The high-speed, high-budget and high-excitement world of Formula One has long been the domain of the boys, but now a new challenge beckons…
Don’t worry, we have no intention of taking the big boy’s racing toys away; we just want to give them a new one to play with.
Introducing ‘Woman’ – racing’s hottest new addition that will not sacrifice technology or safety, and promises to deliver high-octane entertainment in the best-looking package to date.
Seems a simple solution to try and make Formula 1 exciting again. But a female driver is seen as a risky proposition by many, with commercial viability, credibility and low participation numbers the biggest potential barriers to success.
The fact is, more women would want to compete in F1 if they were given a fair chance. That chance may just be around the corner. The answer to Bernie Ecclestone’s question of: “Where are they [women] all going to come from since there’s no existing pool to select from?” has been answered.
For the first time in history, women will be able to race against each other. On 23 May, the Mazda RX-8 Formula Woman Championship 2004 will begin at the Mallory Park circuit in Leicestershire.
This is a unique opportunity for female novice drivers, fully-sponsored, to compete on UK race circuits in 2004.
Chairman and creator Graeme Glew, a motor sport consultant who has been involved in racing team management; a racing driver school; and F1, believes history has been made.
“I’m sure we will attract nationwide attention as this unique concept becomes reality,” he claims.
Former F1 driver Mark Blundell, is a consultant to Formula Woman. “Formula Woman is an amazing opportunity for someone to realise their dream and become a professional racing driver,” he says.
Formula Woman has also gained the support of Richard Burden MP, parliamentary advisor on motor sport to the British sports minister, Richard Caborn.
Burden says: “The common perception of motor racing is often one of ‘boys with their toys.’ By launching this competition to find the woman motor racing champion of tomorrow, Formula Woman has the potential to raise the profile of women in motorsport as a whole.”
Television cameras have followed the 16 finalists from their initial selection through to the start grid and the results will be broadcast in the summer, providing maximum exposure for the drivers.
So why is Formula Woman going to succeed?
Alison Hill, Formula Woman press officer explains: “We have introduced this at the right time by hooking into reality TV. This will put us on the map a lot faster than using a traditional introduction into a race series," she says.
"Our ultimate aim is to encourage females, especially young girls, and to provide a serious platform at the karting stage of their careers.”
This PR-led championship may leave racing purists cold but it could represent the best way into F1 for women.
Driver manipulation for marketing, media and financial benefit is not a new concept. In 1903, Selwyn Edge, the British motor racing pioneer, realised that a car well-driven by a woman would attract more attention.
Jackie Stewart, three times F1 World Champion and former Grand Prix team owner, says: “Just imagine the possibilities for marketing with cosmetics and other female products.”
Sarah Kavanagh, an aspiring F1 driver, knows this all too well. "F1 is the biggest sport in the world. It’s a business pretending to be a sport. Without big money behind you, you’ve got to do what you can,” she says.
Starting out in karting, Sarah progressed to Formula Ford, Formula Opel and Formula Vauxhall, racing in the British F2 Championship, Formula Nippon, Boss F3000 and Boss F1. She also owns Rubens Barrichello’s former Jordan F1 car, which she races regularly.
She adds: “I get some exposure because I’m female but I also think if I was male and had this kind of record I’d be further ahead by now. I’m not just trying to do something extremely competitive; I’m trying to break a mould. It isn’t magic. It’s very logical.”
Bar Sarah, there are very few, if any, potential female F1 drivers to choose from; surprising when you consider about 32,000 competitive motor sport licences in Britain are held by females and around 40 per cent of karters aged 8-12 years old are girls.
According to a 1997 RAC Motor Sports Association study into women’s motor racing involvement, girls who did not drop out because of peer pressure and remained in the sport reported they felt forced to quit. Cases included bullying, verbal abuse and over-scrutiny if they performed well, leading to cheating accusations. Young female competitors also found it very hard to secure financial backing, even at amateur karting level.
ITV grand prix presenter Louise Goodman supported the first Ladies Karting Challenge at the Autosport International 2003 show.
She says: “In the time I have been working in F1, there has been an increase in women in the paddock and in all areas of the sport, but there is always room for more, particularly behind the wheel. Sadly, we are still lacking a lady F1 driver but, who knows, with more women getting into motor sport, maybe one day I will have the pleasure of interviewing a female F1 star.”
Even in the face of adversity, pioneering women have tried, and not surprisingly, failed in the past to get into the magic F1 driver circle.
Italian Maria Teresa de Filippis became the first ever woman F1 driver in 1958, competing in three GPs for Maserati with a best result of 10th in her Belgium debut race. Whilst she failed to qualify for the Monaco GP, so did 14 other male drivers – including a certain Mr Ecclestone.
Fellow Italian Lella Lombardi became the first, and so far, only woman to earn a F1 championship point in the 1975 Spanish GP, finishing sixth.
The only British woman to try qualifying for an F1 race was former four times Olympic skier Divina Galica MBE. Driving for Hesketh, she attempted but failed to qualify for three GPs, including the 1976 British GP.
The most recent female F1 driver was Italian Giovanna Amati, who drove for Brabham in 1993, but left after failing to qualify for the season’s first three races. She was replaced by Damon Hill, who did manage to qualify in last place for the British GP, in the dry – the rest of the grid set their fastest times in the wet.
Hopefully, Formula Woman will become a future breeding ground for potential F1 female drivers, but its biggest challenge will be to get accepted by the motor sport industry and made a permanent and professional fixture on racing enthusiasts’ calendars.
Bearing a striking similarity to Formula Woman, the Women’s Global GT Championship in America back in the ’90s folded after two years after it failed to capture public imagination.
It too was a one-make series and had drivers of the same standard competing, including Divina Galica.
It remains to be seen if Formula Woman can make its competitors into household names. But if F1 really wants to turn the biggest motor sport in the world into something fans want to watch again, leave the gizmos alone and put a woman on the start grid in a Ferrari. You never know – she just might win a race or two.