Formula One

Female F1 Drivers – Why there are so few of them?

One of the hottest debates over the years in the world of F1 has been how much male-dominated the sport is and why that is the case. Only this decade, there has been various women that made it into development driving roles in F1 -most notably Simona de Silvestro and Susie Wolff-, but they never came close to an actual F1 seat. In fact, there are only five women that made it into F1 over the years and their stories will be presented in short in this article.

Meet the five women to make it to the F1 grid

Maria Teresa de Filippis, Photo By Icon Sport

We, actually, don’t have to wait a lot to find the first woman presence in F1, since the championship begun in 1950. The first woman to race in F1 is Maria Teresa de Filippis, back in the 50’s. The Italian made her debut in F1 with Maserati, after racing in various other categories, in 1958 in the Monaco Grand Prix. She entered in 5 F1 events, qualifying for the race in 3 of them, with her highest finish being a 10th place in Spa. Her career lasted until 1959, when she retired from racing after Jean Behra’s death, who was her friend and team owner. She is a great example of the prejudice against women in the sport, especially back then, when she wasn’t allowed to start the French Grand Prix after the race director claimed that “the only helmet a woman should wear is the one at the hairdresser’s”. She passed away in 2016, aged 89.

After de Filippis, the F1 world had to wait 16 years for the next woman to enter a race, but Lella Lombardi was definitely worth the wait. Starting out on her native Italy in lower racing categories, she became only the second woman to race in F1, when she attented to race  in 1974. For the 1975 season she signed with March and managed to qualify for her first race in South Africa. She picked her first point finish (albeit she only received half a point) in the second race in Spain, in tragic circumstances as the race was halted after a big crash that led to the death of 5 spectators. She did more races this year and managed to finish 7th once again, as well as attempting to race with Williams in USA, but didn’t manage to make it to the race. She started the 1976 season with March, but soon got replaced by Ronnie Peterson. Her last races where also in 1976 with RAM. The only woman to have scored points in F1 to date, Lombardi’s unconventional career and character has been a defining factor in inspiring other women in racing and changing the perspectives of people for driving as a “man-thing”. She passed away aged 50, in 1992.

Lella Lombardi, Photo by Icon Sport

The other three women to make it to F1 didn’t manage to be as successful as the two first. British racer Divina Galica emerged at the same time that Lombardi’s F1 career was coming to an end. Formerly a skiing Olympic athlete, she entered the world of racing cars, after being invited in a racing event for celebrities. In the space of three years, between 1976-1978 she managed to make 3 attempts to qualify for an F1 race, but never made it to the race.

Two years later, another woman attempted to race in F1, South-African Desire Wilson. With a much bigger racing backround, Wilson firstly entered the 1980 British Grand Prix with RAM, not managing to qualify for the race. She was about to race in her home Grand Prix in Kyalami next year for Tyrell, but the race never got ahead as an official F1 race, because of the FISA-FOCA war, then at its peak. In the non-official race she was having a good day, before her gearbox let her down. She went on to have further career in the US, but never raced in F1 again.

The last entry in our list, is the latest, which came in 1992. The last woman to attempt to enter an F1 Grand Prix is Italian Giovanna Amati. After some racing in Italy and outside Europe she got the chance to race for the troubled Brabham team in 1992, but didn’t manage to qualify for any race, nor impress with her driving, moving to other categories instead.

Why is it so hard for women to make it to F1?

It is somewhat surprising that it’s been 31 years since the last woman presence in F1. But, as we will see, the reasons for this situation are multiple and have a long history in the history not only of motorsport, but also society as a whole.

First of all, it’s important to remember that there exists no scientific body ability differentiation between the sexes and therefore there is no differentiation between men and women in motorsports, as it happens in other sports (i.e. football, basketball). Instead, the differences can be seen in social perceptions about what is and isn’t feasible. For years, especially prior to the 21st century, woman’s social role has been reduced to the household and such activities such as driving and racing were considered a “male thing”. In this aspect, females weren’t really considered as capable drivers (bare in mind the Maria Teresa de Filippis situation) and weren’t themselves considering driving as an activity they should try.

But this social role has also financial implications. It’s no secret that the road to F1, and motorsport in general, is an expensive one. All drivers count on certain family backing or sponsorship deals to finance their career. But, with the notion that women aren’t suited for driving the sponsorship deals are hard to find. Also families tended, at least in the past, to show lack of real support when a girl wanted to go against the social norm and start a racing career.

These situations where the norm in the 20th century, but even nowadays things haven’t changed sufficiently in order to bring females to F1. Even when that’s happening it’s rarely because of a real belief in their talent, but rather for publicity or commercial reasons. That’s why there’s been quite a number of women that have made it into development or test driver roles in teams, but never got an actual seat. Despite the change in attitudes, still women have to face lots of prejudice and challenges in order to start a racing career.

Are there women with F1 potential?

On the flip side, truth be told, not many women have been near the F1 level in terms of ability in the latter years, a sign of the lack of development from young ages. Danica Patrick came close, but never really made it.

To sort the issue out, the FIA introduced the all-female W Series in 2019, but with little success, as the series effectively folded in 2022. Despite the voices claiming the -fair- argument that developing an all-female series is a step towards the wrong direction, with further segregation between men and women, there’s one female driver that emerged as a contender for a successful career and that’s Jamie Chadwick. The Brit won all three completed W Series seasons and looks really talented. It’s hard to say if she’s F1 material yet, but she is the closest asset. What’s for certain is that she has the potential for a good career, in F1 or in other motorsport categories.

Jamie Chadwick © Copyright: XPB Images – Photo by Icon sport

It’s true that the F1, and motorsport in general, community needs to do more to enhance women into trying racing, but as this short article showed, the social implications are still proving to be a bit of a handful for women to become accomplished with racing. We hope to see much more women in motorsport in the coming years!

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