Closing the gender gap in F1 driver’s seat and paddock

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It is almost half a century since a woman scored points in a Formula One race, writes Nicki Shields. Lella Lombardi finished sixth in the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix, earning half a point. And the fact that no female driver has gone further in the past 49 years raises many questions about the lack of women in motorsport.

Fortunately, this enduring gender gap has not gone unnoticed and we are now witnessing arguably the biggest change motorsport has seen. There is a monumental, paddock-wide effort to move the needle and create more opportunities for women to work or race within the sport.

Currently, 40 per cent of F1 fans are female — up from 32 per cent in 2018 — so it is now even more important to appeal to both women and men. However, female drivers, on average, account for only about 10 per cent of competitors across all categories. So this is where the work needs to be done.

The all-female F1 Academy, with managing director Susie Wolff its driving force, has been transformative. On seven F1 race weekends, you can now also watch 15 of the best female drivers compete wheel-to-wheel. Ten of 15 cars feature F1 team liveries, with the remainder sponsored by global brands including American Express, Puma, and Charlotte Tilbury cosmetics. The series helps female drivers climb the ladder from F4, F3 and F2 to F1, and provides support to develop careers.

F1 Academy driver Abbi Pulling is another formidable force, having won four out of the six races so far this season and becoming the first female driver to win a British F4 race in May. But Pulling, 21, also shows how talent is not always enough in motorsport: she had to pull out of her second season of F4 in September 2021 due to funding issues. She then raced in the all-female W Series, finishing seventh in 2021 and fourth in 2022, the final season. Pulling went on to join F1 Academy, where she is now able to develop and showcase her skills on a global stage.

Several other initiatives are now seeking to boost the number of women working or aspiring to work in the sport.

F1 Academy: Discover Your Drive is a grassroots karting programme aiming to encourage female participation from as young as eight, and is already producing results. The British Indoor Karting Championship has seen female participation more than double.

For the mixed-sex Champions of the Future series of kart races, F1 Academy supports nine girls aged eight to 15. The top three finishers in the senior category will be offered an F1 Academy test.

Meanwhile, Girls on Track UK aims to inspire girls and women to believe they have a place in racing and to encourage interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, which could open up career paths.

Finally, the More Than Equal initiative, run by founder and Grand Prix winner David Coulthard and chief executive Ali Donnelly, uses a “science-based approach” to find and develop F1’s first female champion. “All the science says there is no boundary between men and women competing at the same level in F1,” he says.

Walking around a paddock in 2024 is a contrast to the past, too, with women in many roles. But there is a long way to go. Will we see a female F1 driver in the next 10 years? There are certainly no guarantees, but we are in a much better place today than we’ve ever been before.

Video: Inside F1 Academy, the new all-women drivers’ championship | FT Scoreboard

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