EXCLUSIVE: A female F1 champion? It’s just a matter of time

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  • Italy's Giovanna Amati was the last female F1 driver, in 1992.

    Amanda Davies hosts ‘The Circuit’, Friday 28 August at 7.30pm UAE on CNN International

    If I’ve spent my career being asked questions about being a woman in sports journalism – just imagine what it’s like for the women who work in F1. And I’m not talking about the grid girls. 

    You can count the number of female drivers who have taken place in the Formula 1 world championship on one hand. Quite literally. There are 5. Italy’s Maria Teresa de Filippis was the first – in 1958-59, then Lella Lombardi; England’s Divina Galica, South Africa’s Desire Wilson, and finally Giovanna Amati in 1992. 

    The obvious conclusion is sexism. The reason that so few females have ever been on the grid – and the fact there haven’t been any since Amati – is because the men don’t want them there. That a woman’s place on the grid is sporting a token piece of lycra, and a megawatt smile. And that when the lights go out they should be at the back of the garage making tea for the lads. 

    The simple explanation is that those at the top of Formula 1 are doing all they can to build as many barriers as they possibly can to stop women swapping their high heels for helmets and taking up their place on the grid. 

    But that really is a case of 2 plus 2 makes 5. Sorry to disappoint. 

    It could have been levelled as a reason in days gone by. Following Maria Teresa de Filippis claiming a 10th place finish in the 1958 Belgian Grand Prix the race director commented “the only helmet that a woman should use is the hairdresser”. And Williams Deputy Team Principal Claire Williams admitted to me that her being a woman in a man’s world was an issue with her father Frank in the early days – “he’s an older generation F1 person – he’s very much this is a sport for the men, for the boys, and girls can’t handle it.”

    But Williams proved her dad wrong – and theirs is a team actively championing women across all areas of the sport. These days it’s just not true that women are being stopped from making it because of their sex. There’s a host of successful and powerful women throughout the F1 paddock. From Williams herself, to Sauber’s Team Principal Monisha Kaltenborn, to female race engineers like Gill Jones – head of Red Bull’s trackside electronics – who made people look twice when she stepped up to the podium to collect the Red Bull constructors winners trophy alongside Sebastian Vettel at the Bahrain Grand Prix in 2013. 

    As Williams put it “I actually think the blokes in F1 – to put it bluntly – love having women around the place. That gender divide doesn’t really come up. The boys look after the boys as much as the boys look after the girls and the girls look after the boys. Formula 1 is one of the only sports in the world that allows girls to line up and compete against men. There are no barriers to a female lining up on the grid on a Sundayafternoon – and competing against male rivals. Not a lot of sports can say that.”

    And it’s true that whilst football is criticised for not putting the backing into the women’s game that they do the men’s; and that female athletes and tennis stars get a lesser billing to their male counterparts – in their separate events – the platform is ready and waiting for women in Formula 1. 

    There is absolutely nothing that says women cannot line up alongside the men on the grid. 

    So if it’s not the rules, and not sexism – why is it that Lella Lombardi remains the only woman to have won points in an F1 world championship race?

    Susie Wolff is the closest woman to that grid as things stand – as the Williams test driver. She discounts the argument that physically there’s any disadvantage to being a woman – insisting that any differences can be made up with training in the gym and with the help of the cars these days. 

    She laughs at the suggestion that it’s just because ‘women can’t drive’ – “I know guys who are great drivers and terrible drivers” she says. 

    And then she gets her game face on when I ask why she hasn’t made that step up from test driver to reserve driver or beyond. Susie is a good driver – and has been given her chance in practice sessions at Barcelona and Silverstone this year. But she’s not a great driver that has forced any of the teams into giving her a seat, “…just now in formula one, as a driver, you need to put the right package together.  It’s not enough just to be quick in the race car…. there are so few opportunities, because I’m at Williams but we have 2 great drivers now who are doing a fantastic job”. 

    So if not Susie – who? How do we find the woman who is fast enough to give the men a run for their money – and their race seat. Wolff is in no doubt that it’s a question of numbers. ‘100% that’s the issue. It’s just getting more little girls starting at grass root level – for the best to rise to the top.  We can’t forget that formula one is the absolute pinnacle of motorsport – it’s the most advanced racing cars in the world – the fastest, and some of the best drivers in the world, so it’s not easy for any driver to make it into Formula one, regardless of whether they’re a woman or not.”

    As F1 teams continue to battle for survival – those seats on the grid become increasingly scarce. This season there are 20 race seats. 20 drivers at Formula 1’s top table. 

    And the numbers game is where this becomes an issue not just confined to motorsport – but one that broadens out to the one of women and sport generally. Of convincing young girls that sport and competition is fun, and healthy, and a whole lot cooler than celebrity status and computer games. That getting sweaty and muddy on the pitch is a million times more rewarding than watching your boyfriend from the side of the pitch. The tide is slowly turning – the message seems to be getting through. And the message from Formula 1 is that the opportunity is there to be taken.