On paper, motor racing is a mixed sport. However, this is still far from being the case, especially in Formula 1.
Those who hope to see women drivers in action next weekend on the Gilles-Villeneuve circuit on Île Notre-Dame in Montreal will have to stay very focused. Not only because each time they will only have a few seconds to see the speeding cars go by, but because only two women are supposed to be in the running. Not in Formula 1 events, where we haven’t seen them race for almost 50 years, but in one of the so-called “support” races at the Canadian Grand Prix, in this case the Ferrari Challenge , a sort of race between millionaires driving toys worth a few hundred thousand dollars.
Since the start of the F1 world championship in 1950, nearly 775 drivers of 41 different nationalities have taken part in at least one of its 1,070 events. However, barely 5 women have participated in at least one qualifying session for a race, and only 2 Italians have succeeded, the first (Maria Teresa De Filippis) in 1958 and the second (Lella Lombardi) 12 times between 1974 and 1976.
“I always believed that my sister, Lynsay Jackson, had more natural talent for racing than me, but I received the necessary support for a journey in Formula 1 and she did not,” said the last year. ex-Scottish driver David Coulthard as he launches, together with Czech billionaire Karel Komárek, the More than Equal initiative to help women reach Formula 1.
Not a physical problem
Physically and mentally, there’s nothing a well-trained, well-prepared woman can’t do as well as a man behind the wheel of Formula 1, say the experts associated with the project.
While it is true that, unlike small karting cars, it takes a lot of force to turn the steering wheel of the heaviest GP2 and GP3 championship cars which usually serve as an antechamber to F1, this problem would easily be solved if they came with power steering as in the queen series, they explain. No. In reality, one of the main obstacles is rather on the side of the lack of models of female pilots who would encourage young girls to try karting. We should also learn to detect and develop female talent as quickly as male talent, because currently their first success often comes too late, which diverts sponsorship and support to boys.
To catch up, a women’s championship was created in 2019 to serve as a springboard for the best young female drivers. A lack of capital, however, prevented the W Series from completing its season last year and its three-time champion, Briton Jamie Chadwick, had to take the path of the United States and a series inferior to IndyCar, for lack of money. interest of the GP2 and GP3 teams.
Several of the other drivers of the W Series have turned to a new women’s championship which took off in April, with the help, this one, of the bonzes of Formula 1. The five teams of the F1 Academy have identical cars in order to save costs. Handpicked, their 15 drivers in the running this year only had to find 150,000 euros each in sponsorship to be able to take part in the 21-race season. The objective is once again that the best then access the mixed series leading to F1.
At the same time, several Formula 1 teams have integrated women into their own young driver development programmes. This is particularly the case of the Franco-British team Alpine, which has promised to bring at least one of them into the select club of 20 drivers in the F1 championship by 2030.
15% of female runners in Quebec
Quebec has around 500 licensed racing drivers, across all disciplines and ages, reports their sports federation, Auto sport Québec. This ranges from small karting cars, some of which can nevertheless go very fast, to modified touring cars, via Formula 1600 cars, which look like small F1s, and autoslalom.
“As the saying goes, these drivers are 7 to 77 years old and practice car racing as one would practice any other sport”, explains the president of Auto sport Québec, Gilles Villeneuve (no family ties with Jacques) . About 15% of these pilots are girls or women. “We feel progress. It was 10% just a few years ago. »
Many of these female drivers are following in the footsteps of a sibling or parent who was already racing. They take advantage of the fact that, unlike many other sports, physical strength “doesn’t really matter”. And the costs are not as high as we think either, specifies Mr. Villeneuve, a karting can cost $5,000 and a competition season between $5,000 and $10,000. “But there are, of course, who put more than double. »
The situation gets worse quickly when you climb the ladder of the sport. Talk to Valérie Limoges, who last year became the first woman to win a Canadian road racing championship. This title of Nissan Sentra Cup champion, won at the end of a tight battle in which some twenty other drivers, all male, were engaged, crowned a brilliant career strewn with numerous financial obstacles.
Encouraged by parents who still attend all her races, the Longueuilloise started karting at age 12 and, in 2001, she became the first girl to win the Quebec championship. We then saw her in Formula 1600, in Formula Renault, then in the Touring series of the Grand-Am Cup in the United States where she was the first woman to obtain a leading position at the start of an event. But, despite these successes and the support of sponsors, the lack of money frequently forced her to skip certain races, until the financial crisis of 2008 broke her good momentum that she will resume, more modestly, years later.
“To be successful, you need talent, perseverance, consistency, experience… and money. Because racing is very expensive,” says the driver, who will soon be 40 and earns her living as a test driver for car manufacturers and as a driving instructor. The lack of financial resources often obliges “to skip events, avoid taking too many risks on the track or altogether to abandon the race, whatever the talent”.
But the Quebec driver has no doubt that women will end up, sooner or later, by finding themselves behind the wheel of Formula 1 cars. “Yes, it’s a class apart and it’s physically demanding, but that’s not if we provide the right support and the right training. We already see more female mechanics and engineers there. We also feel that companies are more and more interested in sponsoring women because it gives them good visibility. Motorsport is still a man’s world, but things are changing. »
Tired of the back seat
This is also the opinion of Cindy Martin, director and co-owner of Chicks and Machines. Led by women for women interested in motorsports, her Quebec company produces a web magazine, a podcast, a television show and even a clothing collection. It’s not specifically about car racing, but about anything that has an engine, and “the fun and freedom” that these machines can bring, winter or summer.
“We receive a lot of testimonials from women who thank us for showing that motorsport is not reserved for men,” says Cindy Martin. We feel that more and more women no longer want, for example, just to sit behind their boyfriend, but also drive their motorcycle or snowmobile. »
This change in attitude has not escaped the notice of the industry, which offers more and more machines, training and clothing adapted to the needs of this new clientele. “It is sure that to see more women asserting themselves in competition is also super inspiring. Things are changing,” she says.