Formula One is traditionally perceived as a masculine sport, but an increasing number of women are busting stereotypes and beginning to reshape this largely male-dominated landscape.
In January this year, Liberty Media, the sport’s new owners, announced an end to the practice of using grid girls in the sport.
But, women for some years now have quietly been carving successful careers for themselves in multiple walks of Formula One.
“I definitely see more and more,” says Bernadette Collins, a strategy engineer with the Force India team.
“It’s not necessarily present at the track, but definitely at the factory there are more and more women in design roles, aerodynamic roles, software roles.”
Collins is very much a part of the vanguard of women who are breaking new ground, taking on roles beyond the more traditional hospitality, public relations and marketing jobs and moving into the more male-dominated realms of engineering, design and even team leadership.
While the proportion of women to men is still far from balanced, things have been changing.
When Collins was growing up, the television footage focused only on the drivers. It then broadened out to include footage of engineers on the pit-wall or mechanics in the garage.
Today it is not uncommon for images of Collins or other women on the pit-wall to be beamed, complete with name captions, to the watching world.
“That is bound to make some girls think, ‘Well, that’s quite interesting, maybe I can do something like that.”
Getting more girls interested in motorsport is probably both the key and the greatest obstacle to increased female participation in Formula One. Gender prejudice exists, but more outside the sport than within.
“It’s really weird because I’ve never, ever considered it,” Claire Williams, deputy team principal of the Williams team told the official Formula One website earlier this year (here).
“I grew up in F1, so I’ve been surrounded by men all my life.
“I don’t really even think about it. The girl thing just doesn’t come into it,” she said.
Collins echoes Williams’ comments.
But stereotypes outside the sport need addressing.
Girls are often steered away from motorsport because it’s perceived to be the preserve of boys well before they’ve had a chance to develop an interest in it.
But there are initiatives afoot which aim to expose girls to motorsport at a young age.
‘Dare to be Different’, co-founded by Susie Wolff, former racer and wife of Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff, is one such.
Currently in its third season, the initiative organises programmes all through the year across the United Kingdom, and now Germany and Australia, that gives young girls a taste of different aspects of motorsport.
This includes go-karting, courses on nutrition, fitness and reflex tests, engineering challenges and even media training modules by journalists.
“The opportunities are out there…” Wolff is quoted as saying on the Dare To Be Different website.
“We want to inspire and drive female talent to make sure in the long term our sport is more diverse.”
Motorsport’s governing International Automobile Federation (FIA), meanwhile, is forging ahead with its own efforts.
Its Women in Motorsport Commission, headed by former rally driver Michele Mouton, is organising a series of karting slaloms for girls as part of its ‘Girls on Track’ initiative.
The first such event in Porto in May this year drew participation from 130 young girls.
Ultimately, success on track is what will spur more young girls to take up motorsport.
Formula One has not had a woman driver competing in races for decades. Italian Giovanna Amati the last to try and get on the grid in 1992.
Wolff was the last to drive on a Grand Prix weekend when she took part in the Friday practice for the 2015 British Grand Prix.
“I think it would great to have a Formula One female racer because then everybody around the world watches Formula One,” says Colombian racer Tatiana Calderon, who competes in Formula One support category GP3 and is a test driver with F1 team Sauber.
“I think that could also motivate young girls to try out karting.
Getting more women involved in racing is harder going in Singapore and Asia, which doesn’t have a deep-rooted motorsport culture.
Still, there are role models for young girls to look up to.
Like Janette Tan, who works as the Senior Manager, Race Operations at the Singapore Grand Prix and has been involved with the race right from its inaugural edition in 2008.
Tan’s team is responsible for the 1,000 volunteer race officials and marshals who are crucial to the safe conduct of the Singapore Grand Prix.
She’s also the Clerk of the Course for the support races during the Grand Prix weekend and deputy Clerk of the Course for the Formula One sessions.
“There is no typical day because it varies, depending on the events throughout the year,” Tan, a mother of one who also represents Singapore at the FIA, told the Grand Prix’s official website earlier this year (here).
“The Race Operations team officiates at various local motorsports events from February to December.
“We recruit volunteer race officials in March, and conduct theory-based training sessions from May right through to the race weekend in September.”
“We also have to prepare for the race weekend – basic necessities such as meals, beverages, sunscreen and gloves for the marshals as well as logistical items for the race including tilt-trays, cranes and medical services are procured by June.”
Claire Jedrek is another such figure for girls in Singapore to look up to.
She is a racing driver who doubles up as a commentator and is a regular fixture as an emcee at the Singapore Grand Prix.
She and her husband, a racing driver himself, run a go-kart track and organise programmes for local schools.
“I’m not religious,” she says. “But I choose motorsport as my religion because it has taught me a different side of my brain that I never really knew.
“It has taught me positive thinking and about never giving up…
“To me that’s really what motorsports is about.”
Ultimately, while there remains a long way to go, change is happening.
“I think we are starting to look at everyone as individuals who can perform,” says Calderon.
“I do hope that there is one day that I will not be asked how it feels to be the only female racing against these guys.”
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