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International Women's Day: F1's gender divide and hopes to end it

The topic of women in motorsport is rarely out of the news and this week has been no exception.

On the positive side, some of the most significant women in racing were at the Geneva Motorshow to launch a new initiative aimed at increasing female participation at the grassroots level.

But far more column inches have been dedicated to Carmen Jorda who, not for the first time, has drawn anger from her fellow female competitors.

After testing a Formula E car in Mexico, former GP3 driver Jorda suggested that women should not be aiming to race in Formula 1 but in its electric cousin instead.

F1 Grand Prix of Italy - Practice

The reason? Because a Formula E car is physically easier to drive. Formula 1, said Jorda, presents a physical barrier that women can’t overcome.

Jorda is entitled to her opinion, of course, and this would not be especially troubling were it not for the fact that she is a member of the FIA's Women in Motorsport Commission.

Nor is this a first. Jorda also holds the even more unpopular view that women can’t compete equally against men and so should race in their own all-female championship. Such a thing has been proposed, albeit to very little positive response, for 2019.

Jorda is out of step with pretty much every other woman operating at a high level in motorsport, while 2009 world champion Jenson Button has also publically disagreed with her views.

It is one of motorsport’s unique appeals that men and women compete against one another on equal terms, that a woman could one day be crowned Formula 1 world champion without any gender qualification.

Admittedly that is some way off, but on a more tangible level there is a long history of women racing against and beating men. Why abandon that in favour of separate classes?

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GLASS CEILINGS BROKEN IN RALLYING

It might be assumed that women competing in racing is fairly a modern development, but while female participation has increased over the past 25 years it is by no means new.

As far back as the nineteen-twenties French-born dancer Hellé Nice discovered motorsport and competed in early grands prix, rallies and hillclimb events, piloting a huge baby-blue Bugatti.

Pat Moss was successful in international rallying during the sixties. Taught to drive at the age of 11 by her elder brother, Stirling Moss, she won multiple events and competed at a high level.

And rallying was also the making of Michele Mouton, who is often hailed as the greatest female competitor in motorsport history.

Michele Mouton and Fabrizia Pons

French-born Mouton made her world championship debut on home soil in 1974. She landed a full-time role with Audi in 1981 and clinched her first victory in Italy that season.

This alone was a huge achievement, but in 1982 she went even further by finishing as World Rally Championship runner-up and helping Audi to secure its first manufacturers' title.

The WRC cars used at the time were powerful, brutal machines. The idea that women are physically unable to compete against men carries no water when you look at what Mouton achieved. She is now president of the Women in Motorsport Commission.

You could also look to the Dakar Rally, which was won by a woman for the first time in 2001 when Jutta Kleinschmidt claimed victory.

There have been female participants since the first edition of the cross-continent event, which requires levels of bravery and physical endurance that are almost unparalleled in the sport.

INDY STARS

IndyCar racing has also seen several successful female participants, particularly in recent decades.

Janet Guthrie became the first woman to start the Indy 500 in 1977 and took a ninth-place finish the following year. She was also the first woman to start NASCAR’s Daytona 500 and scored five top-10s in the stock car series.

There have been other very talented female competitors – Lyn St. James and Simona de Silvestro to name two – but when talking about women and IndyCar, Danica Patrick inevitably dominates the conversation.

And so she should. Danica is the only women to win an IndyCar race – a feat she achieved in Japan in 2008 – and the only woman to finish on the podium at the Indy 500, a race that draws a bigger single-day crowd than any other sporting event on the planet.

Danica is a talented driver – brave, relentless, and mentally stronger than most male competitors.

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Outside the sport she has grown her personal brand to the point that she is arguably the most famous active driver in North America. She does talkshows, features on billboards, and even made a guest appearance on The Simpsons.

This doesn’t go down well with everyone, however. Some fans resent the huge attention Danica attracts, particularly with her results not being up to much in recent years.

On one hand, their frustration is understandable – you want drivers to be judged on merit, not on how many cameras follow them around the paddock.

But Danica is simply maximising everything at her disposal. She is shrewd and has always perused the end goal of benefitting her racing. Men do this as well.

Regardless, Danica stands alongside Mouton as one of the most important female competitors in the sport, having not just made it to the top but won there too.

IndyCars are bigger and more physically demanding than F1 machinery. They reach higher speeds and the sensation of hitting a wall at 220mph is not for the faint hearted.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 60th Annual Daytona 500

Yet the likes of Danica, Simona and Pippa Mann have all acquitted themselves in the series. De Silvestro was a podium finisher who could perhaps have won races, had an ill-fated attempt to reach F1 not derailed her IndyCar career.

And last year Mann became the first woman to break the 230mph barrier at Indy. She has finished six of her seven starts at the race, completing 500 miles over the course of three hours just like her male competitors. She is not looking for something physically easier to drive.

Mann is on record as saying she doesn’t want an all-female championship (she has called it “a sideshow series” and a “stripping of power away from female athletes”). It’s fair to assume that Danica – who will retire after this year’s Indy 500 – would also have zero interest.

Very few female competitors do. Christina Nielsen, the reigning two-time GTD class champion in America’s premier sportscar championship, doesn’t need an all-female series. Nor did Sabine Schmitz, a two-time winner of the Nürburgring 24 Hours.

So why do calls for it even exist?

THE F1 PROBLEM

We know there are women competing in motorsport and plenty more working in significant positions. There are those we’ve already talked about and countless more at every level, from kids at kart circuits to veterans in single-seaters, sportscars, even trucks.

But the majority of people don’t know this. Most will look at Formula 1, see a lack of female participation on the grid, and assume that reflects the whole sport.

That’s why Susie Wolff – who never started a grand prix – is considerably more famous than a multiple champion like Nielsen.

Historically, F1’s record of female drivers is alarmingly bad. From a total of more than 800 entrants in the sport’s 71-year history, just five women have appeared at a grand prix weekend. Of these, two qualified for a race.

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To put that into perspective, there were four women on the Indy 500 starting grid in 2011 alone.

Of the two women to race in F1, Lella Lombardi was the more successful. The Italian is the only woman to score world championship points, doing so with sixth at the Spanish Grand Prix of 1975.

But Lombardi’s last appearance came more than four decades ago. Since then three women have tried, but all failed to qualify. The last of those was in 1992.

When Wolff drove in practice at the 2014 British Grand Prix it was the first time a woman had participated in an F1 weekend for 22 years. Sauber currently have Colombia’s Tatiana Calderon on their books as test driver, but there is no word on her actually getting behind the wheel of the car.

There are a variety of reasons for F1’s lack of female participation. The sport is inherently conservative when it comes to driver selection, there are extremely limited opportunities, and attitudes have been slow to change.

That comes from the top. Asked about Danica in 2005, when she was a genuine F1 prospect, Bernie Ecclestone mused that “women should be dressed in white like all the other domestic appliances."

Ecclestone is now gone, but the idea that F1 is no place for women will take time to change. Whereas other championships embraced mixed grids, the top echelon of the sport seemed content with its gender divide.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 60th Annual Daytona 500

HOPE FOR THE FUTURE?

Change has already begun, but that will not automatically create a new female F1 driver. A quick glance at the four major F1 development series shows that Calderon is the only woman with a deal to race in 2018. Like most of her colleagues, she is against an all-female championship.

The idea misses something fundamental. Women in racing are exactly like men: they compete because they want to challenge themselves. Winning is always the goal, but they want to beat the best, not the best who happen to be women.

Ultimately, increased female participation at the grassroots level is what will drive women to greater success in motor racing. Michele Mouton didn’t need an all-female championship. Nor did Danica Patrick. It is precisely because they won in a male-dominated sport that they are so respected.

Given the many lessons from history that tell us women are entirely capable of racing against men, it is a shame that Jorda continues to apply limitations to an entire gender. Fortunately, there are plenty of female racing drivers past and present who don’t.

Topics:
Formula 1

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