Motorsport is not made for women.
Motorsport is a world run by men, designed only for men to participate. It is an area that glorifies testosterone and masculine apathy in the face of danger. In motorsport, we call our cars “she”, and they’re the only ‘women’ allowed to actively participate in an event; all the other real, human women are dolled up and silenced, artfully placed like decorative objects in key places around the circuit. Seen, not heard. Men get to attend races unbothered; any women who show up must simply be there as a pretty accoutrement for a passionate boyfriend/husband/brother. Motorsport is a “gentlemen’s sport”, a “boy’s club”. Motorsport is not made for women.
And, yet, women are still passionate about it anyway.
And that is exactly why motorsport needs to change.
Rumors of a woman’s F1 championship have been floating around for months now. Vague hints here and there, but no real plan to enact it – until now.
On November 28, the DailyMail announced that plans are in the works for a potential all-female F1 championship to emerge in 2019, despite public backlash surrounding the idea every single time another rumor leaks out. The series would consist of six races – five in Europe, one in America – with the ever-so-desirable championship winner to be awarded with… an F1 test drive.
The all-female sport is intended to rival F1 in prestige and significance, they say.
Which is why it only makes sense that women are to be awarded with what is, potentially, the least significant opportunity in Formula One. They are not offered a chance to race an F1 car – no, they only get to test one. And, as F1 fans have seen time and time again, talented drivers who are relegated to a test driver role have a hard time being guaranteed a full-season drive if they aren’t specifically contracted to earn one.
If this championship is supposed to be an equal with Formula One, then why is Formula One still ranked higher than them on the motorsport hierarchy? If two CEOs of a company are considered to hold equal share and sway in that company, one of those CEOs should not still have to strive to reach the level of control of the other. That is not the definition of equality.
If this championship is supposed to be an equal, why do the women only get six races to F1’s twenty-plus? Why do they keep calling it equal, and then claiming it would be second only to F1? Why can’t women just race a goddamn Formula One car?
An all-female championship would be historic, and it would be groundbreaking. But it would still be an Exceptionally Bad Idea, for an exceptional amount of reasons.
This is, above all, an excuse to stop having to strive for diversity within F1. The Powers That Be are so horrified by the thought of having a woman compete alongside – or beat – a man that they’re willing to hook a woman’s championship up to an IV and pump millions of dollars into it, when it would be far simpler to support women from the ground up (which I’ll detail later). It is a much more appealing option to cobble together a Frankenstein’s monster of a championship for women than it is to actually just sponsor a woman on her way up to the top, and that is an incredibly disturbing mindset.
Segregation has, historically, never been a Good Thing. Segregation is the portioning-off of a minority group into a neat little box that can be shoved into the back of the cupboard and forgotten about while the majority gets to enjoy everything else in the pantry. If the majority is in charge of creating “equality” for the minority, they won’t. Simple as that. When America segregated their schools, all the best resources were poured into the white schools, and black students were supposed to be grateful that they even had a school at all.
It is a similar concept here (albeit with much, much less institutionalized violence). A female-only championship isn’t going to be equal. It’s going to be a way for the men of F1 to say, “stop complaining, you already have your little championship, so let us have ours”. It’s a very effective way to never have to worry about being bothered by a woman again. You just smile when the Ladies’ Champion takes your car out for a test drive in the off-season, maybe a Friday practice, and you never have to worry about them again.
And that is Not Okay.
Motorsport generally and F1 specifically has fallen under criticism in recent years regarding their approach to women. Calls have been made to end grid girls, to stop using women as podium décor, to make sure women don’t have to endure the very-unsubtly-coded spraying-with-champagne, to end random shots of women in garages on the broadcast, to quit upskirt photos and tit shots and images of rows of butts, to delete albums of Paddock Beauties. Calls have been made to recognize successful female drivers making their way through the feeder categories, to acknowledge the hard-working women behind the scenes in the paddock, to aim for more equality and less general discrimination against women.
Somehow, that has been a very difficult prospect. And I see a women’s championship being a very convenient way out for the men who don’t want to have to change. If women don’t like the sexism they’re seeing in F1, well, they’ve got a whole series where they have exactly what they want, so go watch your little female drivers and let the men ogle underdressed women here in F1. This thinly-veiled claim of feminism is just enabling the same old bigotry by a different name and a higher moral purpose.
Logistically, there are still many questions to be asked. With only six races, is the women’s championship going to function as a feeder category, the quaint opening act before the Real Men Go Racing? Are these women going to be contractually obligated to cater to pretty pink sponsors; will they end up falling victim to oversexualized demands? It seems as though F1 has a very hard time taking women and their demands seriously. One must be critical that this pursuit will just be a repetition of the same old patronizing behaviors.
It is, currently, difficult to get women into motor racing because women have been excluded from motor racing for a long time. The few attempts at women taking part in F1 races were duds; most didn’t qualify, and those that did (like Lella Lombardi) were talented but not given the means to show their mettle. No woman has ever been a full-time series participant since the introduction of the F1 Championship.
As such, women and their success are unknown variables – at least in F1. It seems ridiculous to use the logic that, “well, all the F1 champions have been men, not women…” when making a decision on who to sponsor, but the simple fact is that it is easier to justify sponsoring a man knowing that the sport is structured in such a way that he will have more opportunities to succeed than his female counterpart. She, on the other hand, will face criticism, doubt, scrutiny, and pointed hostility every step of her way, all of which can impact her morale or the opinions of potential other sponsors and thereby mar opportunities for success.
So, it seems easy to argue that women just aren’t as successful. Maybe there’s a reason they’re not in F1, huh? Maybe women just aren’t capable of competing with men.
But this narrow-minded view does not consider other forms of motorsport where women are successful. It does not consider the history of motorsport – of F1 – and the factors that have systematically discouraged women from racing.
Women have found success in NASCAR, IndyCar, sports cars, and drag racing. While only one of these is technically an open-wheel series, it is still worth investigating what has enabled their participation in these categories as opposed to Formula One.
Danica Patrick is often the first woman who comes to mind when one mentions “female race car driver”. She is visible and has been quite successful with a professional career spanning nearly two decades. She holds the IRL record for most consecutive races finished, the only women’s victory in IndyCar, and the highest finish for a woman at the Indy 500 with a third place. She was the first woman in NASCAR to win a Sprint Cup Series pole. She has received criticism for her rise to success and for posing in risqué photoshoots for sponsors, thereby illustrating the double standard that women in motorsport have: you have a better chance of gaining a sponsorship if you take off your clothes, but then no one will take you seriously if you do.
Patrick’s path was paved by other brilliant women in American motorsport’s history. Janet Guthrie was the first woman to compete in both the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500, in a NASCAR race in general, and she is tied with Patrick for the highest NASCAR finish by a woman with a 6th place. When Guthrie broke into these two sports, the hostility against women was fierce. Guthrie wasn’t even initially allowed in the pit lane of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway because it was a male-only zone. But there were people out there willing to give her a chance, who knew that she was a capable driver and tried their best to subvert the gendered norms of racing. And in doing so, by breaking every masculine rule of motorsport, a path suddenly cleared. It was no longer so strange to see a woman behind a wheel, to see her being competitive, to see her even outshining the men.
Since Guthrie’s first attempt at the Indy 500 in 1976, there have been ten women to compete in the race; since her entry into NASCAR, there have been an incredible number of women to compete in every aspect of the sport.
In drag racing, women have been a prevalent, dominant force since Shirley Muldowney burst into the scene. The first woman to receive a racing license from the NHRA, the first woman to win eighteen NHRA national events, and the first person in drag racing to win two – then three – championships. In 2017 alone, there were nine women competing across four NHRA drag racing championships: more women than in F1, IndyCar, and NASCAR combined.
Women and other minorities have been systematically barred entry to F1 for close to five decades – those that have participated have been given the bare minimum. There was no historical precedent – but why could some motorsport categories see a breakthrough of women while F1 didn’t?
The big answer here, as pointed out by @NotNamedErik on Twitter, is money, and how that played into the culture of motorsport.
There was a period of time in the history of every motorsport where the point of racing was the cars, and making them go fast. There was no glamour, no destination races. If the car looked ugly but it went fast, perfect. If you wanted to race but could only make it to a local track, then you raced. This kept the sport affordable for the average person, and you could be competitive if you were willing to spend a little more than your competitors. Janet Guthrie, for example, raced in the SCCA and was successful in a car that she bought and cared for with her own money. It was entirely possible to do that. And, beyond that, black American women raced in the 1940s. Many women contested Le Mans throughout the 1930s.
American motorsport retained that grassroots mindset for longer than many European motorsports, long enough for the low-cost do-it-yourself-because-you-have-money-and-no-one-can-tell-you-no racing to meet up with shifting social conventions. Women contested NASCAR races for years before Guthrie came onto the scene, but it’s no coincidence that her appearance during the midst of the feminist movements of the 1970s played a part in how women were perceived in NASCAR in the future. Drag racing is still very much about the cars and the racing, and women are more successful there than anywhere else.
Formula One has been a high-cost sport for decades. While it was still possible to build championship winning cars in a woodshed throughout the 1970s, it was one of the few forms of truly international and intercontinental racing, which raised a whole different set of barriers when F1 solidified into an official championship in 1950; you might be able to build a car, but could you afford to fly it out to South Africa? Prior to that, in the years of Grand Prix racing, women like Hellé Nice, Elizabeth Junek, and Kay Petre could fund cars and compete on equal grounds to men. Since their time, the two most successful female F1 drivers were Maria Teresa de Filippis in the late 1950s, and Lella Lombardi in the mid-70s.
The cost barrier has gone hand-in-hand with the social boundaries. Rich white men who can afford success in a horribly expensive sport are the only ones who can make it into the modern climate of F1, where the emphasis is on glitz and glamour and very, very expensive cars, so that we often even see talented men passed over in favor of those who have more money. Women, POC, and LGBTQ athletes have a much harder time breaking into that atmosphere, no matter their talent, because these groups have historically endured economic oppression that has not enabled them to set a precedent in Formula One.
The answer to the question of equality, then, is not to ignore historical precedent set by other forms of motorsport, or to pretend as though a segregated series will solve these problems.
The answer is, instead, to support women from the ground-up, and to restructure the masculine culture of Formula One.
Here, I believe that a blend of something similar to the Mazda Road to Indy feeder program and MotoGP Talent Cups.
Ryan King alerted me to the existence of the Talent Cups on Twitter. In this system, riders from underrepresented countries are given a chance to prove themselves. With age restrictions implemented from 12-20 and all costs of competing covered, all these riders need to worry about is proving their worth. The top five drivers from each regional Talent Cup are guaranteed a spot in the Moto3 Junior World Championship with the hope of progressing to Moto3 and then up through the ranks to MotoGP. He argues that the existence of a similar concept but for young women looking to break into European single-seater categories would be a reasonable and very successful competition. We would still have a woman-only championship, but at a lower rung of the ladder to F1, with F1 still being the ultimate goal for both young men and women with the intention that F1 will become more diverse. And I think he’s right… to a certain extent.
I 100% agree that the existence of a Talent Cup-style competition would be a great way to specifically showcase female talent and to give them no-holds-barred access to opportunities in the F1 ladder. But I also do not think that the climate of F1 would enable these young women to find much success past that point. Which is where I feel the Mazda Road to Indy format could add a guarantee of success.
In the Mazda Road to Indy, drivers who win a championship at a lower level of the ladder to IndyCar are guaranteed a drive in the next level up. If they win IndyLights – the F2 equivalent of IndyCar – they’re guaranteed to drive in the Indy 500 as well as a certain number of regular season races. In this way, they have a chance to make it to the highest level of the sport, to go out and show their talent in a professional field, and are guaranteed, at minimum, a chance to make themselves appealing as a full-time driver if they don’t get signed after their last season in IndyLights.
I believe that a scholarship program similar to this would not only be beneficial to women, but also essential. By giving them a chance to break into the ladder to F1 through a Talent Cup, women drivers will be given more exposure. But they still need a guarantee that they’ll be able to move up the ladder and not just dropped once their guaranteed season on, say, an F3 team ends. It would require a restructuring of the way F1 currently conducts itself, but would be well worth the fielding of a few extra cars a few times a year. If F1 is willing to construct a whole new series just to run six all-female races a year, they should be able to find a way to provide a woman with an extra car a few times a year.
And, finally – we need to stop making F1 so masculine that it becomes inaccessible to women. It is very difficult for women to be taken seriously in a field where they are predominantly viewed as sex objects or decorations. We do not need grid girls or photos of breasts. We don’t need podium girls or shots of the pretty ladies in the garage. We need to join the rest of the world in the twenty-first century and stop treating women like dolls for men to gain enjoyment from
And most of all, we sure as hell don’t need a separate-but-unequal F1 series just for women.