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Why is F1 not ready for a female driver?

Melanie Last
March 18, 2022

In motor sports, women and men can compete against each other — in theory at least. Yet no woman has made it to Formula One for several decades. German driver Sophia Flörsch says the macho world needs an overdue rethink.

Sophia Flörsch in helmet
Sophia Flörsch believes that it's time women were given a chance in Formula OneImage: Hasan Bratic/picture alliance

"I'll give you it in writing. I'd race for the championship if they let me." Sophia Flörsch said the words so confidently and purposefully that there was no room for doubt. The motor sports driver survived a horror crash at the Formula Three Grand Prix in Macau, China, three years ago but has made her way back behind the wheel.

She wants to drive. At any price. And particularly in Formula One, if only they'd allow it.

Although drivers can technically be any gender, motor sports remains male-dominated. In this macho world, there are a few female engineers, test drivers and presenters but on the track, it's more or less men only. Just 1.5% of all licensed motor sports drivers worldwide are female. The issue is systemic and has obviously been so for years

The long-overdue removal of scantily clad grid girls in the midst of the #MeToo movement in 2018 was another reminder of the gender divide. Yet even that ban met with fierce criticism in the motor sports world because it put an end to a long-cherished, patriarchal tradition.

The 'white hair' generation

"It is increasingly the older generation that does not approve of a woman succeeding in Formula One," Flörsch told DW. "It's the generation that already has white hair on their heads — they come from a different time. There's this image of a tough, sweaty, battle-hardened racing driver who has to be a man. That can't change in their eyes."

Flörsch raced in the German Touring Car Masters (DTM) for the "Abt Sportsline" team in 2021. Prior to that, she competed in the European and FIA Formula 3 Championships. In 2022 she will compete in the European Le Mans Series and possibly also in the legendary 24-hour race at Le Mans. Among racing drivers, there has never been anyone who did not believe that she could make it, she said. But, for that, equal opportunities are needed.

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"Women must receive the same support as men. If there are sponsors, companies, teams that believe in women, then we can make history," the 21-year-old said.

Sponsors slow to show courage

Sponsors in particular seem to have found it difficult to take a chance on a woman because none have been able to prove themselves winners. This is not due to lack of skill, willingness, fitness or an aversion to risks. Rather it is because there have been no sponsors who have had the courage to believe in a woman and provide her with the budget she and her team need for a successful season.

Money makes all the difference, whether it's Formula One or in the junior ranks. Flörsch, for example, had a budget of just €700,000 for her start in Formula Three last year, just half of what the top team had available. "Accordingly, I never had the super successes," she said. "And, because I don't have the super successes, I find it harder to find sponsors." Plus, of course, she's also a woman. "This cycle is annoying."

If more girls enter the junior ranks, and are promoted accordingly, it will only be a matter of time before another woman makes it into Formula One. The last woman to race in an F1 Grand Prix was Italian driver Lella Lombardi. That was 45 years ago. There have been a few female test drivers over recent years but they never came close to a racing.

The W-Series, a racing series exclusively for women that started over two years ago, has not changed the situation yet. It is supposed to ensure that female drivers get more racing practice free of charge, unlike in Formula One, which costs millions. But though either gender can compete in F1, no female winner of the W-Series has ever made the jump across.

Susie Wolff with a test car
Former Williams test driver Susie Wolff is part of an effort to get more women into racingImage: Germain Hazard/DPPI media/picture alliance

Is Girls on Track on track?

There is an obligation for governing body the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) to finally make a clear pathway for female drivers. The FIA Girls on Track project has been trying to do just that for two years. "We want to inspire the next generation of young girls," said ambassador Susie Wolff, who was once a Williams F1 test driver.

"We want to make sure they are supported through role models and mentoring in sport," Wolff said.

Girls and young women aged 8 to 18 can participate. "Before the pandemic broke out, we were organizing live events, bringing young schoolgirls to the track and showing them the different aspects of the sport. Because of the pandemic, everything is virtual now. This has the great advantage that we can reach a huge global audience instead of just doing local events at community level," Wolff said in an FIA interview.

Sophia Flörsch, Beitske Visser and Tatiana Calderon from left to right with helmets
A new generation: Female racing drivers Sophia Flörsch, Beitske Visser and Tatiana CalderonImage: Germain Hazard/picture alliance/DPPI media

Getting behind the wheel yourself and experiencing motor sports firsthand during a free practice session at a top team will hopefully soon be possible again at Girls on Track and inspire even more young women.

Motor sports needs female role models

Flörsch also started young. When she was 4 years old, she sat in a kart for the first time. Since then, motor sports has never let her go. "I have petrol in my blood," said the racing driver with a laugh.

She supports the FIA's initiative. "As long as there are only men driving, it's hard for a young girl to recognize her ability to be a driver and say: 'Mum, I want to take up the sport, too.'"

That's why female racers are needed.

"Once there is a successful woman in Formula One, it will be a no-brainer," Flörsch added, once again entirely convincingly.

She herself still dreams of Formula One. But she knows that her chances do not depend on her skill alone.

This article was translated from German.

This article has been updated. It was originally published on December 29, 2021.