Meet The Formula 1 Women Creating A Vehicle For Change
LET’s put our pub-quiz hats on. If a room full of punters was asked to name one of the most spearheading Formula 1 figures in the motorsport’s present roll call, it is highly likely that most would name a male. (To be fair, for a sport that has been a boy’s game for decades, those answers would be proportionally representative, as well as reflective of what we see on the TV every other Sunday for nine months of the year.)
It is quite unlikely that many answers would be female, but that would be a disservice to a sport which – although still has its male-dominated stigma to shake – has made important strides in recent years both on the track and behind the scenes.
A case in point? Claire Williams, the deputy team principal of Williams – the team her father established 40 years ago. She is currently serving inspiration to thousands of women on a bi-weekly basis as she shares her knowledge, her expertise, and her confidence at taking on what traditionally would be deemed as a man’s job live from the garage. As a longstanding figure in the sport, she is as passionate as she is realistic about the task it is faced with.
“If you’re talking in pure number terms, the sport is male heavy, but at this stage that is still something of an inevitability,” she tells us. “I think it’s always been that way – it’s been something that the blokes have done from when the sport was conceived back in the 1900’s – and it takes time to change. We are going to have to go through generations of change before we see the impact of females taking a role in the workplace and Formula 1 is no different. But I have personally seen a big shift – a seismic shift I think – in the numbers of women coming in and the attitudes surrounding women in the sport, particularly in engineering, in the design office, in aerodynamics and stimulator technology – all areas that are currently seeing an influx. Currently, eight per cent of our engineering workforce is female, which doesn’t sound like much until you take into consideration that seven years ago it was zero.”
Second case in point is Susie Wolff – the former British racing driver who in 2014, under Williams’s management, became the first woman to participate in a Formula 1 weekend since 1992 (before which she had been motor-racing since her early teens).
“I think it’s definitely moving in the right direction, I think society in general is moving in that direction and sport is going with it,” says Wolff. “What has helped, is that in life you have to see it to believe it sometimes, and I think women are becoming a lot more inspired by other women being successful – not just in motorsport, but in whatever industry they are in.”
Both Williams and Wolff are active in welcoming more women into the sport. For Williams, it’s through team apprenticeships (this year 25 per cent of the applications were from women) and getting female employees to take on ambassadorial roles in schools and colleges so they can go out and “explain what a great industry motorsport is to work in, what subjects students need to pursue to do so, and to get 13 and 14-year-olds to think, ‘Right, I can do that job,’ and make sure that they know they are very welcome.”
For Wolff, it is through her spearheading initiative Dare To Be Different, which she immediately established following her retirement from racing in 2015 to encourage confidence in young girls and help future female talents realise their potential.
“If you are a successful woman, that can inspire the next generation,” she says. “When I decided to stop racing, I really wanted to give something back to the sport and for me it was always going to be about inspiring young girls and women. I think I only ever did one interview in my career in which I wasn’t asked about my gender – everyone else would say, ‘You work in such a male-dominated world,’ but I knew that it wasn’t that male dominated. My boss was female, we had fantastic female engineers, so I realised that we have to inspire the next generation and talk to these women who are not always visible in front of the camera and make role models out of them.”
Wolff namechecks 24-year-old Tatiana Calderón from Colombia, who is currently a development driver for Sauber, and 19-year-old Jamie Chadwick from Bath, the youngest female driver to sign for a British F3 team (both of whom have been tipped as F1 stars of the future) as her ones-to-watch.
“There are women there that are capable, we just need to make sure that there are more,” Wolff says, “and that means capturing their attention when they are young because as the talent pool gets bigger, the more chance the best have of rising to the top.”
All this, however, is not to say the task facing females in Formula 1 isn’t an uphill one. On signing Wolff to her team, Williams had to field sceptical insinuations of a publicity stunt, on which her stance was – and is – clear.
“People who say that was a marketing ploy are looking at it from a very narrow-sighted angle,” she explains. “Whenever I’m fielding that question, my response is always: motorsport is a dangerous sport and you don’t take risks with people like that just for a marketing ploy. These race cars are dangerous and you don’t put someone in one unless you are 100 per cent certain that they can do what they need to do and be safe in the car. Particularly for a team like Williams, as we have lost drivers on the race track, anyone who would think I would play with Susie like that is crazy.”
“It is always going to come down to talent – you have got to be good enough,” agrees Wolff, “but is has to also be about creating opportunity. The mission statement of Dare To Be Different is ‘Driving Female Talent’, and making sure that these capable women are being given the chance. If no one tries to change anything, nothing is going to change, so we have to get behind and say okay, let’s get more women in.”
Then there’s the subject of being a working mother. Raising the issue of gender equality in any workplace inevitably introduces the question into the equation and Formula 1 is no different. The gruelling nine-month schedule on the road does not – as Williams, who is currently pregnant with her first child at 40, admits – lend itself to much flexibility. Does she feel that it is considerable factor in why fewer women pursue a career in motorsports like F1?
“It’s hard, because there are some roles that can be flexible for working mothers, but in Formula 1, the pressure on us and the fact that we are away for four days out of 12 can be tough. But it’s personal choice,” she says. “There are roles for females in F1 that mean you can be based at HQ and you can be a bit more flexible. A travelling role doesn’t lend itself well to being a working mother, but you can figure it out. I don’t think that there’s a one-size-fits-all.”
“When I was made deputy principal, I had to make a very conscious decision that I couldn’t accept this role and then get pregnant a year later,” Williams continues, “but I made that choice that I wanted to commit fully to getting done what I wanted to get done with the team for at least three years. I think sometimes in life you can’t have it all, but then there comes a time when you can because you’ve reached a certain level. It’s about giving women the choice. I don’t think that it’s a question that is ever going to go away, and it’s a question that is extremely difficult for women to manage.”
Another roadblock worth bearing in mind is the general perception of inaccessibility. Long deemed to be elite (thanks in part to its financial implications), getting fans into Formula 1 from a young age is not as easy as ball sports – an obstacle regardless of gender.
“Generally, as a sport we are seen as inaccessible. If you don’t have a family member who is involved or don’t know someone who is in the sport, it can feel quite intimidating. For us it’s about making it accessible by taking young school girls out of their normal environments and helping them to see something new,” says Wolff, who as well as extolling the virtues of the sport itself through Dare To Be Different is just as passionate about communicating the confidence it can generate. “We are aware that not every girl we come into contact with is going to want to have a great career in motorsport, but what we have realised is that every girl we come into contact with gains something – whether it be a bit more self-confidence, or the realisation that there’s a lot more opportunity out there than she thought and that she’s capable of more than she realised.”
The good news is that sponsors of the sport are clocking on too. This week, Heineken promoted its More Than A Race campaign at the Formula 1 Live event in London’s Trafalgar Square, an initiative that aims to expand the public’s education of the sport, highlighting – among many other facets – stereotypes of male-domination in the sport to show that there’s more than meets the eye. Formula 1’s new owners, Liberty Media (who organised the event in the capital – the first time that all of the teams have come together outside of a race weekend), are also on board with initiatives like Dare To Different to open up the sport to female fans (who currently already make up around 36 per cent of the global audience) and potential recruits alike.
The message here? “We are doing a lot, but there’s a lot more to be done,” says Williams. She and Wolff are in pole position to make sure their mission continues.