Women are a novelty in motorsport and often treated as PR devices, but no more than in Formula One. (Former) Williams Martini Racing test driver Susie Wolff announced that she was to retire from Formula One after the Race of Champions. She said in an interview with the BBC: “My goal was to get on to the starting grid and that didn’t look achievable. So I had to call it a day.”
She added: “I always said that as soon as I couldn’t get any further I would stop and that time has come.”
Wolff is a great ambassador for the sport and I’m sad that I won’t see her drive properly in Formula One but her place in the sport has always been a PR stunt, a way for the team to show off how progressive it is. While you have to have huge amounts of skill to pilot a car at this level, even in testing, Wolff doesn’t have a lot more to show for her racing career other than the title of Williams Test Driver — which would probably be enough if an F1 drive wasn’t dangled in front of you like the proverbial carrot.
The same goes for Lotus test driver Carmen Jorda. Once again, a team has signed a pretty face for the PR benefits. I might be cynical but I look at the other (male) test and reserve drivers on the grid and they have something to show for their place in F1.
Jolyon Palmer won the GP2 Championship in 2014 and will go onto race with Lotus next year, Red Bull’s Sebastien Buemi has won Formula E races and spent three years as a driver for Red Bull’s sister team Torro Rosso. Finally, Sauber’s Italian test driver Raffaele Marciello won the European Formula 3 Championship.
While there’s a wide range of experience, wins and championships amongst the current crop of F1 test drivers, it’s the two female drivers that seem to have missed out. Both Wolff and Jorda have no podiums – across any series – to their names, let alone any wins or championships.
I’m not putting these women down because, as I’ve said, you need bags of talent just to drive an F1 car these days, they’re complex computers on wheels that happen to have huge amounts of horse power. Driving one isn’t easy. What I’m saying is that, unlike their male counterparts, their merit is based – at least in part – on their gender and the PR benefits of having a female driver on the team.
This is what women in motorsport have to endure, the fact that they are there to look pretty and make the news. Some, embrace this with the view to showing just how good they are in a car and so often, that works! Unfortunately, the opportunities aren’t there for women drivers in F1 and the idea of having a ladies-only championship is just ludicrous because there are girl racers out there who can drive and win.
I’ll be honest, I don’t know how we can encourage more women into the sport. Once again, it’s down to money and even promising driver Simona de Silvestro (who has wins to her name!) missed out on a seat at Sauber because financing fell through. Teams seem to only be willing to take minimal risk on female drivers and only then if they serve their purpose as PR machines rather than actual racing drivers.
Please don’t think I’m hating on the women who have made it into F1, they’re grabbing the bull by the horns (or should that be Martini glass by the stem?) and making the most of what is being offered to them. No doubt Wolff thought she’d be able to prove her worth and get a drive somewhere down the line and I’m sure that’s what Jorda is hoping for. This level of sexism might be a necessary evil when it comes to career advancement so we can’t say they didn’t make the most of a not ideal situation. It’s the teams that should shoulder some of the blame, give these ladies a chance but perhaps also seek out women who have already proven themselves as race winners.
I’d love to know what you think.