When Formula One returned from its summer break for the Belgian Grand Prix on August 28, a series that used to separate the boys from the men suddenly found itself with two teenagers on the grid.
One of them, Max Verstappen, who will be 19 on September 30 and who started in the series last year at age 17, has already won a Grand Prix. The other, Esteban Ocon, turned 20 on September 17, and joined the series at the Belgian race.
But while the series is now integrating teenagers, it is still not including women drivers, even though the traditional physical challenge of man against machine is no longer what it used to be. In recent years, the machines — the cars — have been so transformed that the more experienced drivers say they are physically the easiest they have driven.
The Formula One cars of the past required great body strength to cope with G-forces similar to those encountered by jet pilots. The tire grip was huge, steering was heavy and braking was muscular. Since new regulations introduced in 2014, however, with downsized hybrid engines the cars have been so less physical to drive that the racing has become, if not quite child’s play, at least accessible for teenagers like Verstappen and Ocon.
And yet, there are still no women driving in the world’s elite racing series.
To date, only two women, both Italians, have qualified and raced in the series: Maria Teresa de Filippis, who entered five races in 1958 and 1959 and qualified for three of them, with a highest finish of 10th; and Lella Lombardi, who entered 17 races over three seasons from 1974 to 1976, and qualified for 12. She is the only woman to score points in Formula One, when she finished sixth at the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix and scored half a point after the race was cut short.
The most recent woman to take to the track was Susie Wolff of Scotland, who took part in Formula One practice sessions while she was a test driver for the Williams team from 2012 until last year. Also in 2012, María de Villota, a Spanish test driver at the Marussia team, had a freak, low-speed accident that caused a serious head injury. She died a year later after a heart attack.
Before her, there was Giovanna Amati, another Italian, who unsuccessfully tried to qualify for three races in 1992. Replacing Amati in the Brabham car that year was Damon Hill, who also failed to qualify the car — though Hill went on to become world champion at the Williams team in 1996.
The fact is that women have never been given a chance to compete at a top team. So without the physical challenge of driving the cars since 2014, the question remains: Why?
“That is the big question and it always has been,” Wolff said. “When I was a test driver for Williams, without a doubt I could drive the car. It wasn’t physically easy. Women have 30% less muscle than men. But with hard training and a lot of preparation in the background, I could manage those cars.”
“So physically, for me, in the current generation of Formula One, there is no boundary to why a female cannot be competing on the grid,” she added. “And I proved that. I did a race distance.”
But Jolyon Palmer, a driver at the Renault team, said it was a question of numbers, going all the way back to when drivers take up motor racing as children.
“If you look in karting,” he said, “at age 6 or age 10, there is probably one girl for every 10 boys. And when there are only 22 places in Formula One and everybody is fighting so hard to get there, if you have 10 more guys to girls at a lower level then it filters out probably to a higher level as well.”
Wolff agreed. “When I was racing in the karting world championship in Braga in 2000, in the qualifying there were over 120 drivers worldwide, and there were only three women,” she said. “And I was the only one to make the finals. You don’t have a big enough talent pool.”
“Because if you have a thousand little boys starting at various different levels of karting when they are 8 years old and you have maybe 20 girls,” she added, “the chances of just one of those girls making it all the way through to the pinnacle of motorsport is very, very slim.”
Wolff, 33, has started a programme called Dare to be Different, which is designed to encourage young women to go racing. The group takes school girls to karting tracks to discover go-karting and involves them in competitions and other racing projects.
Nevertheless, she emphasised that it was not just numbers that count, but the quality of the racer.
“Formula One is the pinnacle, it is the elite of motorsport, and to get there you have to be talented, you have to be good enough,” Wolff said. “There are different ways to get into the sport, in terms of putting a good sponsorship package together, etc., but once you are there, it doesn’t matter how much money you’ve brought or what your nationality is, you have to be good enough.”
Simona de Silvestro, 28, a Swiss driver who has raced in the United States-based Indy-style series — and who won five races in Formula Atlantic — is now racing in the Formula E series. She was hired by the Sauber Formula One team as an “affiliated driver” in 2014, with a view to racing for the team in 2015. But Sauber then had financial problems and sought drivers who pay for their seat.
“I think that we can compete, I have shown in the past that I can be on podiums and things like that,” de Silvestro said. “But it’s about not getting the opportunity, because the only way in those series — Formula One and IndyCar — to create the opportunity is if you bring a lot of money. And in my case, I don’t really have that. We were close to being in Formula One but that didn’t happen because of that.”
For female drivers, finding sponsorships and building a career are more difficult than for men because of perceptions that racing is not for women.
Claire Williams, the deputy team principal of the Williams team, where Wolff test drove, said that such prejudice was one of the biggest obstacles for women.
“It’s a case of role models, really,” she said. “Formula One is perceived as a very male-dominated sport. I think that’s certainly changed, and it has changed very rapidly over the past few years. And Susie was a real trailblazer in that sense. I know that she inspired a lot of the younger generation to look at Formula One as a serious career opportunity.”
“But it’s going to take a while for that inspiration to click in and for the people to come up through the ranks,” Williams added. “I think it’s a generational thing, really. It’s going to take us a while to see a female driver in Formula One.”
Because the stigma is so strong, women are treated entirely differently than men. “I only ever did one interview in my whole career where I wasn’t asked about my gender,” Wolff said.
Verstappen, the youngest driver ever to race in Formula One, is the son of Jos Verstappen, who raced in Formula One, and Sophie Kumpen, who was a top international kart racer.
“In general it’s more difficult,” Verstappen said of the situation for female racers. “I spoke a lot to my mom about it as well; she had to work harder in go-karting compared to some guys who had the same strength. Why in tennis do you have the male tennis and the female tennis? Why don’t they combine it? Because if you do it, it’s not fair.”
Wolff said she was against such segregation, noting that in the main sports where both genders take part together — sailing, horse riding and motorsport — there is an external means of propulsion.
“None of those sports come down to just the physical attributes of the competitor,” Wolff said. “I am the first to admit that if you put me up against a guy in any kind of physical test, I will not beat him. I have 30% less muscle. But I raced and had success my whole career against men, so why would I suddenly want to start racing only against women, in a sport that isn’t even segregated? For me that makes no sense.”