“We all get to Melbourne, pull our trousers down and see what everyone’s got!” is how Christian Horner, Team Principal of the Red Bull Racing Formula One team, describes qualifying at the opening weekend of a new F1 season. The comment illustrates how male-dominated the sport is.
Such gender inequality does not overshadow the success of the sport, despite the extraordinarily unequal circumstances needed to participate. For all of Formula One’s business success, it is marred by its satisfaction at being a sport played by wealthy, white men.
And yet, motorsports such as Formula One have no reason to be played by men ahead of women: it is not a sport men are naturally better at. Despite this, after 70 years of Formula One racing, only one female driver has ever scored a world championship point – Lella Lombardi in 1975.
Lella Lombardi at the Race of Champions in 1975
It should be pointed out there is nothing stopping women from becoming a brilliant F1 driver. There are some key requirements to reach the top of the field. Strength is one – women can easily get strong enough to race an F1 car. Endurance and mental training are also of vital importance. It needn’t be said that any woman can be the best in the field for these attributes.
Therefore, what is stopping many young women? Often, they are missing the other key ingredients to becoming a successful F1 driver: being given a competitive car and a supportive team. Out of the five women given a chance in F1, three failed to qualify for a race. This is because they drove cars that were just not good enough.
Compounding the problem is the fact that many young girls don’t have a racing role model. Young boys can look up to a host of drivers; many young girls don’t even believe it is a sport they can compete in. As a consequence, there are many less aspiring girl drivers than there are boys.
To combat this, the W series, an all-female racing championship, was announced in autumn of 2018. The first season was completed in 2019, featuring twenty drivers contesting six races. It was won by Britain’s Jamie Chadwick. The competition is free to enter, driven in a standardised car and aims to provide some training to all women competing for the prize fund of $1.5 million.
Jamie Chadwick, the first winner of the W series, aged 21
To many, the benefits of such a series are clear. Combatting the marginalisation of women in Formula One, the W series aims to provide a platform for women to progress in the sport. It is a door opener, which should be looked at with an open mind.
There is also talks of the W series teaming up with Formula One, as a gateway for women into the so-far male-dominated sport. Michèle Mouton leads the Women in Motorsport Commission. Her objective “is to have more women competing alongside men — and soon — to demonstrate that they have the same ability and potential to succeed in top-level FIA championships”.
However, she also admits “the best way to benchmark their performance is to compete in a mixed environment”. Yet, the series showcases women’s talent in a female-only environment. This has sparked some criticism of the W series. Pippa Mann, who drives in IndyCar, is the most outspoken of these critics and she is unambiguous in her disapproval. Her argument focuses on the belief that segregating a sport that does not need to be is a backwards school of thought.
There is a strong case to suggest that the W series is the easy way out. The funds (the £1.5 million prize fund) could have been redirected to give female racers money to race from an early age. Creating a W series does not tackle the problem at the heart of the issue: many talented female drivers are not considered for Formula One from a very young age.
Pippa Mann goes not to say the decision “appears to have been made for women in racing, as opposed to by them”. Ultimately, the decision advocates discrimination based on gender. It takes the opportunity away for the best women to compete against the best men. To get better and get to the top, you need to race against the best, which requires the best women and men competing in one space.
Pippa Mann has been outspoken against the W series
Simona de Silvestro is a former Formula E driver. Her understanding is that “if there’s really that much money going into the series, there are a few girls that have been pretty competitive in junior series – it seems like everyone is just struggling to get the shot”. She suggests creating an affiliation similar to Red Bull or Mercedes for women, where kids can be fast-tracked into the best teams. Such a method would ensure female winners in junior series do not lose out to less talented boys.
If the W series does create a pathway for women into F1, it would be a huge success. Among a multitude of other benefits, it would give young girl drivers a role model in F1 to aspire to. The long-term benefits would be monumental.
Nevertheless, the financial cost of making it in the sport is immense, male or female. The estimated cost to manage a young driver from junior karting into a position to be considered for a Formula One drive is €8 million, according to Toto Wolff, Mercedes team boss. For women, even if the W series is free to enter, years of training and financial commitment are necessary before that point.
Finding a route around this huge financial obstacle is tricky. There are limited options. Lewis Hamilton is one of few drivers to compete after an unprivileged childhood. His father worked four jobs to fund the beginning of Lewis’ journey. This continued for a few years until at 13, Hamilton was picked up and financially backed during his teenage years by Ron Dennis, the McLaren then-boss.
His story is rare; after many sacrifices by his parents, he was entrusted to deliver by someone who placed faith in him. Today, Hamilton believes the four jobs his dad worked wouldn’t even scratch the surface. “When people ask me where the next me is coming from, I say: ‘No, these kids come from wealthy backgrounds, not from the struggle I came from… There are only wealthy kids coming through. There are not kids from working-class families.”
F1 legend Louis Hamilton at the 2018 Italian Grand Prix
Matty Street owns Team Karting, which aims to make motorsport affordable for young drivers. He clarifies, “If you want to be picked up by the top teams and go into their feeder programmes, you need to be racing with the best of the best and if you haven’t got the money, you’re going to be overlooked.
“If they’re racing against other kids who have a new engine or a new chassis every race, then they have no chance in being able to keep up with that, and drop down to club level.”
Hamilton had a father just about able to fund his junior motorsport ambitions. Today, Hamilton’s dad believes junior motorsport is so costly it “doesn’t encourage those with a dream of F1 to enter the sport, or for the genuine cream to rise to the top”.
For a family in low socioeconomic conditions, a young dreamer has little chance to make it into the sport. Furthermore, as the working class is disproportionately represented by people of Black race, the sport is highly unlikely to overcome its race inequities in the near future either. The narrative is all too depressing and familiar.
Athletes in the sport must go beyond their current attempts to tackle the inequities motorsport and F1 succumb to. Lewis Hamilton feels like a current lone voice in the fight against racism in the sport. Voices are muffled amongst those with white privilege in F1. Gender, wealth and race inequality persist. On its current course, the sport will only become more segregated.
Writer: Raef Jackson