-known in the U.S. just what F1 was looking for. And she had a history of cooperation with the clean energy sector. Could it be more perfect?

She went through the program, including fitness training, simulators, attending races with the team and doing public relations work. The aim was for some free practice sessions that season. At her first test in 2014, she did 121 laps at Fiorano. The team knew the car—an old Ferrari-powered Sauber C31 from 2012—well and was quietly impressed, but they wanted to see how she did after a full 10 days of planned testing.

What happened? Her backers had promised money to pay for the program. That money never came. And in this respect, Sauber, even under Kaltenborn, showed the ultimate equality. No money. No program. One can only wonder what might have been.

The Indy 500 will hopefully show us, once again, what Simona, now 32, can do.