As the Formula 1 season gets underway in Bahrain, fans are eagerly anticipating the high-speed thrills and excitement that come with the sport. However, one thing they won’t see is a female driver. It has been over 40 years since a woman last competed in a Formula 1 race, but that could be about to change.
With around 40% of F1 fans now female, the motorsport industry is making a concerted effort to ensure that at least one of the 20 drivers on the grid is a woman. Formula 1 has thrown its weight behind the F1 Academy, which recently announced that the initiative for women drivers will be headed by Susie Wolff, former driver and wife of Toto Wolff, CEO of the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 team.
The F1 Academy will subsidize the budgets for 15 women who drive for five teams. Another initiative is More Than Equal, a non-profit launched in June with the sole purpose of putting a woman on the podium. More Than Equal will scout the world for talented young female drivers and then nurture them to success.
There are no rules preventing women from competing in Formula 1, but the pipeline of young female drivers is a trickle, and they face additional hurdles, including a lack of confidence. Jamie Chadwick, a driver for Williams Academy and three-time winner of the W Series, specifically for women drivers, said she always doubted herself and never thought she could compete with the guys. She said the confidence eventually came with time, getting older in the sport, having great opportunities and great people supporting her.
Speaking to Al Jazeera at the Williams headquarters in Wantage, England, surrounded by dozens of F1 cars, Chadwick said her dream is ultimately Formula 1. Another young driver with dreams of Formula 1 is Macie Hitter. The 15-year-old has raced go-karts since she was eight, winning countless races and amassing a glittering collection of trophies on display at her home in Griston, England.
Despite a successful go-karting career, Hitter has struggled to find sponsorship – which is critical to make the step up to cars. Sponsors want to back winners, and women aren’t seen on the podium. Hitter may be a driver in the sights of More Than Equal.
Beavan said the organization is doing research into why women drivers aren’t making it to Formula 1, or even F2, F3 or F4 where only a handful of women race. Once More Than Equal has the data, it will scout for talent.
Despite fans’ enthusiasm for a mixed grid, those involved in making it happen estimate it will be eight to nine years before a Formula 1 race includes a female driver. “A very small proportion of the racing drivers in the world are female, and we need to find where they are, what they are racing in, identify their racing abilities and pluck them and then develop their skills – whether that is physical, mental, race craft – and help drive them all the way up to Formula 1,” Beavan said.
Tickets to this season’s Grand Prix at Silverstone in July sold out in record time. Audiences for Formula 1 have skyrocketed in the last three years, thanks in no small part to the Netflix series Formula 1: Drive to Survive – a runaway hit during lockdown. That’s how Isabella Vittoria, 27, got hooked.
Vittoria, a marketing executive at Bumble, the online dating app, is a typical new fan: young, female, and engaging with Formula 1 on social media. Ahead of her upcoming marriage, she is celebrating her bachelorette party at the Barcelona Grand Prix with her sister, Alexa, and five female friends.
“I would love to see a woman driver in F1. It’s such a male-dominated sport, not just for the drivers but also for the teams behind the scenes,” Vittoria said. “I would love to see what a woman driver brings to the on-track dynamic.”