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F1: Beyond The Glass Ceiling

By saltire | 28 Apr 2010 | 11 Comments | 13,830 views

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.
 
Natacha Gachnang
 
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.

“Women already have their place in motor sport; they have proved it. But for many years people have asked me why there have been no women following in my footsteps. I really hope the Commission can help answer that question and that we can attract and support women in all areas of our sport.”

Michele Mouton,
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!

“There isn’t really a female out there right now who could do it, this is a really physical and exhausting sport and they would find it hard to cope.”

Alex Tai, Virgin Racing

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.

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11 Comments »

  • Maverick

    A very good point about female fighter pilots.

    I think the main reason is that women simply make up such a minority of the interest in motorsport and that means that is simply a smaller talent pool. And from there, it isn’t simply a case of motorsport’s attitude to female racers but also sponsors as nobody gets far without money.

    But really, blame all those parents who bought their sons toy cars, and their daughters dollies.

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  • Pitmonster

    ““There isn’t really a female out there right now who could do it, this is a really physical and exhausting sport and they would find it hard to cope.”

    Grrrr…. F1 is a sport where brute strength of the body-builder kind is a disadvantage, and (to a certain extent) small size and low weight can be an advantage, as it gives more freedom with ballast and so on – just ask Robert Kubica! As long as the inherent fitness (cardio-vascular) and muscle strength is right, F1 drivers are as fit as they need to be, and their training is often focused on things like muscle groups, neck strength, reaction times and so on. ANYBODY can achieve this, man or woman. There are female athletes and bodybuilders who are bigger, stronger, fitter, more muscular than any male F1 driver.

    Muscle bulk means that a driver is too large, too heavy, and too slow to react – Arnold Schwarzenegger would be rubbish in F1. So to say that women aren’t strong enough is a lie. Perhaps the “average” woman would struggle, but so would the “average” man too – I know I would! With the right physical training gender is not the issue.

    There probably is prejudice – when Amati failed to qualify her (awful) Brabham she was lambasted for not being good enough, and yes part of that was blamed on the fact that she was a woman. When her replacement (a certain Mr D. Hill) also failed to qualify the same car, he was allowed to blame it on the car.

    Sponsorship is obviously an issue but as Mav says it’s a problem that seems to start in childhood, where boys play with cars and girls play with dolls. It leads to a hugely disproportionate number of men -v- women who are even interested in motor sport (as spectators or competitors) and that means there are few if any women who make it to the top, simply because there are so few at the bottom of the ladder to start with.

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  • Pat W

    American racing is leading the way in this, particularly IndyCar. There will probably be 5 women racing in this year’s Indy 500 and most races will feature at least two females if not three. They can handle a fast oval with an average lap of 215mph (and associated g-forces) and nobody doubts Danica Patrick’s commitment at those speeds. You’ve also got Sarah Fisher who is an owner/driver.
    Milka Duno is often well off the pace but you never hear anyone putting that down to gender. Here’s a name to watch: Simona de Silvestro. She’s a rookie but she’s putting her car in positions it probably doesn’t deserve to be in.

    Strength is probably only an issue for those cars not featuring power steering – but plenty of male drivers struggle with that too.

    European-based racing is slowly catching on, with Gachnang and de Villota working their way up the ranks. We still have to go through that media-obsessive phase they’ve had in the US and which they are only just getting over after six years of DP racing in the series, where all the focus will be on that female driver for one reason alone, and they’ll ask all of the questions about whether she can do it or not and then when she can they’ll build all the hype around her. Even if it turns out she’s only really good enough for upper midfield.

    It has to be mixed grids. I don’t want to see men’s and women’s championships.

    There’s a long way to go yet. It is taking longer than I thought it would.

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  • Steven Roy

    The answer is numbers. Not enough girls try motor sport so not enough succeed. There has never been a genuinely good female driver. No female driver has won a top line karting championship or any kind of serious junior formula championship. There just has never been a really good woman racing driver.

    Michelle Mouton did well for a very short spell of time when the Audi had a huge advantage over everything. Other than that her results were not in any way special.

    Giovanna Amati was hopeless. Forget that no-one could qualify that Brabham. What did she do in any car in any class that suggests she was a serious driver?

    You can’t compare fighter pilots or astronauts to racing drivers. On the shuttle the astronauts lie on their backs and are subject to about 3G for a very short period of time. Fighter planes bank when they turn so most G force is not lateral but downward. Fighter pilots and aerobatic pilots are subject to much higher loadings but those loadings are not trying to rip their heads off.

    I have absolutely no doubt that a woman could race successfully in F1 but that won’t happen until women are racing successfully at other levels and that means winning European or World karting championships or major F3 championships or some equivalent.

    The only way to achieve this is to get girls into karting at the same age that Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button did.

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  • startledbunny

    To me it’s more a case of when women will compete in F1, not if. It will happen, it just might take more time.

    I agree that there aren’t enough Female Racing Drivers, and still hold the view that the Sponsorship Opportunities for a Successful Female F1 Driver are immense.

    I don’t think any of the current women racing right now would be any good in F1, but I would love to be proved wrong.

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  • Alianora La Canta

    The girls are getting into karting the same age as Lewis Hamilton – research in 1997 showed that 40% of 14-year-old British licence-holders are female. The trouble is that by 16, that percentage falls to 2%.

    The females are trying at an early enough age but for a variety of reasons not staying around long enough to seriously try winning any major international championships (be they karting or single-seater series). The reasons given in the research were fourfold: they were, in no particular order, over-scrutiny (the only factor the FIA has any direct control over), pressure from peers and family to drop out in favour of social and academic lives respectively, problems getting sponsors to take female racers as seriously as male racers of the same talent level and puberty giving a temporary disadvantage at the 14-16 age range to young women than young men (they catch back up – or close enough – at the 17-19 age range, but by then most women have already left the sport).

    In short, there are enough female racers trying, but there’s a major glass ceiling in the upper reaches of karting at the moment, primarily due to people other than the racers having negative perceptions.

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  • saltire (author)

    You can’t compare fighter pilots or astronauts to racing drivers.On the shuttle the astronauts lie on their backs and are subject to about 3G for a very short period of time.Fighter planes bank when they turn so most G force is not lateral but downward.Fighter pilots and aerobatic pilots are subject to much higher loadings but those loadings are not trying to rip their heads off.   

    Fair point but since there are no women in F1 currently I can’t compare like with like, I used those examples to show that women can adapt to extreme conditions and as has been mentioned, with the proper training I’m sure they would be able to cope.

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  • saltire (author)

    The girls are getting into karting the same age as Lewis Hamilton – research in 1997 showed that 40% of 14-year-old British licence-holders are female. The trouble is that by 16, that percentage falls to 2%.  

    Wow, those are impressive statistics, thanks for doing the legwork Alia. I’m surprised that there are so many girls karting to be honest but to fall by so much in a matter of such a short period of time is astounding. Seems like the WMC should be targetting those girls who are showing potential by about age 12 so that they can be encouraged to continue within the sport.

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  • Castor

    So first I Googled “karting girls” and got “www.karting1.co.uk/sophie-fisher-karting.htm”

    Her myspace page now describes her as “Model/Brand Guru” or somesuch – says it all really.

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  • Steven Roy

    Fair point but since there are no women in F1 currently I can’t compare like with like, I used those examples to show that women can adapt to extreme conditions and as has been mentioned, with the proper training I’m sure they would be able to cope.

    I think you are right with the point you are making but it is very easy for people reading it to think G force is G force without understanding the differences.

    The girls are getting into karting the same age as Lewis Hamilton – research in 1997 showed that 40% of 14-year-old British licence-holders are female. The trouble is that by 16, that percentage falls to 2%.

    I am amazed there are so many at such a young age. I have no doubt girls have to fight their families harder to keep karting and to move from club level to more serious levels. It’s surprising that women don’t return to karting or cars when they become older and more independent but I guess you can’t go back at the same level as before.

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  • saltire (author)

    I think you are right with the point you are making but it is very easy for people reading it to think G force is G force without understanding the differences.   

    True, maybe I should have added a link to the differences between lateral and vertical G-forces in the article. I explain them better in this blog article I did in January. http://www.vivaf1.com/blog/?p=1907

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