Despite their talent and pace, there is a distinct lack of support for female drivers. ATRL’s Naina Gupta takes a look at the financial and cultural barriers to gender equality in motorsport.
In today’s day and age, it is shocking to see the gender disparity in motorsport becoming ever more apparent. Even with female drivers being present at every level of the sport since 1901, there has never been a woman in a full-time driver capacity in Formula 1. Many current drivers have spoken about feeling welcome by their male counterparts but also feeling like they need to work harder than them to have a place. So why is it so hard for female drivers to gain support – whether it’s financial or cultural – in motorsports?
W Series driver Sarah Moore posted on Twitter in early April 2021 about needing a new helmet for the coming season. Prior to the pandemic, Moore was self-employed as a racing instructor and coach. However, with COVID decimating in-person working, she worked as a deliverywoman for Sainsbury’s, a role she told the Guardian gave her a “sense of pride.”
Unfortunately, her salary as an essential worker wasn’t going to be able to cover the additional costs that came with being a driver, even in W Series, where many of the expenses are covered. Reluctantly, Moore created a GoFundMe page and, within two days, reached her goal of 3,000 euros.
It’s hard to believe that in the lucrative world of motorsports, a contracted driver would be unable to afford one of the essential items of their kit. It’s even harder to believe they could be delivering your groceries. But this is the case for plenty of female professional athletes, not only in motorsport but around the world.
While competing on an international stage, these women live perfectly normal lives. The 2021 top ten highest-paid female athletes in the world made a combined “on-the-field” earnings of $16.6 million. In comparison, the highest-paid male athlete, Conor McGregor, made $22 million in the octagon alone.
W Series is an opportunity for young women to reach the top level of motorsport. Removing the exorbitant fees and testing the driver solely on merit cuts out the need for sponsorship and showcases that women can race at the same level as men. Many have argued that this is unfair for men; however, women are given this opportunity because they have faced barriers due to their gender that men haven’t.
Former F1 driver David Coulthard stated during the W Series launch, “Women racing drivers tend to reach a ‘glass ceiling’ at around the GP3/Formula 3 level on their learning curve, often as a result of a lack of funding rather than a lack of talent.”
Many fans have proposed the fact that a female driver in a higher formula series could benefit financially from companies eager for a female driver. However, former IndyCar driver Pippa Mann stated that companies are wary of backing female drivers, “The problem is, if you [women] do something either that is wrong or is perceived as wrong, the targeting is much more vitriolic and prolific. And the brands who support you are also targeted.”
Women have continually stood on the outskirts of motorsports, both literally and figuratively. A quick Google search of any current European-based driver in their younger days will often show them with Grid Girls, young women who were paid to act as “hostesses.”
For any young boy watching the sport, they would be able to see themselves as the drivers, standing on podiums, signing autographs, and driving for historic teams. Young girls don’t have those same role models in Formula 1 today.
Forbes reported that after the high-profile run of the US Women’s National Team to the World Cup, “Girls’ club soccer participation is up 37% in the last twenty years, while participation in high school soccer programs also has seen a boost of 45% between 1999 and 2014 [U.S. Youth Soccer].” Having a role model in a higher series could inspire this generation and make a difference in the future.
A popular role model in motorsport has been Susie Wolff. Currently serving as the CEO for ROKiT Venturi in Formula E, Wolff was an accomplished single-seat racer in her youth, even famously participating for Williams in her capacity as a test driver as the first female driver to run during a race weekend in 22 years. While many may also know her as the spouse of Toto Wolff, the Team Principal of the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team, she is also a former rival of Mercedes F1 World Champions Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.
Wolff competed against Hamilton in karting, a period of time she called “an era of innocence,” which was “the purest form of racing where money and politics and gender played no part.”
There’s even a video of the pair on the podium together, and Hamilton remembers her as “massively fast” that weekend. Wolff’s FP debut in Silverstone was infamously cut short by engine trouble after only one lap. Still, she also drove later that year and placed 15th out of the 22 drivers, only two-tenths off fellow Williams driver Felipe Massa who placed 11th.
Wolff retired in 2015, saying the reality was she was never going to achieve her goal of a Grand Prix drive in today’s world. Her presence as a strong Team Principal and now CEO in the Formula E paddock keeps the door open for women breaking into single-seaters. But even in her position, she’s still been questioned in stark contrast to her male counterparts.
“I didn’t think at all about the fact that I was a woman doing it until we had our first media call,” Wolff said in an interview with The Drive. “And I remember it so clearly because [when] we had the call, I remember exactly where I was sitting. The first question was: ‘Did your husband get you the job?’ The second question was: ‘What qualifies you at all?’ And the third question was: ‘How do you manage being a mother and a team principal?'”
Times are changing. Extreme E boasts an equivalent level of male and female drivers. The reigning W Series champion and an inaugural Extreme E driver, Jamie Chadwick, is also a development driver for Williams F1 Team. American stock car driver Toni Breidinger has been sponsored by HUDA Beauty, the first time a popular makeup brand has sponsored a driver in a major series. Young talents like the Al-Qubaisi sisters and Juju Noda have been rapidly gaining support, with even younger girls looking up to all these women and seeing a future for themselves.
British racing driver Alice Powell placed 2nd in the 2021 W Series season, adding to her achievements as the youngest female driver to participate in a Formula Renault race, the first woman to win a Formula Renault Championship, and the first woman to score points in the GP3 series.
Although severely lacking in most opportunities for not only women but POCs and the LGBTQ+ community, motorsport is starting to take steps in the right direction. As the language slowly shifts to include women as equals and sponsors & teams step up and fund based on talent regardless of gender, we will start seeing more and more women racing on par with the men. (And beating them too.)
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