Motorsport for generations now has carried a notorious reputation as being a significantly male orientated sport. Rarely has a woman stepped into the limelight on the main stage to compete at the highest level. In fact looking specifically at Formula One, it has been over 20 years since this last happened - ever since Giovanna Amati entered the Brazilian Grand Prix in 1992.
You may have heard across the news recently that Susie Wolff has finally broken this drought by being announced as part of the Williams F1 team for the upcoming season. With this announcement receiving such a barrage of media attention and positive acclaim, it poses the interesting questions: Why has this taken another twenty years to happen and what impact will this have on the sport moving forwards?
Why the Twenty Year Gap?
This twenty year gap has been a common discussion topic amongst many industry professionals for some time now. Often triggering a very mixed debate and vastly differing viewpoints towards the attributing factors behind this. Susie Wolff was recently questioned on this twenty year gap and expressed her firm belief that the lack of women in the sport is primarily down to a lack of role models for younger women to aspire towards.
“One of the main issues is that young girls have no one to aspire to growing up, where as a young boy can grow up wanting to be Sebastian Vettel" – Susie Wolff (Williams Formula One Development Driver)
This is of course very true and looking at the sport from a purely business perspective, many have questioned how accommodating the current structures are at even allowing women to organically break into the sport. Formula 1 boss Bernie Eccleston recently summarized his thoughts on this stating:
"The big problem with a woman, even if she's good enough, is having the opportunity to show that. Because a team won't take a woman driver unless they bring them massive sponsorship." - Bernie Eccleston (CEO Formula 1 Management)
With all the positive publicity Wolff has been receiving in the media of late, you would assume that potential sponsors would be jumping over hurdles to be associated. Although on further look at the current Williams setup, their main sponsor Martini currently runs a very “Mad Men” style advertising campaign and it would be hard to see where a Wolff, a very no-nonsense female driver would fit into this equation. This type of branding sponsorship is in fact quite common throughout all areas of motorsport and could certainly prove a large stumbling block for any women wanting to enter the industry.
Will Susie’s Inclusion be a Catalyst for Further Developments within the Sport?
On the other hand it has been hypothesized by certain industry experts that if we did see more women breaking into Formula 1, it could potentially pave the way for new types of less male orientated sponsorships to enter the frame. If this does prove to be correct, then it could certainly be an interesting compound for change and may even push the sport to begin shedding its male orientated persona further.
Despite all of the above, there is still an evident increase in the number of women currently breaking into the sport. This shift can even be traced throughout all tiers of the sport, highlighted by the likes of Jade Edwards who currently races in the BRSCC Mazda MX5 Championship, recently being announced as a driver in the Aston Martin GT4 Challenge next season. Jade has recently aired her thoughts on what it has been like for her as a woman to work within the industry.
“Without doubt – percentage wise men massively dominate the sport but that doesn’t mean women aren’t welcome. For example I’ve always worked and competed in the industry and not once have I been made to feel unwelcome or inadequate.”
Jade in fact sees being within the minority as a strong motivating factor behind pushing her to compete to a higher level.
“I enjoy being a minority in this sport- it creates new challenges throughout and I thrive on turning heads when I prove what I can do on track. Once the crash helmet goes on I turn from being a girl into just another competitor – we are all there to win and gender doesn’t change that.” – Jade Edwards (Aston Martin GT4 Challenge Driver)
With all this taken into consideration, it may still be a few more years before we see a steady influx of women breaking into Formula One over the individual cases such as Wolff. However if Wolff’s theory around the need for more women role models is correct, then the breakthroughs we have seen over the last year could certainly be a major catalyst for change within the industry. Coupled with the likes of Wolff and Edwards already behind the wheel, the future of Motorsport certainly looks like one to watch.