Even in today’s world, Formula 1 remains a male-dominated sport. However, things have changed quite a lot in comparison to a couple of decades ago when almost all the women in the sport were relegated to the role of being grid girls and podium girls. Today, women occupy important positions in the different teams including leadership positions. A lot of this is down to a few women who have blazed the trail through the years and today we will look at the history of F1.
Maria Teresa de Filippis (1958 and 1959)
For a long time, the general explanation offered for the lack of women in F1 was that brawny men were needed to wrestle the unruly and physical cars that were used in F1 before power steering became the norm. However. Maria Teresa de Filippis proved this explanation was somewhat baseless as she drove the F1 cars in the 50s when they were much less safe and more difficult to drive. While her F1 career would only last five races where she would only see the chequered flag once, she proved that women could drive an F1 car. She would win races in other classes and prove to be a pioneer for women in racing.
Lella Lombardi (1974-1976)
Fans would have to wait for another 15 years before another woman would compete in F1. This time, it would be another Italian in Lella Lombardi. She would go on to have the most successful career for a woman in F1 to date. She is also, the only woman to have finished in the points. She would achieve this unprecedented feat at the 1975 Spanish GP. In all, she would enter 17 races and start in 12 of them. While this might not seem like a significant statistic, she did this during one of the most dangerous eras of F1 and she yet again proved that women could drive an F1 car and even get inside the points.
Following Lombardi three more women in Divina Galica, Desiré Wilson, and Giovanna Amati would enter in F1 races but none of them would be able to start in a single race. They would, however, go on to enjoy moderate success in other forms of motor racing. The last of these women, Giovanna Amati, would compete in the 1992 season and there hasn’t been a female driver since then that has entered a race in F1.
There have been, however, a few women that have still managed to get into the world of F1 as test and reserve drivers. Katherine Legge did so in 2005 with Minardi. Then came María de Villota in 2012 for Marussia (we will talk about her in more detail shortly). Villota would be followed by Susie Wolff who was the development and test driver for Williams in 2014 and 2015. While her handful of outings during practice sessions would be as far as she would be able to get in F1, she remains the most recent woman to participate in an official F1 weekend. Wolff would also eventually progress on to a managerial role in Formula E as the team principal of the Venturi team.
2012 would, however, turned from a dream to a nightmare for María de Villota, who would be signed by the now-defunct Marussia F1 team as a test driver and would endure a debilitating crash while conducting straight-line tests for the team. She would suffer extensive facial and head trauma. Even though she would initially make a partial recovery, a year later, she would succumb to a cardiac arrest as a result of neurological complications caused by her injuries. UK’s Health and Safety Executive would publish a report in 2015 with the conclusion that Villota wasn’t properly trained in how to stop an F1 car and that she had been caught out by the anti-stall system as she tried to come to a standstill at the end of a straight.
Things would get a boost in 2019 with the introduction of the women-only W-series. The 2019 season of this unique racing series would consist of six races and Jamie Chadwick from the UK would be crowned as the inaugral W Series Champion, a feat that would land her a job at the Williams F1 team as a development driver. She has so far earned 10 points and needs 30 more to qualify for a Super License needed to take part in F1 as a driver. At 22 years of age, if she can continue to deliver results as she progresses through the feeder series ladder, she still has enough time to find her way onto the F1 grid.
While women as racing drivers still have a long way to go before they make regular appearances on the F1 grid, they have come a long way as far as non-racing roles are concerned. On October 11th, 2012, Monisha Kaltenborn created history by becoming the first female team principal in F1 history. Similarly, in 2013, Claire Williams would become the deputy team principal at Williams. Women as engineers, mechanics, and strategists have now become quite the common sight in the world of F1. A lot of the recent bold calls in strategy at Red Bull can be attributed to their strategist Hannah Schmitz. Her exploits at the Brazilian GP in 2019 which helped Max Verstappen win the race even earned her the honor of collecting the constructors’ trophy on the podium.
While F1 still remains a sport where the overwhelming majority are men, things are changing slowly and steadily. As per Grand Tour host Jeremy Clarkson, the reason there is a dearth of women in racing, in general, is because young girls do not have a role model they can be inspired by and that they need to be introduced to racing at a very young age just as every current F1 driver was during their childhood. F1 needs that breakout female star who can win races and create history and it is only a matter of time before that happens.