F1 Will Die Before It Has a Woman Champion

Different year, same drivers. When will F1 finally see women race again?


F1 is in a period of stagnation. Viewing figures have dropped from 500 million at the start of the decade to around 390 million last season. That’s a loss of over 20% of viewers. The figures are even worse when you look at viewers who actually tune in throughout the season. Plenty of fans just dip in and out for historic races or for their home Grand Prix. The sport has been obsessed with trying to become fan friendly. There’s been discussions about sprinkler systems, medal tables and reverse grids – and yet the biggest reason for declining interest is lost on the old white cis men of the FIA. F1 is simply mundane.

F1 is outdated, archaic and doesn’t reflect the real world. The ‘good old days’ mentality of toxic masculinity might have sold well in the 80s but it’s 2017. Watching spoilt middle class boys crash their multi million pound cars into each other and then tell one another to “suck my balls” isn’t entertaining. It’s pathetic and childish. It’s also the same thing we’ve watched every weekend since the championship was established back in 1950.

“Watching spoilt middle class boys crash their multi million pound cars into each other and then tell each other to “suck my balls” isn’t entertaining”

In 2014, Susie Wolff managed to complete a few runs in a Williams during practice sessions but the last woman who got close to competing before Susie, was Giovanna Amati – back in 1992. Amati was replaced after she failed to qualify in her Brabham and was replaced by (eventual world champion) Damon Hill, but Hill didn’t qualify the Brabham to race until his seventh weekend. Amati received poor treatment from the Brabham team. She was roundly criticised in the press despite her racing inexperience in the Brabham and the fact the car was, to steal a quote from the great Nikki Lauda, a shit box.

The legacy before Amati was hardly inspiring. That’s no insult to the women who raced before her, it’s simply due to the fact that there have been so few women in the sport. Lella Lombardi is the only woman to have ever scored points in F1, and she raced between 1974-76. Before Lombardi, the only other woman to race in the sport had been Maria Teresa de Filippis during the 1950s. Apparently, the legendary five time champion Fangio who raced alongside de Filippis told her “you go too fast, you take too many risks”. While she showed she could compete with any man in an era that was all about physicality de Filippis revealed that a race director had prevented her from taking part at the French Grand Prix of 1958, as he felt the only helmet a woman should wear was a hairdresser’s.

We’ve not progressed. In 2014, Sergio Perez was so aghast at Wolff being allowed to participate in an F1 practice session he said that women “better stay in the kitchen”, adding “imagine being beaten by a woman”. This is the same Sergio Perez who blew his chance in a top car, has crashed into his younger and often quicker team mate several times this season and still gets the backing of sponsors. In contrast, women rarely attract sponsors at any level due to inherent misogyny in the sport and the belief that motor racing should be reserved for ‘real men’.

Without financial backing, women stand no chance in a sport dominated by the rich. Many fans complain that when a woman good enough comes along then we will finally see a woman champion. But why should women have to be superb to mediocre men? The grid, every year, is filled with men who are pay-drivers with huge backing and who last a couple of seasons at most and then go back to sheep farming or DJing. They were never cut out for the sport but they still got a chance – because they were cis men.

“They were never cut out for the sport but they still got a chance – because they were cis men”

Women (and non-binary people) are never afforded the same privilege. Men are given free passes into the sport and everyone else has the door slammed shut. We’ve only had one black champion. There has never been an Asian champion, despite the sport supposedly being a world championship. We don’t even have a race in Africa anymore. The championship skips an entire continent and yet still claims it is a global force. There’s never been an out queer F1 racer and with the culture of the sport, it’s unlikely anyone would come out. The sport is steeped in toxic masculinity.

The idea that in nearly seventy years, there has not been a woman who could be a champion of the sport is ludicrous. Its an argument hinged upon the very notion that women are not as good as men. It is inherently sexist. Women have almost no chance to get into F1. Due to less financial backing, a culture that discourages girls from ever getting into a kart and a governing body barely interested in diversity there is no chance for women to succeed.

There’s the odd sign of hope. There have been two women who have led teams. Claire Williams in particular is a great force in the sport. Williams is one of the most respected teams on the grid and to have her lead the team is a major boost. F1 journalists tend to be slightly more balanced in terms of gender too but still white men who barely understand the sport get gigs before women who live and breathe racing.

F1 keeps trying to get back to days which were actually pretty poor. Commentators wax lyrical about the rivalry between Prost and Senna but they had a car that dominated the grid. Every race was predictable. If Prost didn’t win, then Senna would and vice versa. Is it really any surprise that Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton battling it out for three years actually saw viewers switch off? Their car was dominant and despite the nostalgic yearning, the reality is that men beating their chest as they cruise to victories with minimal competition is actually pretty dull. Even the rivalries haven’t been entertaining. This season almost every team has had their drivers crash into each other. There are battles across the grid and within each garage but it’s not enough to excite viewers. We’ve seen it all before. Men throwing tantrums quickly loses its appeal.

F1 is supposed to be at the cutting edge. The whole philosophy of the sport is about relentless progression, and yet the governing body is trying to hold the sport back from true progress. Brands and franchises globally are finding that diversity is actually engaging fans and winning new support. F1 needs to start paying attention to this. When fans start to watch racers they can see themselves in then they will start to care. It’s why F1 took off in South America, thanks to Piquet and Senna. Fans want to see drivers they relate to. Right now, all we’re getting is spoilt rich kids driving around in circles.

8 thoughts on “F1 Will Die Before It Has a Woman Champion

  1. Warning! Long post alert!

    Starting with what probably seems like a minor point in the article: middle-class people racing and crashing into one another is as old as the motor car (for reasons I will get into later), but being rude to one another afterwards would have had 1960s/early 1970s luminaries such as Jackie Stewart and Jim Clark aghast. There was originally a code of respect among the drivers, largely driven by the high risks that all involved took for granted – even Jackie Stewart’s safety campaigns were done in the assumption that F1 would always be somewhat dangerous. It is only when James Hunt and Niki Lauda entered the mainstream at the same time as F1 started accepting global TV contracts, that abuse of competitors became an accepted part of the firmament. (Not that Lauda accepted being rude to competitors or marshalls on-camera the way Hunt did, but between them, they convinced their rivals – and the audience – that watching one’s words behind the scenes was neither morally or professionally necessary). This reflected a trend of the time, that the youth of the time considered the previous adherence (at least in public) to conventional morality to break suspension of disbelief. Between them, it created something novel – an audience that expected its drivers to push the boundaries of conventional morality.

    Note that in other respects Hunt and Lauda were no different from many of their forebears; it is simply that the audience mostly didn’t get to hear about their forebears’ indiscretions, except through the lens of a media keen to neutralise anything that might inadvertently wreck anyone’s career.

    Now, there is evidence of the opposite effect happening within broader culture. Teenagers and 20-somethings of today expect better conduct of people in general, and are rarely shy to say so. (Sometimes they disagree loudly about what “better conduct” means, but few of those arguments relate to the places where F1 is deemed to fail on a moral level). It shouldn’t surprise that this has led to a jading of views towards racers who are crude – especially when there is little evidence of it. Matters are not helped by the mainstream media apparently doubling down on the amount of crudeness they are willing to support on air, which makes them out of touch with what people who are watching think. While a lot of the faces seen on TV are relatively young, they’re generally picked by people whose formative experiences were shaped by the Hunt revolution: those people who were between 8 and 18 in 1975 (the year Hunt began to be a frontrunner) are now between 50 and 60, the prime of power for the most successful power-brokers behind the scenes in most eras of F1.

    However, a new, younger generation of journalists is coming through the lower ranks. Some of it is already reporting in F1 – Kate Walker, perhaps the most prominent of them, writes for such esteemed outlets as the New York Times. Others are part-timers who are still studying at school or university. With that change is coming a “correction” to match the morality of viewers. Broadcasters tend to lag 5-10 years behind print, but expect a much improved broadcasting experience between 2021 and 2026 (I’d predict 2021-2024 for the UK as that’s when Sky will work out it can’t balance the books with F1). Similar tendencies, albeit a few years behind that curve, are occurring in most other areas of F1. There have been a few outposts where things have progressed faster than that, which the main article largely covers, but the significance of the female journalist tidal wave is intruiging.

    You see, in F1 journalism, there may be a new wave of female talent coming through… …but there’s not much evidence of a similar new wave of male journalistic talent arriving. Granted, some men are breaking through, particularly into broadcasting. However, the gender imbalance of the new wave is such that in print, there is likely to be a sea change in how F1 is reported within the next decade. Journalists, when working together in F1, have long held a latent power, and the new wave of talent coming through is perhaps more aware of that – and has had more practise using it, thanks to social media and the fact that paddock people are yearning for more variety in the questions they’re asked – than any previous one. This effect, from what I’m aware, isn’t being replicated in other sports to the same extent.

    Even the previous generations managed to use their understanding of power to steer the governing body, marketing authorities and (sometimes) teams of their times to change tack to avoid or reverse certain mistakes. As a general rule, any time “people power” is discussed as the possible cause of a rule change, it was journalist power converting the voice of those people it heard into something able to move the powers that be. With a new generation that is more power-aware, more diverse (though, from what I’ve seen, “only” in terms of gender, class and disability) and more annoyed by the foibles of their forebears, expect much bigger changes to be wrought indirectly. In an environment where old value systems are being shattered and new, more diverse ones wrought, expect solutions to expensive, exclusive racing to be forwarded and actioned. These will be limited by the speed of commercial change, true – but there’s a recession coming, and after that there’ll be an appetite for where F1 is likely to want to go by then.

    For F1 cannot stay where it is. In a world where even WEC, with its much more cutting-edge engines, is now deemed behind the curve, F1 is seeming particularly future-road-irrelevant. That’s not something it can plausibly change, which immediately removes a component that’s been key to its entire previous existence. However, it was never F1’s only key component, and the rest can be re-worked into a new, workable series that is entertaining for its own sake. However, this will need leadership that’s willing to recognise that F1 needs to concentrate on its own merits as a sport/entertainment/business, rather than attempt to chase a road-relevance that is now limited to Formula E and the upcoming Roborace. There’s plenty of space for both series, but this does not mean they can or should attempt to occupy the same space or assume their fanbases should be of identical construction.

    The recent change to 11-race engines, the growing insistence that all feeder series use the same expensive formulae, its preference for lip service in all key areas of its domain rather than substantive actions (diversity is far from the only area where it does this) indicate the FIA is not that leadership. It will get the hint eventually. It always does. Whether that’s due to it changing of its own volition, feeling “people power”, or making one blunder too many and being booted out by annoyed teams, change will come.

    F1 will rise again. This time, with women helping F1 make better choices this time. Those choices, inevitably, will include some women getting to F1. Yes, some will likely be there to balance the books (I’m suggesting an improved situation, not a utopia), but others will be there because they are good enough to expand their teams’ horizons – and that’s where the female F1 champions will be able to step in (barring any potential Hamilton-esque athlete making it through before the infrastructure is really there to support such a one consistently). Incidentally, I think that era is when we’ll start seeing athletes of colour, and those of relatively little means (think upper-working-class, not just middle-class) succeeding in F1 on a basis rather closer to the general population.

    I expect that one thing that will change at that point is how drivers are selected for F1. At the moment, a spectacularly expensive system that’s more about how good one is at getting sponsor backing than anything else drives up prices on the official feeder series and the lower tiers of F1. (Thanks to similarly expensive systems being mandated for F1 teams, “lower tiers” now means an estimated 8 out of 20 seats are subsidised by sponsors – it would have been 10 out of 22 this year, except that Manor folded). However, there are much cheaper ways of deciding F1 talent appearing – eSports, haptic computer controllers, simulators, better understandings of how karting, F1 and even road car driving methods are similar and more knowledge of how to test for driving skill. Enforcing cheaper methods of getting chosen for racing teams, especially in F1, will make it much easier for women (and other athletes who the commercial system either ignores or forces into anti-competitive actions such as chasing “model-spec bodies”). It makes it cheaper for racing teams to compete with talent. It makes F1 more credible to fans (a series for the fastest, not the richest-backed), thus more attractive to them as a sport.

    Eventually, the old assumptions that men know best will be cleared from enough of the decks of power (ironically, Bernie Ecclestone – F1’s most famous misogynist, was convinced enough of specific women’s skills that had he died before appointing a successor (he didn’t have one until Liberty bought his company…), a woman – Sacha Woodward Hill – would have become F1’s acting leader), and a woman who actually gets how motorsport works will become F1’s most powerful figure.

    Not only will there be (at least) a female F1 world champion (both in the drivers’ and constructor/team boss’ lists) before F1 dies (a date I dare not predict), there will likely be a female FIA president who is better than any of the (male) presidents the FIA has produced since the 1980s began – and I predict that will occur before 2060. Unless, of course, the FIA preferring lip service to substantial action in certain other areas doesn’t kill F1 before 2022…

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  2. It’s funny you should mention Giovanna Amati, yet criticise the drivers of F1 for being spoilt, well-to-do boys backed by more money than a mid-sized country’s GDP. I’m sure you’re aware that Amati herself came from a very rich family, one of Italy’s richest, in fact; daughter of a film baron father and an actress mother. She brought a not-so-modest sponsorship budget with her to Brabham in the form of an Italian cookware company, and brought no talent to go with it—a classic example of what’s called a “pay driver”. In Amati’s 4 years in the regional Formula 3 series, she amassed only 7 points; unimpressive by even the most lenient standards. In her 31 Formula 3000 races, she scored 0 points and failed to even qualify on 17 of those races.

    Damon Hill, her replacement, competed in 28 F3000 races, failed to qualify only once and scored 17 points overall—one of those points-scoring races was a podium in the same season he had his sole DNQ. By all accounts, Hill was a far superior driver, which was why Brabham were more willing to keep him after his at-first poor showing in F1. Hill also funded his racing career, at first, by working as a builder, and didn’t have the sponsorship available to him initially to fund a season in F3000. Hill drove less than twice the races in Formula 3 that Amati had, yet won 4 races in that time.

    Amati was not just inexperienced, she had a belligerent and hostile attitude, believed she deserved everything for nothing and was extremely aggressive on the racetrack, crashing into other drivers without regard for the consequences; even when in non-competitive test sessions. She lacked any sort of skill behind the wheel, spinning her Brabham more times in one session than many drivers did the whole season and her qualifying efforts were further from her teammate’s times than her teammate was to the polesitter. She very much deserved the criticism she was getting; she was simply not an F1-calibre driver.

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    1. Giovanna was not F1-calibre (in fact, from that description, she wasn’t F3000-calibre either, which is new to me). However, the recent experience of female racing drivers suggest that under the dominant structure of the time, getting commercial backing as a woman who does motorsport depends on doing things that are not compatible with becoming a good racing driver (e.g. going for a “modelling body” rather than an “athletic body”, deploying the personality/attitude sponsors want portrayed rather than one’s actual personality/attitude). Such contrary demands are not generally made of male racing drivers.

      It is entirely possible that Giovanna’s approach – and to some extent her results – may be a function of differentiated and possibly-inadvertently discrimatory sponsorship practise.

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  3. This pretty much sums up what’s wrong with the world today. Life is easy being a man while it’s all uphill for a woman.
    Sure, there are many inequalities in society that I sincerely hope will be bridged as soon as possible.
    However, please don’t use sport to purvey your political agenda. F1 or motor racing in general, are one of the few sports where men and women can compete together. It is the ultimate test of human ability at the limit. Ability in F1 is measure in lap time. If you are quick enough, you are good enough.
    To say that men who drive in F1 are mediocre is completely unfair and utterly ridiculous. 18 out of the 20 drivers on the current F1 grid are of proper quality who have worked their entire lives to get there. The other 2 would still stack up really well against any other professional athlete.
    You can’t just copy the bits of an interview Lady De Fillipis gave that suits your agenda. Read the whole thing:
    https://www.theguardian.com/observer/osm/story/0,,1720870,00.html
    Why not talk about Michelle Mouton? She is a legend. All her peers held her in high regard, and the still do, not because she is a woman, because she was good at her job. Read this interview with her:
    https://www.motorsport.com/f1/news/mouton-q-a-i-m-not-sure-we-ll-see-a-woman-at-the-top-in-f1-859989/
    Women have to compete to get to F1 just like the men do. Backing is necessary, it always has been the case and it isn’t new. Many boys who have had exceptional talent have lost on F1 opportunities due to lacking budget (see Robin Frijns).Look at Danica Patrick, she has had exceptional backing throughout her career and has done really well. So it is possible, but that someone has to be good enough.
    Could a woman become a cardio thoracic surgeon just because of her gender? No , she becomes one because she is qualified and capable of doing the job. Same applies here.

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    1. Ability in F1 might be measured in lap time, but the fuel for it is money, and while access to this remains unequal, the equation is, “If you are rich enough, you can be quick enough and will probably be good enough for F1”.

      Most people in F3 onwards (in many cases, from F4 onwards) will stack up well against athletes from other disciplines. It turns out that this is one of the less expensive parts of becoming a F1 driver, so tends to be less of a problem. I have yet to hear of a woman attempt motorsport and find themselves blocked due to a lack of fitness (except in Formula Woman, where fitness was used as one of the qualifying tests to bring the final 1000 down to a manageable number…)

      Someone who is not allowed to qualify for a role due to an inappropriate blockage, despite being capable, isn’t going to take on that role. That applies just as much to cardio-thoracic surgery (where many people are blocked due to inability to afford a good education thanks to the postcode lottery, or because they can’t afford to go to university – which thanks to accommodation costs exceeding student loan allowance in some places, has been an issue for some years) as it does to motorsport (where many people are blocked due to lack of access to money, and women are frequently blocked due to such things as contradictory and differentiated demands from sponsors, over-scrutiny and lack of social support network – in motorsport, insufficient network is the 3rd biggest reason that drivers in general don’t make it to F1, behind lack of finance and lack of determination).

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    2. Also, regarding Danica Patrick… …she partly went to the USA in the first place because of the discrimination she faced in Formula Ford from other racers. It showed her that she’d have a happier time in the more equal-opportunity racing that occurs in the USA. She’s mentioned it in multiple interviews, including Men’s Health and The Independent. So even quoting Danica supports the original piece’s argument rather than outsider10’s counter-argument.

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