Can women compete on equal terms with men in sports? Legendary Billie Jean King once proved it on a tennis court by winning a tournament against Bobby Riggs, the former No.3 of the world in singles. Unfortunately, on the Formula 1 track, things are different.
After all women on the F1 grid are rare. So, does it mean they are not made for this sport? Sir Stirling Moss, who has won 16 races, is more than categorical about this. According to this British racer, women «just do not have enough ability and ingenuity», as female drivers are more vulnerable to mental stress than men.
Someone may object, saying that the instinct of self-preservation in women is stronger. Why should they risk their lives for racing? And considering how many lives Formula 1 races have taken since the very beginning, the question seems to be quite natural.
Nevertheless, the history of Formula 1 remembers a few brave women behind the wheel of F1 cars, who competed with men. These five inspiring stories will be remembered by all lovers of motorsport.
Maria Teresa de Filippis
The first time women conquered the tricky mechanism of a racing car was at the very beginning of the 20th century. They began driving on the Formula 1 track itself in 1958.
The first female F1 racer was the Italian aristocrat Maria Teresa de Filippis. The young lady due to her social position, got an opportunity to get behind the wheel early and was eager to prove to her brothers that women behind the wheel are no worse than men. She got to the F1 grid at the age of 32 years old, taking part in a non-qualifying race.
And her first circuit of the championship was the Monaco Grand Prix, not the easiest of all the F1 races. She didn’t qualify, but her debut did not go unnoticed. During the next race in Belgium, not only did she qualify but she also finished in 10th position. In total, the Italian aristocrat took part in five Grand Prix races.
Lella… The First Lady of Formula 1. The first and only female racer who earned points in the championship. How did it all start?
Early on, the Italian driver got behind the wheel of a truck on which she delivered orders for her father’s clients, as he was a butcher. Apparently, Lella loved being behind the wheel. Soon she bought her first car. She first tried her skills in karting, then the 27-year-old woman began to compete in Italian Formula 3. Then, there was Formula 850, which she completed with the title of champion, winning 4 out of 10 races.
The young woman began her career in Formula 1, when she was 33, becoming the only female driver who was able to earn points during the championship.
In theory, Lella was supposed to earn 1 point during the Spanish Grand Prix, which turned out to be a complete disaster. It turned out that the circuit didn’t meet the safety standards provided for the championship. Something that should have been expected.
During the accident that occurred on the track, several spectators were killed. Nevertheless, Lella had driven a remarkable race around the circuit, earning 0,5 point. Perhaps she wanted to prove that women still have a place in this extreme form of motor sport?
Lella, who completed her F1 career in 1976, was replaced by the British athlete Divina Galica. But don’t think that the passion for motor racing fascinated this girl since her childhood.
Divina was a professional skier; she took part in several Olympic games. Twice she acted as captain of the British alpine skiing team at the Olympics. Not surprisingly, the love of speed and adrenaline pushed her to try herself in motor sport. And, of course, she ended up in Formula 1.
In 1976, the girl made her debut in F1 behind the wheel of a Ford Surtees TS16 during the British Grand Prix. Unfortunately, she failed to qualify either in this or in other races… 1978 became the final year in her career as a F1 racer. Nevertheless, in the history of the championship she will remain a female driver, who happened to take part in three Olympic games.
1980 was marked by the performance of another woman. This time Desiré Wilson from South Africa decided to compete in the championship.
By the time she took part in F1, she already had several victories in various races: from Formula Ford in her country to the Aurora F1 Series Grand Prix, which was held from 1978 to 1980. The series was not officially included in the Formula 1 championship, but participants competed at the wheel of F1 cars. Moreover, participation in these races opened doors to the «real» Formula 1 championship.
In 1980, Desiree tried to qualify for the start of the British Grand Prix, but she failed. Despite the promising results from the previous races, the South African, who sat behind the wheel of the hastily commandeered Williams FW07, made several mistakes that cost her a place on the grid.
She took part in other races as well, with the highlight being 1983 at Le Mans where she earned 7th place.
Giovanna is another Italian woman who was brave and talented enough to take part in Formula 1 races. She’s last in our list of the five female drivers who participated in F1 championship races.
Giovanna was born in a wealthy Italian family. And although her mother was an actress, the life of this young woman could have been a plot for a blockbuster. In 1978, 19-year-old Amati was kidnapped for ransom by a gang led by Jean Daniel Nieto. The girl was held hostage for more than 70 days. During this time, rumours had it that the girl actually fell in love with the gang leader. Later, the kidnappers were arrested, but not the leader Nieto. He began sending love letters to Giovanna. The young girl, cooperating with the police, set up a meeting with him, and he was arrested.
But let’s go back to her participation in Formula 1. She loved adventure. It is not surprising that, even in her youth, she had a craving for speed and sport.
Her way to the Formula 1 championship wasn’t very different from the ones that her F1 «sisters» had taken before. Starting with Formula-Abarth, she tried competing in different classes and in 1992 got a place on the F1 grid. The 33-year-old racer had a contract with the Brabham team. During her first Grand Prix in South Africa, Giovanna failed to qualify. Unfortunately, her F1 driving results turned out to be insignificant. The story repeated itself in the following races, and the results were not at all comforting. At that point, the sponsors refused to finance Amati and she was replaced with another driver.
Women in modern Formula 1
Despite the fact that only five ladies wrote their names in the history of the championship, today the number of women in Formula 1 has increased significantly. But probably, they would be more efficient not at the wheel of the car, but rather at the helm of the whole teams!
For example, Monisha Kaltenborn was the head of the Sauber team, where the young Monegasque Charles Leclerc started his F1 career. Today, the 47-year-old native of India is a co-founder of the KDC Racing team.
The career of Susie Wolff also deserves respect. During 22 years, women were absent on the track, and she was the first to have broken this bogey. The Scottish lady began her career with karting, and then embarked on a more serious adventure, making her debut in Formula Renault. This took the Scot into top level motorsport. 2003 was marked for a girl on the rise to the podium. And then, two years later, Susie moved to Formula 3, where she drove for the Alan Docking Racing team.
After marrying Toto Wolff, co-owner of the Williams team, the 30-year-old racer takes part in the team’s youth program and then becomes a test driver. In 2014, during the free practice session at the British Grand Prix, Susie became part of the Formula 1 men’s team. It was the first time in a while for a woman. Unfortunately, a year later she announced her retirement.
Nevertheless, today Susie Wolff still remains part of the world of motorsport, leading the Venturi Monaco team, which participates in Formula E.
Susie is not the only woman in the modern history of Formula 1. The merits and achievements of many brave ladies are worthy of attention, because competing in the races requires nerves of steel. The risk to life is high. And the story of María de Villota, who in 2012 became a test pilot for the Marussia team is a sad example.
During the tests that same year, she had an accident and was taken to hospital with serious injuries. Rehabilitation was difficult: as a result of the accident, the Spanish woman lost her eye and had to undergo a serious operation. About a year later, she was found dead in a Seville hotel. The cause of death was cerebral hemorrhage, which was a fatal consequence of the brain injury she had had during the test races.
W Series: who will be the first female F1 star?
Young generations of female racers, though not participating in races with men, support the launching of a female-only motorsport series. It seems their dream will come true, as the first F1 championship for women will take place this year.
As it was supported by many male racers, including David Coulthard, the organizers aim to organize races on the best tracks in Europe, and later in America and Asia. The fund for prize money will be about 1.5 billion dollars, and the contest will consist of six 30-minutes races. The first race of the W Series will be held in Germany. Who is expected to be on the starting grid?
The initiative has found support among some female racers. For example, Carmen Jordá, development driver in the F1 Renault team, is confident that the creation of the women-only championship will allow many racers to fulfill their dream of taking part in Formula 1.
Carmen herself is a quite experienced player in the motorsport industry. Starting her career with karting, the Spanish racer took part in the Spanish Formula 3, races in Le Mans, as well as the series GP3. She made her debut in the F1 world in 2015, becoming a development driver of the Lotus, and then Renault teams.
The 30-year-old Spanish racer has every chance not only to succeed in the future championship, but also to win it. She could probably compete with 18-year-old Marta García from Alicante. As a girl she began her career in karting and since then never left motor racing. She has already entered the list of the 28 female drivers who will fight for participation in the first ever Formula 1 women only championship.
Tatiana Calderón is another young and promising racer from Colombia. Currently she is a test driver on the Alfa Romeo team and is competing in the Formula 3 Championship. Despite the fact that Tatyana approves of the initiative of the W series, the racer herself seems as yet to have no plans to compete in this championship. Tatiana, 25, said she was used to comparing herself with the best and was not afraid to compete with men.
In Russian motor sport it is important to mention Natalia Freidina. Despite the fact that the Russian driver competes in GT class circuit racing, she has already taken part in Formula BMW. Today Natalia is basically the only Russian racer at a really high level. Perhaps her experience and desire to fight with other female racers will lead Natalia to the start line of the W Series.
Over time, the list of F1 drivers will have more and more female names! This year of the 90th anniversary of the Monaco Grand Prix there are still no women on the track, but wouldn’t one or two women racing drivers be a great start to a new tradition? And why not at the Monaco Grand Prix? We hope that at least some brilliant and brave beauties will make the podium on the 100th F1 Monaco Grand Prix!
The Monaco GP with its glamour, breathtaking views and tricky track will always be one of the most important races of any Formula 1 series, regardless of who will be driving the car. Or maybe Monte-Carlo will be the site chosen for the first all female Formula 1 race. Why not?