By: Ruby Garff
Toward the end of April, a new all-women racing series named F1 Academy will debut in Austria. This new series represents ongoing efforts to give women an avenue into the world of motorsport.
More than most sports, motorsport has struggled with giving female athletes any sort of platform. Almost all series have remained co-ed theoretically, but still, seeing a woman racing or in the motorsport industry at all is rare. In recent years, F1 has attempted to solve this by introducing all women’s feeder and support series. A feeder series runs in support of a major championship–think Formula 1 or IndyCar being a home for young up-and-coming talent and paving the way for drivers wishing to earn a spot in the most elusive championships in the world. Formula 1 runs Formula 2 and Formula 3 as support series throughout the year, meaning they race on the same weekends and same tracks as F1. There is also Formula 4, which is a feeder series, but not a support series. Instead of being a single global championship, F4 can be put on by individual countries as long as they comply with the rules of the FIA— Formula 1’s governing body. The most recent addition to this list of championships was W-Series. W-Series held its inaugural season in 2019 and was initially independent of F1 before beginning to run in support, alongside F2 and F3 starting in 2021. Unfortunately, this didn’t last long when the W-Series began to experience major financial failings towards the end of the 2022 season. Reportedly, they owed “significant sums” to their creditors and they were unable to find the funds to pay. With the future of W-Series up in the air, the door was left open for another exclusively female championship to throw its hat in the ring. In November of 2022, Formula 1 announced a third addition to their roster of support/feeder series, F1 Academy. F1 Academy is in its infancy, and will only feature 15 drivers and 5 teams upon its debut race in Austria later this month. This differs from the 20 drivers and 10 teams of F1/F2 and the 30 drivers and 10 teams of F3. The three teams are all participants in F3 and F2, furthering the cohesion between championships that W-Series lacked. The drivers all have previous single-seater racing or karting success, and 5 of these 15 drivers are W-Series Alumni. For the most part, they’re incredibly young and up-and-coming talents, typical of other F1 feeder series, with the oldest driver being 25 and the youngest just celebrating her 16th birthday. Hopefully, F1 Academy will give female drivers a much-needed path into the upper echelon of motorsport.
Female racecar drivers seem to be few and far between. Most will argue that a woman just can’t physically compete with a man on the stage of any sport, but I argue that if 5’2” Yuki Tsunoda can drag his AlphaTauri around an F1 track, anyone can; still, the list of successful women in motorsport is pretty sparse. Probably the most notable female race-car driver of all time is Danica Patrick. Danica is a true trailblazer, as her list of accomplishments includes a number of firsts. She is the first woman to ever win an IndyCar race and grab a pole position in NASCAR. She has the most starts, top-tens, and laps-led than any woman who has competed in the series. On top of the records she’s set as a woman, she’s also one of only 14 drivers to lead both the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500, which are the two most celebrated races on the American auto-racing calendar, despite her relatively negative reputation among NASCAR fans. Danica has been declared a “sex symbol” in the past, in her own words, “Do you call Blake Griffin a sex symbol because he was on the cover of Men’s Health with his shirt off? People just don’t know what to call women who look attractive.” The only reason she’s been hyper-sexualized is because she maintained her femininity in a sport that is entirely populated by men. I can really appreciate how she’s constantly spreading the message that it’s okay to be girly and feminine while still paving a path in a male-dominated field. It’s very Elle Woods if you ask me, and I love it. Danica has faced so much backlash for simply existing throughout her career and even now. As is typical of NASCAR fans, any whiff of diversity in the sport (meaning any driver who’s not a white male) makes them nervous. To a lot of fans, Danica being a woman automatically means that she is only there for marketing and is inherently undeserving of her spot. This sentiment has been echoed recently with Bubba Wallace, who is the NASCAR Cup series’ only African-American driver. Unfortunately, in the old-fashioned world of motorsport and NASCAR specifically, if you’re different, the level of scrutiny you’re under increases exponentially. Danica Patrick is surely not one of the greatest NASCAR drivers of all time, but she has excelled in single-seaters as was shown during her time in IndyCar. There is no reason for fans to claim she is an awful driver other than her gender. The grading scale is different for Danica and other women in the sport. There is no room for them to be just good, or even great. For anyone to see them as other than just “female” racecar drivers, they would have to be exceptional.
Danica Patrick is such a rarity in motorsport that NASCAR has had to shift little parts of its brand to accommodate her. The famous phrase “Gentlemen, start your engines!” has been uttered for years before a NASCAR race begins. When Danica joined the field of drivers, it was clear “gentlemen” was no longer applicable to everyone. This is an issue that had been encountered before with other female drivers, but never properly addressed. “Drivers, start your engines!” is the phrase being used now, and I think it’s a perfectly fine gender-neutral way to address the grid– even if it is all men again now. Honestly, this is a nonissue, I just think it’s funny that Danica has been so othered by the sport that in 2013 James Franco started a cup series race with the words, “Drivers… and Danica, start your engines!” I can’t even comprehend how someone even manages to make this mistake, so either it’s a cutting insult to Danica, barring her from even being considered a driver, or James Franco is slightly stupid. Either way, this remark was used as a way for fans to further demean Danica and her abilities because, surely, a female cannot possibly be a NASCAR driver. How silly of NASCAR to ever include her in their opening announcement and assume that anyone but a gentleman could ever grace their sport.
Ever since Danica retired, there haven’t really been any female drivers making waves in the industry. They’ve made their appearances in NASCAR and IndyCar, but no one has cemented their position quite like Danica Patrick did. Women dot the various support series’ and more obscure corners of motorsport. There is only one woman competing full-time in any NASCAR series, Hailie Deegan, who competes in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. There are no full-time female drivers in IndyCar, though women will often make appearances in the wide field of the famous Indy500. There is a full-time driver in Indy’s top feeder series Indy NXT, 24-year-old Jamie Chadwick. She secured her spot after becoming the only champion in W-Series history. Meaning, out of the three seasons W-Series has run, Jamie Chadwick has emerged as the winner of all of them. Yet, this still wasn’t enough to earn her a spot in any F1 support series, and it makes you wonder how effective F1 Academy will be at making any change in the role of women in F1. No woman has competed in an F1 race since Lella Lombardi in 1976; that’s nearly half of a century since a woman has competed alongside the men in an F1 race. The only woman in an F1 support series as of right now, is Sophia Flörsch, currently racing in F3. The immediate future of women in motor racing, and in F1 specifically, is muddled at best.
Women aren’t just rare on track, but off it as well. Out of the ten teams on the F1 grid, none of them currently have female team principals (team bosses). Only two women have ever headed up Formula 1 teams, Monisha Kaltenborn was the CEO of Sauber Formula One Team from 2010-2017. Claire Williams was the deputy team principal of Williams, the team her father founded, from 2013-2020. If you were to stand at the edge of the F1 paddock or grid on a race weekend and look down the garages at the various employees, engineers, and strategists brought to each race, you would see very few women. It’s a sad reality that reflects not only the exclusion of women in sports, but the exclusion of women in business and science as a whole. No matter how much F1 pushes its inclusivity agenda, shouting its slogan, We Race as One, there seems to be very little change in the number of women holding careers in the sport. ESPN conducted a survey in 2021 to determine truly how many women held positions in each of the 10 operating F1 teams. Only 5 teams responded to the survey. Mercedes, the largest team, employs around 1,000 people, 117 of which are women. That’s roughly 12% of their workforce. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Haas, with a team of 167, employs 15 women. That’s 9%. These proportions grow smaller when looking at the “inner-circle” of each team, or the group of employees that travel to each race. Out of McLaren’s 66 travelers, 5 are women. Alfa Romeo has 55 on average, 5 are also women. Out of Mercedes’ 65, four are women, 6% percent. These numbers are clearly abysmal. I love this sport, truly I do, but the high barrier of entry and the lack of any real diversity is hard to justify.
With F1 Academy’s introduction, many are hopeful that F1 is finally beginning to welcome the possibility of women driving in their sport. Whether or not F1 Academy will make motorsport more inclusive is up in the air. W-Series almost completely failed at achieving that goal. I hope that girls across the world interested in racing are encouraged to compete and fight on the same level as the boys. If the world of motorsport begins to accept women into the competition instead of constantly pushing back against any inkling of diversity, we might see a change. Maybe someday soon we’ll find the next Danica Patrick. Maybe one day a woman will race in Formula 1.