The History (and Future) of Women in Formula 1

It would come as no surprise to anyone that Formula 1 has been and, more or less, still is a male dominated sport. While this is changing for the better in the teams in terms of engineers, mechanics and in various other positions throughout the sport. There is one place where it remains a man’s world. The drivers. Out of more than 900 drivers that have graced our wonderful sport, only 2 have been female. The last female to take place in a Grand Prix was nearly 50 years ago. This was in the era where F1 drivers entered with a 20% chance of death at each race, as Niki Lauda famously remarked. There is some good news in all of this though, and I’m not talking about the fact that the last female driver still scored more points wise that Nikita Mazepin. The good news, is that there are female drivers who are shaking up the racing world and getting closer to Formula 1.

It’s time for us to delve into the history of women in our sport and the chances of it happening again in the near future. Also before I see it in the comments, I know the last thing we need is a story about women being mansplained so my sincerest apologies in advance if it comes across that way! Anyways…let’s get into it.

While there has been 5 females who have technically can be classified as F1 drivers, only 2 have ever qualified for an actual race. We’ll delve more into what that actually means later, as it sounds strange in modern standards, but it’ll make sense when we cover the other 3 female drivers who’ve taken part in a race weekend since, but first, let’s highlight these two incredible women and explore their stories. 

The first woman to drive in Formula 1 was Maria Teresa de Filippis who was born in 1926 in Naples, Italy. The daughter of an Italian Count and a Spanish mother, her father being the owner of Palazzo Marigliano a Palace in Naples. In her early 20’s she would move from horse riding, to a love of all things petrol, brought on by her two brothers trying to convince her that women can’t drive fast. They went as far as to bet her she couldn’t win a race and at 22 she won her first race, driving a Fiat 500 on a 10 km drive between Salerno and Cava de’ Tirreni.

She would later enter the Italian Sports Car Championship in 1954 and finished second, putting her on the radar of Maserati who were a big name in racing back in the 50’s. After successfully competing for them in hillclimb and endurance events, she finished second in a sports car race supporting the 1956 Naples Grand Prix, driving a Maserati 200S. It was time for her to make history and enter Formula 1, but she would still have to wait a little bit longer.

Maserati was massively successful in the 1950’s era of Formula 1 and in 1957 Juan Manuel Fangio took his fifth and final driver’s championship in a Maserati 250F, after which Maserati officially withdrew from the sport. They did however allow private buyers to use their cars in the 1958 season and lucky for one young lady with close connections to Maserati and a family of means, Maria was able to get her hands on a Maserati 250F and go racing in the pinnacle of motorsport.

On 18 May 1958, she gained the opportunity to enter the Monaco Grand Prix, but out of the 31 drivers who entered, only half set a time fast enough to qualify to be in the actual race. Sadly Maria was not one of them and neither was another driver who was entering an F1 race for the first time, a young Bernie Ecclestone. However her pace was incredibly impressive, a 1’50.8 was 5.8 seconds behind the qualifying time of the fastest 16 which included future world champions Mike Hawthorn, Jack Brabham, and Graham Hill in his first race. This would lead to Fangio offering her lots of advice throughout the season, including telling her “You go too fast, You take too many risks.”

At the Belgian Grand Prix in 1958, there was no cut off time for qualifying and she would finally get her chance to enter a race. She was lapped twice in the 24 lap race she managed to finish, albeit in 10th and last place after nine other cars failed to finish. Although this would prove to be her only race finish, it wouldn’t matter, history had been made. She was officially the first woman ever to finish a Formula 1 race.

On 7 September 1958, she started her home Grand Prix at Monza from last place. She completed 57 of the 70 laps before having to retire with engine problems. As the 14th and final retirement out of 21, she technically finished 8th.

In 1959, she joined Behra-Porsche but failed to qualify for the Monaco Grand Prix once again, which would become her last attempt at the sport. In August of that year, John Behra, the founder of the team died in a supporting sports car race for the German GP and given this added to many of her friends who had died in motor racing in 1958 alone, Maria decided to walk away from the incredibly dangerous sport. At the German Grand Prix where Behra died and Maria was supposed to race, she left the circuit and walked away from Motorsport for 20 years. She kept away from all forms of motor racing until 1979 when she joined the International Club of Former F1 Grand Prix Drivers, going on to take the role of Vice-President in 1997.

It would be over a decade before the next woman to enter the sport, would even enter the radar of an F1 team. 

Lella Lombardi was born in 1941 in Piedmont, a small Italian town, and her father was a local Butcher. She gained her first job driving the family Delivery Van and unknown to her at the time this experience would lead her to becoming an icon in the motorsport world. After a brief stint in Karting, she purchased her first racing car in 1965 to enter Formula Monza, before moving to Formula 3 in 1968, finishing second in the championship. After moving to Formula 850, winning the championship in 1970, taking four wins out of ten that year. At the 1971 Formula Ford Mexican Championship, which for some reason took place in London, she went on to win. 

Lombardi’s big break would come in 1974 where she entered Formula 1 with a privately owned Brabham car. Although she failed to qualify, it led to being spotted by the March F1 team, who gave her a contract for 1975. At the first race in South Africa, she successfully qualified for the race, becoming the first woman to qualify for a race since Maria in 1958. Sadly she would only complete 23 laps before a fuel system failure led to her retirement. 

Sound familiar Verstappen?

At the Spanish Grand Prix, Lombardi was running in 6th when tragedy struck on lap 25 as Rolf Stommelen’s car crashed, taking to the air and flipping over a barrier killing five spectators, while Rolf left with a broken leg. The race continued for four more laps before ending. As the race hadn’t reached three quarter distance, only half points were awarded. Still beating Spa 2021. This would still though leave Lombardi in the history books, as the only woman ever to be awarded Formula 1 championship points, even if it was only half a point. 

She also ran one race for Williams at the US Grand Prix in 1975 and then sadly in 1976 she was replaced by Ronnie Peterson who left Lotus and became available for March. She finished off the season with Ram Racing and had best finish with the team of 12th at the Australian Grand Prix.

She would go on to race at the Race of Champions, Nascar and various other sports car events, but her Formula 1 career was officially over. It wouldn’t matter, to this day no other woman has ever scored a point in Formula 1, leaving Lombardi with that honour to this day. 

There have been three other female driver’s since that have attempted to qualify for Formula 1 races.  Divina Galica was a British driver who entered 3 races with Surtees and Hesketh between 1976 and 1978, but failed to qualify for all three. Desiré Wilson, a South African Driver who entered the 1980 British Grand Prix with Williams but also failed to qualify. Finally Giovanna Amati entered 3 races in 1992 with Brabham but also failed to qualify for all 3. Since 1996 this format of qualifying has gone, but you might be wondering how a driver can fail to qualify for a race?

Currently there are only 10 teams in Formula one, with each team entering two cars, giving us a total of twenty cars racing at each Grand Prix. There is actually a regulation in modern Formula 1 that a maximum of twenty-six cars can take place in a Grand Prix. Therefore the worst case for a driver in Formula 1 today is that they start at the back of the grid, however they still start the race. However at various periods throughout Formula 1 there would be different limits at different race tracks. As an example Monaco had a limit of 20 cars maximum on the grid given its restricted size. The cars that thus qualified in position 21 or above would be classified as Did Not Qualify or DNQ and thus would not take part in the Grand Prix itself.

Throughout the 70’s and 80’s this led to pre-qualifying as a way to get the actual qualifying down to 30 cars for the actual qualifying session and then 26 of those would be allowed through to the Grand Prix. This was due to the fact that the sport was so unsafe at the time without the added issue of having 30+ cars on the grid. In 1992 Pre-Qualifying was removed causing many of the smaller teams that didn’t have the funding to compete at the front to leave the sport.

Since 1992, it would be 22 years before another female would take place in a race weekend after Susie Wolff was signed as a development driver by Williams and participated in free practice one at the 2014 British Grand Prix. 

In 2018 the W-Series was devised in response to the lack of female drivers who were rising to the top of motorsport and in particular the Formula 1 World Championship. It ran its first season in 2019 and in 2021 became an additional support race series for the Formula 1 World Championship that year, elevating its status in the public eye and moving it more into the spotlight of fans such as myself.

This has led me though, in the last few months since my first child, a wonderful baby girl, was born, to wonder whether the creation of W series will lead to a situation where even less females make it to Formula 1. Has creating a specific female championship relegated Formula 1 to being a Male only sport or will the opposite be true, will it lead to more inclusiveness and become more of an F2 style feeder series. 

It would be an incredible shame if the latter is true as with a sport like Formula 1, there are absolutely no reasons to have a Female and Male separation for entrants. While the W Series is incredible and an amazing step for progress for female racing drivers, let’s have a look at what the future hols for females in Formula 1.

As with any problem in life, to understand its trajectory for the future, we first need to understand its causes. One of the leading reasons why we’ve seen so few women in Formula 1, is sadly the same reason that we’ve seen only one black driver in the sport. Money. More importantly the source of the money. 

When we consider how competitive it is to just get to F1 let alone succeed in the sport a driver needs every single advantage that they can get. As an example Sebastian Vettel started karting at 3 years of age. As the drivers progress they need funding for karts, tyres and then to be taken seriously to get onto the formula ladder of Formula 4 and then progress. Every step on this ladder is extraordinarily expensive. Therefore each person working their way up this ladder needs either wealthy parents, a deep pocketed sponsor or in the case of Lewis Hamilton, a parent willing to sacrifice every moment of their time to get them to the start of that ladder.

Generally speaking the most common path is a sprinkle of family money to get them through karting and if they show promise then a big sponsor will come in. This is the first difficulty for women in the sport. Sponsors for Formula 1 have generally been massively conservative and do not want to try shake up the sport, therefore they calculate risk. They see it as a man’s sport, therefore they perpetuate the norms by only funding the norms.

Basically unless their parent has Lawrence Stroll money, any female looking to climb to F1 is going to find it extremely difficult to find the money. Not impossible but definitely 10x that of a man with the same talent, or perhaps much less talent for that matter..

This is where W-Series has aimed to highlight the talent of females and it’s worth noting that the W Series is free for its drivers to enter, pays their expenses and awards its winner $500,000. Thus removing one of the largest barriers to entry.

Even if a female driver overcomes the money issues there is still the problem of the constructor that will take on a female driver. Basically would a current F1 team risk being the first ones to put a female driver in their car? The issue is that even though from a fan and sporting perspective it would be a good look, there is also the fact that the fanbase and therefore the sponsor’s target markets are still heavily skewed towards the male demographics. 

I don’t want to end this on a poor note though, so let’s talk about the good news.

The W-Series team is highly motivated to turn the series into essentially an F2 feeder series and by becoming an F1 support race series, it’s moving in the right direction. They understood from the outset that they didn’t want female drivers pigeonholed in the series. There are also many young female drivers showing incredible talent in W-Series and F3, the future of female talent is bright. The next step is that the world, and therefore those willing to fund a female driver, are changing. The conservative nature of these businesses is changing and in turn the chances of a female driver in F1 again are rising from a financial perspective. Finally, and possible most importantly as it’ll have a knock on effect throughout the sport, is that the fanbase of the sport is increasing massively thanks to Drive to Survive and social media. The breaking of America by Formula 1 is a sign of this. As the fanbase grows, so too does the percentage of females. 

Soon the “give the fans what they want” sporting motto, will include a Female driver.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *