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F1 starting grid still a distant goal for female drivers

It’s been 30 years since Giovanna Amati unsuccessfully tried to qualify for the Brazilian Grand Prix – the last time a woman came close to taking part in a Formula 1 race.

Many in the sport, including driver Lewis Hamilton and F1 chief executive Stefano Domenicali, say they want to see a female driver on the grid. But, with the W Series, the 100% female championship, in financial difficulty, and its triple winner Jamie Chadwick Now exploring options outside of F1 for his next challenge, that goal seems more distant than ever.

“Seventy-five women have gone into space, and only two women have qualified and started a race since the start of F1,” says Kate Beavan, 20-year veteran of the sport and member of ‘>= More than equal‘, an initiative to find the sport’s first female champion. “Women’s participation in motorsport is appallingly low. Women’s achievement at senior level is virtually non-existent.

Money remains a huge obstacle. Motorsport is an expensive business, even at junior level, which means anyone looking to make it to the top needs support – whether it’s a deep-pocketed family or corporate sponsors willing to give it a shot. with a young pilot.

Giovanna Amati © Trevor Samson/AFP via Getty Images

“It’s tough for everyone,” Chadwick said. “Climbing all the ladders is not easy. But, because there are so few women in sport, and very few have had success, it is still seen as a risk and therefore not easy to secure this support for progress. .

Funding is a long-standing problem. Susie Wolffa former Williams F1 team development driver, says that while motorsport is undergoing a big cultural shift towards diversity – with more women in mechanic and engineering roles – commercial pressures are still limiting opportunities for female drivers.

“A lot of people assume that this diversity story, this investment in women’s sport, is a no-brainer,” she says. “Well, it’s not. When I was at Williams, I was lucky enough to get a racing seat if I had managed to find funding. There was no money then, and I don’t think that has changed dramatically.

Susie Wolff, former general manager of Venturi Racing

Susie Wolff, former driver © Vince Mignott/MB Media/Getty Images

In a sport awash with sponsorship money, money has also been an issue at events for women running. The W series was forced to cut its season short in October due to financial issues. The last three races have been canceled, with organizers focusing instead on fundraising.

Some in the industry believe that female riders will only get funding once they prove they are fast enough to challenge men. To have a better chance of doing so, girls may need to get involved in motorsport from an early age and benefit from the same developmental opportunities as their male counterparts.

“At the end of the day, we’re a very performance-based environment. You are judged on your speed,” says Wolff, who recently resigned as managing director of the Venturi Formula E team. “To get to F1 you have to be very talented, you have to be very, very fast. a fast young girl was coming, the doors would open according to her talent.

The question then for those who want to see a woman in charge is how to develop the talent to compete with the men on the beat.

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Number of women who took the start of a Grand Prix

Opinions on this subject vary. Many people see the need to develop the experience of young female drivers. Others identify physical, cultural and psychological challenges.

“We definitely need to nurture talent from an early age,” says Chadwick. “We need to provide more funded opportunities for young girls moving up the ranks as this remains a major barrier for everyone. We also need to create more role models – without symbolism – to inspire the next generation.

The >= More Than Equal project, which is backed by former F1 driver David Coulthard and Czech billionaire Karel Komárek, hopes to find a competitive female driver within eight years. It will begin by conducting data-driven research on the issues women face in the industry.

Most agree that one of them is the difficulty of starting early enough to create a very large pool of female talent, from which a star can emerge.

“It takes a special magic to become an F1 driver, and certainly to become a Lewis Hamilton or a Max Verstappen,” says Beavan. “It’s like finding a needle in a haystack.”

At F1 itself, plans are being made for a new women’s category that could pave the way to Formula 3 and, ultimately, F1. This new format would target young drivers (aged 16+), likely driving Formula 4 cars, and could be launched as early as next year.

“It is clear that, as a sport, we will have a category, women and men. . . run together,” said F1 chief executive Domenicali. “Our duty is to ensure that there are all the fundamentals [in place] to allow [women] starting from quantity to find quality.

Despite the challenges ahead, Wolff is optimistic. “It’s not a closed world that’s very male-dominated,” she says. “It was, but it’s going in the right direction.”

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