F1 Want Women in the Cockpit For First Time Since 1976
With its new academy, the racing league is inviting women to train for the grand prix.
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Only five women have competed in Formula One. The last one to start in an F1 race was Lella Lombardi … in 1976.
A former delivery van driver for her family’s butcher shop in Italy, Lombardi won fans with her punishing speed and grit. When a journalist asked her how it felt to pilot such big cars, she replied, “I don’t have to carry it, I just have to drive it.”
F1 organizers seem to have realized that it’s time to have a woman (or two—) back on the grid. This year they’re introducing the F1 Academy, a racing series and training program for women. “We will prove that female drivers have what it takes to compete at high levels,” says F1 Academy manager Bruno Michel, who’s also chief executive officer of F2 and F3, the series that feed drivers into F1.
Set to include 15 cars across 5 teams in a 21-race season, the academy will receive $156,000 per car from F1, and drivers must contribute the same amount with their own money or through sponsorships. F1 says it will also feature an academy race at a Grand Prix in 2023.
The idea is that the F1 Academy will recruit talent from go-karting and junior racing series, give them loads of seat time and coaching in modified F4 cars, then graduate them directly to F3, F2 and, in two or three years, F1. (F4 is an open-wheel racing category intended for junior drivers; the cars use four-cylinder engines with a power output capped at 160 brake horsepower.)
“F1 has faced reality regarding the lack of women in the sport,” says Vincenzo Landino, a motor sports reporter at FormulaMetric.com. “The fact that F1 responded by starting a pipeline shows it.”
This isn’t the first female-only racing series. When it premiered in 2018, the W Series (get it?) was criticized by prominent drivers including Pippa Mann and Sophia Flörsch for “segregating” women and preventing them from competing with the best drivers in the world. It also received no financial support from F1. Instead, W Series teams were backed by privately raised money from people such as Caitlyn Jenner, who founded Jenner Racing.
The F1 Academy has so far earned positive media coverage and is bolstered by vociferous pledges of support from F1 brass. “Formula One wants to ensure we are doing everything we can to create greater diversity and routes into this incredible sport,” says Stefano Domenicali, president and CEO. “This is designed to provide another route for the drivers to succeed.”
F1 organizers haven’t specified when they’ll announce the 2023 race schedule and list of drivers. Likely candidates are young and hail mainly from Europe. There’s Dutch phenom Maya Weug, 18, who in 2021 became the first female member of the prestigious Ferrari Driver Academy, and Doriane Pin, 18, a French karting champion who won the Ferrari Challenge in 2022 and has recorded strong efforts in the FIA World Endurance Championship and European Le Mans Series. (Like male drivers, women rising through the ranks ride in such niche series to advance their skills and reputation.)
Jessica Hawkins, 27, is another contender. The British W Series podium finisher is perhaps most known as a stunt driver for the 2021 James Bond film . Abbi Pulling, 19, a Brit who last year became the first woman to drive an F1 car in Saudi Arabia, and Marta García López, 22, a Spanish karting ace and W Series veteran, would also be at home in F1 Academy development.
You might have noticed none of these drivers is American. The sole US driver in the 2022 W Series, Chloe Chambers, would be a long shot for the F1 Academy. The dearth of American prospects reflects European countries’ efforts to foster competitive driving in young people more actively than the US, Landino says: “There has to be more investment into grassroots motor sport.”
F1 exploded in the US last year, with three races planned for 2023 and new episodes of the Netflix F1 documentary on the way. Although the sport still falls far short of the ratings that the National Football Association gets, F1 races averaged about 1.5 million viewers per race in 2022, roughly the same as a regular-season National Basketball Association game.
The W Series has been struggling. Managers abruptly canceled races in September, citing financial problems. On Dec. 14 a spokesperson said CEO Catherine Bond Muir would not be available for comment until the spring of 2023. Insiders say the F1 Academy, by contrast, has the backing and goodwill required to thrive, so aspiring drivers may not have to turn to the family delivery van to get seat time.
“The important thing is, we know how well people like Bruno and Stefano run things, and we know that F2 and F3 work,” says David Tremayne, the prolific freelance motor sports journalist and former F1 correspondent for the in London. “So this one will definitely work.”
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