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On Now : Stephen Nolan
04/07/2015
BBC Radio 5 live
The 5 live blog
There are hundreds of ‘hilarious’ jokes made about women drivers. However, as more female drivers make their mark in motorsport the last laugh could well be on our male friends.

It’s over 35 years since the last female took part in a Formula 1 race, but the tide is turning. For a BBC 5 live F1 special I decided to find out how close we are to having a serious competitor who could take on the likes of Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton.

Joining me in the studio are the Williams pair of Susie Wolff, the team’s development driver, and Claire Williams, Williams’ deputy team principal. We also hear from motorsport icon Sir Stirling Moss and F1 head Bernie Ecclestone.

Let’s start with a quick history lesson. The first female to ever take to the F1 circuit was Italian Maria Teresa de Filippis who competed in 1958/59. She started three races, cruising round the circuits at the same time as Juan Manuel Fangio - who treated her like a daughter and gave her driving tips - and our very own Stirling Moss.

Next came the most successful female so far, Lella Lombardi. The Italian made 12 starts between 1974 and 1976 and is the only woman to ever have scored points in F1: ½ a point for a 6th place finish in the 1975 Spanish GP.

Since then three women have tried and failed to qualify for a F1 race: Brit Davinia Galica, South African Desire Wilson and, most recently, Italian Giovanni Amati. Amati drove for Brabham in 1992 in three meetings.

It’s not a glittering history and it’s pretty short. So how bright is the future for women in Formula 1?

Susie Wolff made history last year when she was named as Williams F1 team development driver. She has seven years’ experience driving in DTM (German touring cars) with Mercedes. She’s also been a finalist in the BRDC McLaren Autosport Young Driver of the Year Award.

Susie knows she has to earn her place in the F1 paddock and is hopeful she can get a Young Driver test this season to do just that.

“When it was announced I was joining Williams people were saying, ‘When are you on the grid?’” she tells me. “It’s about learning to walk before you can run. It’s about proving that I’m good enough at each step of the way; you have to prove your worth at every level.”

“By no means do I think that I’m there just because I’m a girl or they want the publicity, I’ve got to be good enough to hold my place.”

There are some people in the paddock who still think that women just don’t have what it takes to drive at the top level.

Sir Stirling Moss says, “I don’t know if women have the mental aptitude to race hard wheel to wheel. I just feel, as one would expect in a fight, I don’t think women are equipped to come in and fight with men.”

F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone thinks it’s unlikely we’ll see a women race in F1 any time soon, “unless someone has done something quite extraordinary in racing.”

“The only chance they would have is one of the lesser teams and they would only take someone if they come along with a good sponsor to support the team,” he says.

“Regretfully, this is what the problem is. There might be many, many, girls or ladies that could compete probably as well as some of the guys today but won’t get a chance.”

However, there is hope, according to F3 cup and GP3 racer Alice Powell. Alice is one of the brightest developing female talents we have in racing in our country. She has competed against boys and men, and beaten them repeatedly. With the right funding she could be a contender to at least test a Formula One car.

“I noticed people saying I cant get beaten by a girl but once you’ve shown you’re not useless and you have a bit of speed they give you more respect,”  says Powell.

“I think it’s all about the pennies, unfortunately. Male or female, you need someone to sponsor a driver and if you want a female in Formula 1 that’s what it’s going to need.”

Will we have a female driver competing in F1 any time soon? Can Susie Wolff persuade Sir Frank Williams to give her a young driver test? Can Alice Powell get the budget to continue her career path to F1?

Interestingly, Red Bull have just signed their first female young driver. A real talent from the Netherlands, Beitske Visser is definitely one to watch and may well be the next great hope we have of seeing a woman competing in F1. Watch this space. 

Listen to Women Drivers at 9.30pm on Tuesday 30 April. The programme will be available for download after broadcast here.

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  • Comment number 83. Posted by spikyone

    on 22 Apr 2013 11:32

    @73
    You suggest that F1 "is a sport where the physicality and attributes of the sportsperson are contained within a car that has a huge influence on that persons competitiveness". Firstly, this does not mean that the strength, stamina, and skill required of the driver is in any way lessened. Secondly, you go on to mention equestrian sports, which undoubtedly require far less skill and strength - for the rider at least - than top level motorsport. They also have a far greater outside influence from the horse. If it ever happened that a top F1 driver was pitted against a top horse rider in a test of skill (co-ordination and reflexes), strength, and stamina, only a fool would bet on the rider.

    I'm not going to say that the best woman will never be as good as the best man at motorsport. However, in every other sport requiring those attributes men and women compete separately, with men performing at a higher level than women. Even in sports like snooker and darts, which have no physical strength/stamina barriers to women competing, men perform better. Why would motorsport be any different?

    The difference between motorsport and being an astronaut or fighter pilot is that they're not competitive sport. In Q3 on Saturday the difference in laptime between being first (Rosberg) and 9th (Raikkonen) was 1.1% - part of which came from the car! F1 drivers are probably within 0.5% laptime of each other if you ignore the car. If you're 2-3 percent off the best as a fighter pilot, you're probably still a damn good pilot...

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  • Comment number 82. Posted by Shaushie

    on 22 Apr 2013 10:26

    I had a previous comment removed as no doubt this one will be. Surely the very question "Have you heard the one about the women and the car" is against the same rules of sexist remark - or am I missing something here (ps I aren't missing something)

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  • Comment number 81. Posted by Shaushie

    on 21 Apr 2013 18:05

    This comment was removed because it broke the house rules. Explain

  • Comment number 80. Posted by ElDonko

    on 21 Apr 2013 10:54

    I think that women would be an excellent idea. I am often overtaken by women, whom as well as driving, are operating a mobile phone, or drinking coffee, or putting on make-up. With the technology these days, those multitasking skills will be invalueable.

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  • Comment number 79. Posted by BigT

    on 21 Apr 2013 06:53

    The likelyhood of any woman geting into F1 is very small, there are relativly few female drivers around and none good enough to drive in F1. Those that did appear in the past had short careers (Lella Lombardi partially excepted) generally because they were in poor teams and simply wer'nt up to the right level, in addition they were seen as good publicity rather than good drivers. Personally I would like to see one in F1 but they will have to be highly talented and be hired by one of the top teams. As for men driving for a tailend team is for the most part just a short cut to ending one's career. Hopefully someone will turn up as I'm sure Bernie would love the publicity.

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  • Comment number 78. Posted by APR

    on 20 Apr 2013 08:33

    Lovely looking young lady (if the thought police will allow me to say that)
    She will never make it as an F1 driver though.
    Is that a good or a bad thing ? I don't know. Give it another couple of years and there
    will be another contender. They won't make it either.

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  • Comment number 77. Posted by Ronald Duncan

    on 19 Apr 2013 21:47

    Danica Patrick!!

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  • Comment number 76. Posted by Gary

    on 19 Apr 2013 18:09

    It's not over 35 years since a female last raced in F1. Giovanna Amati was the last female in F1 and took part in 3 meets during the 1992 season with Brabham. Get your facts right.

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  • Comment number 75. Posted by ugo guido

    on 19 Apr 2013 17:03

    It is hard to imagine a woman winning a F1 race... it is not a matter of speed but a matter of taking the risk of pushing to the limit to win a race.
    I understand that avoiding that risk is very feminine according to Sir Stirling Moss.
    I do agree.

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  • Comment number 74. Posted by Neal

    on 19 Apr 2013 13:14

    Frankly Jenni, your reporting is as ludicrous as your story of wanting to see a female Susie Wolff in F1. Please get your facts straight first, the last female in F1 was in 1992, and made 3 entries, but never started each of those as she was never good enough. Which I suspect would be the case for Susie. So that is the reason why women are not in F1, they are basically not up to the challenge.

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