She Came, She Drove, She Conquered: Women in Motorsport

LEEDS–There has always been a preconception that the art of motorsport–a term that encompasses the group of competitive sporting events like Formula One that primarily involves the use of motorized vehicles–caters exclusively to men. With the main focus on fast motorized vehicles such as cars and motorbikes, it is often referred to as a “boy’s playground.” But in my experience, having followed motorsport for over 24 years and written about it for three years, motorsport can be something that provides entertainment for everyone.

Growing up in a male-dominated household, motorsport was the norm for me but there were times that I would wonder why none of the drivers were women. It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned that there are women who have long made their living in all branches of motorsport, making their mark alongside their competitors regardless of gender.

“The only helmet a woman should wear is the one at the hairdressers,” were the words once spoken by the race director of the 1958 French Grand Prix.

Despite being faced with such adversity, Italy’s Maria Teresa de Fillipis became the first woman to race in Formula One (F1) back in its infancy. Ms. Fillipis was a pioneer in a male-dominated sport, showcasing that she was capable of fighting amongst her male contemporaries in a time where the sport was marred by safety concerns and frequent deaths. Although her career was a short one, lasting only a year, she paved the way for women such as Lella Lombardi, a fellow Italian, who was clearly inspired by Ms. Fillipis’s participation in the sport.

Ms. Lombardi remains the first and only woman to score points in an F1 race that she achieved at the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix. With this achievement, she also remains the only woman to secure a top-six finish in F1. She claimed the runner up position in Italian Formula Three in 1968 and won the Italian Formula 850 series in 1970, taking an impressive four wins. Ms. Lombardi competed in other branches of motorsport such as Le Mans endurance racing and NASCAR with great success, paving the way for women to compete in these categories. Without these two women to set the bar, proving that women could stand as equals amongst their competitors, professional motorsport in the 1950s might have been very different.

Women in motorsport saw a real leap in the 1980s, echoing the freedom and changing role of women during this period. It was during this era that Michèle Mouton of France began to taste victory. She, like the women before her, was a pioneer but her weapon of choice was a rally car. Scooping an impressive four victories for Audi in the 1980s, she narrowly missed out on being the first woman to win the WRC Championship in 1977. She did, however, help Audi to win its first constructors championship, a prize given to the most successful team, in the same year. She also was successful in Le Mans, scoring a win in her category in 1975. Ms. Mouton showcased that women were able to compete in endurance and rally, categories which were notoriously difficult for anyone, and succeed.

Sabine Schmitz of Germany was a groundbreaker in the 1990s; likeable and well known for her dry humor and commentary outside of the race track, Ms. Schmitz was a completely different person behind the wheel. She earned herself the nickname “Queen of the Nurburgring” for driving the German circuit a monstrous 20,000 times by her estimates. Ms. Schmitz came to the forefront of public attention when she won the 24 Hours of Nurburgring in 1996 and 1997.

Arguably one of the most successful and well-known women in motorsport, Danica Patrick, burst onto the Indycar scene in the mid-2000s, forcing her way into the male -orientated series. Considered the most successful woman in American racing, Ms. Patrick remains the only female to win an Indycar race, taking victory in the 2008 Indy Japan 300. She polarized public opinion with many suggesting her role on the grid was nothing more than publicity, but her ruthless racing nature, combined with her status as the sole woman in her sport at the time, helped to inspire thousands of young girls around the world into getting into motorsport.

Meanwhile the Danish-born driver Christina Nielsen became the first woman to win a full-season professional sportscar championship in 2016. She repeated this feat the following year, making her the first woman to successfully defend a major championship title. Tatiana Calderón is another up-and-coming young talent. After a successful stint in junior series, the Colombian driver became the first woman to score a podium in Formula 3 and is currently the only woman involved with a Formula One team in a test driver capacity, serving as a test driver for the Alfa Romeo team. Brit Jamie Chadwick was the first female and youngest winner of the British GT Championship and became the youngest winner of a 24-hour race.

However, women competing in motorsport are not just restricted to drivers. A wealth of women compete in top teams behind the scenes, another branch of the sport that has predominantly male-dominated. Team principals, who run and are in charge of the mechanics of everything the racing team does, like Susie Wolff and Claire Williams to mechanics and engineers like Leena Gade have been trailblazers in motorsport. Ms. Gade was the first female engineer to win Le Mans and without her influence, Audi might not have scored the three impressive victories in the famous 24-hour race.

She has since moved on to working for Bentley and within Indycar, but her influence is still evident as she proved that women were capable of working behind the scenes in engineering and tailoring strategies. Women like Ms. Gade, Ms. Wolff and Ms. Nielson are showing that the future is incredibly bright in motorsport and inspiring a new generation of women to come into the sport continuing to make history and competing against their male counterparts as equals.

Sarah Jarvis lives in United Kingdom and spends the majority of her time as a motorsport journalist, following the electric series Formula E. She also enjoys writing, travelling and art.


Photos: 1) Christina Nielsen courtesy Shutterstock; 2) Formula One racer courtesy Shutterstock


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