F1: Beyond The Glass Ceiling
You’ve no doubt heard of the metaphor “the glass ceiling” that has been used to describe the difficulty faced by women who strive to reach the top of their careers. Whilst many women do achieve recognition at lower levels, the perception is that it’s harder for a woman to get to the very top of her profession compared to her male counterparts. It seems that this invisible ceiling is also present in motorsports and it’s something that Jean Todt, President of the FIA is keen to address.
Of course there have been women who have competed in a Formula One car, five in total. The first of those, Maria Teresa de Filippis drove for Maserati and Behra-Porsche between 1958 and 1959. Lella Lombardi remains the only woman to have scored any WDC points, finishing sixth in the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix where half points were awarded whilst the last woman to secure an F1 drive was Giovanna Amati back in 1992. So it’s about time something changed.
It’s certainly not, as some have suggested, physical stature. Jo Salter, the UK’s first female fighter pilot was flying ground attack tornado jets back in 1995, women astronauts regularly fly on space shuttle missions too, proof if any were needed that they are capable of withstanding the lateral g-forces that an F1 driver encounters, nor is it likely to be their ability to multi-task.
President of the WMC
I mentioned earlier that the FIA is keen to see women compete at all levels levels of motorsport; to achieve that aim they have established a “Women & Motor Sport Commission” (WMC) to promote the participation of women and help break through that glass ceiling. The commission, headed up my former WRC winner Michele Mouton met for the first time this week to discuss “strategies and policies that will promote education and training, and put into practice actions and events that will strengthen the participation of women in all areas of motor sport.”
Currently, the progression route for men to an F1 race seat is generally karting followed by a stint in GP2, Formula 2, Formula 3, World Series by Renault or some other single seat feeder series. The situation for women should be something similar. The problem is that there are very few women driving in the lower categories of single seat racing. The most visible female “candidate” is Indycar driver and race winner Danica Patrick (above) who was approached by Richard Branson for the new Virgin Racing team. She apparently declined, not wishing to move from the USA. Former Virgin Team Principal Alex Tai did not seem to share his boss’ view however!
The only other candidates with the remote prospect of progressing in the near future are Natacha Gachnang (cousin of Toro Rosso driver Sebastien Buemi) who drove for Formula 2 last season, Maria de Villota from the Superleague Formula open wheel racing series and Katherine Legge who drives in the DTM series. Whilst GP2 remains the primary route to a drive, not all drivers who enter F1 come through the “normal” route. Karun Chandhok who drives for HRT this season competed in GP2 in 2009 and finished 18th, whilst fellow rookie Vitaly Petrov gained his stripes courtesy of a four year spell in the same series.
Although it seems that you don’t necessarily have to be “the best” to get an F1 race seat (obviously sponsorship money helps) the next woman to enter F1 will either have to be an outstanding driver, have plenty of sponsorship money or both and will need a Team Principal brave enough to take the risk. Let’s hope the WMC can manage to dispel a few stereotypes and in the process, allow women to compete on an equal footing.