Where are all the women?

Danica Patrick, Indy Car, Twin Ring Motegi, 2008, 470150

Last weekend Danica Patrick became the first woman to win a race in a major international open-wheeled single-seater category. Patrick won the third round of the Indy Car series at Motegi in Japan.

But F1 has had precious few female drivers and there’s no sign one might arrive in the sport any time soon. So… why?

It’s not as if there aren’t women racers in other categories. In Indy Cars Patrick raced Milka Duno and Sarah Fisher last year. In Europe the German Touring Car Championship boasts two women: Susie Stoddart and Katherine Legge.

Legge was the last woman to drive an F1 car, when she tested a Minardi for Paul Stoddart at the end of 2005, while the team was being taken over by Toro Rosso.

The only woman ever to get on the championship leader board in an F1 race was Lella Lombardi. She scored half a point for finishing sixth in the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix, which was shortened after a crash that killed four spectators.

Five years later Desire Wilson won a round of the British national F1 series Aurora at Brands Hatch in a Wolf WR3. In 1980 it might have seemed quite likely that, by 2008, there would be women drivers regularly scoring points and winning races in Formula 1. But it hasn’t happened?

Some racing drivers I’ve spoken to – all men, I hasten to add – have suggested that women don’t have the physical strength to compete in top flight motor racing. I think Patrick’s success in Indy Cars challenges that view.

But it wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of people hold that view, and aren’t keen on backing women drivers as a result.

On the other side of the coin is the undoubted marketing appeal of having a successful woman in motor racing. Indeed the Indy Car series has been criticised for using the PR value of Patrick to maximum effect.

Why do you think there are so few women in the upper echelons of motor racing?

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52 comments on Where are all the women?

  1. KB, that’s kind of the problem. Most of the women I know in racing, me included, come from families with a history of it.  And if a girl in the magic 8-14 age group when professional drivers most often start racing expresses an interest, most non-racing parents are going to say "that’s nice dear". But with boys they are more likely to go looking for a kart track.

    Incidentally I saw something on News24 earlier, some bloke theorizing about women (road) drivers and saying men are more prone to road rage because evolution has made them more competitive. Men are more competitive? I can’t see why anyone would think that unless they went to an all-male school and have no social life!

  2. 40% of British 14-year old karters are women, but by age 16 the proportion falls to 2%, according to a survey BBC Radio 4 quoted a few years back. I would suggest that any attempt to bring women into F1 would have to resolve that bottleneck first. If I remember rightly, they quoted a combination of academic focus, parental bias, hormonal differences in how boys and girls develop in that time period and sponsor hesitation due to the risk/reward principle for why this sudden drop-off existed.

  3. Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 21st April 2008, 14:49

    That’s some fascinating data Alianora.

  4. Journeyer said on 21st April 2008, 14:50

    That’s a HUGE drop, Ali.  That combination of reasons makes sense, but that plunge in numbers is still very much surprising.

  5. D Winn said on 21st April 2008, 14:52

    Is this the future of F1 ? – I got the OK from Keith for this, although I agree with him that it’s terribly cheesy LOL
    http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/features/2008_swimsuit/danica-patrick/

  6. D Winn said on 21st April 2008, 15:06

    @ 10 DD In mild defence of your comments, I might add that my significant other is American – and insists on driving on the right here in the UK ! I keep telling her – “DON’T DRIVE LIKE THAT, put the hazards and headlights on first”

  7. Robert McKay said on 21st April 2008, 15:31

    We’ve already seen teams (either reluctantly pressured or quite happily)  take a driver decision based on nationality, either because of the teams nationality or main sponsors nationality. I tend to think that, for a woman the PR would be even stronger, and so I’d expect that even if a female driver was slightly worse than the worst male driver currently on the grid, then many teams near the back would be desperately snapping her up. The fact we haven’t seen that suggests to me that there just isn’t any woman quite good enough as of yet to do the required job, or they would be in there ahead of a slightly better but less-marketable male driver.

    (Looking at the obvious examples, Legge was medicore at best in Champcars, I thought, Stoddart isn’t much better in DTM. Danica herself has said she’s much better at the ovals in IRL than the road/street circuits, though she’s getting better at them, and whilst oval racing is a skill in itself, the vagaries of the American open-wheel racing system means that winning on an oval is not neccessarily the most obvious indicator you are a driving star, but that’s just my opinion and don’t hate me for it :) )

    This isn’t a chauvinistic, narrow-minded post – I don’t think nowadays there’s any reason why women shouldn’t be able to be in F1. As already noted above, the problem is getting women into the lower single-seater support categories – F3 and below, let alone GP2. I’m sure part of it is just that much fewer women dream of being racing drivers and have the drive to try, and the ones that do might well be stifled more by a chauvinistic attitude in a much lower formula than F1.

    If you think of how many decent (male) names get to F3, or GP2 and then stall and never get to F1, and then the relative proportion of females in those categories to men, it’s not really a surprise that we haven’t seen many women in F1.

  8. 40% of British 14-year old karters are women, but by age 16 the proportion falls to 2%, according to a survey BBC Radio 4 quoted a few years back.

    It’s actually rubbish – have a quick look at the names in the results section on karting.co.uk. It’s more like 2-5% all the way through. I have heard 40% is about right in parts of America though.

  9. theRoswellite said on 21st April 2008, 16:13

    Mr. McKay….as usual, very nicely stated.

    One thought….when she comes, and she will, her  PR leverage will be a bit beyond spectacular (imagine Maria Sharapova in a Ferrari).  If she were Asian, and a world champion, she could become the most marketable individual on earth.

    I would enjoy seeing that day, and the equality it betokened.

  10. DD is my chest size so I feel I can speak as I see it: no woman should get to any position by positive discrimination. If a woman is good enough to compete on equal terms and equal speed as the men in F1 them so be it but in the real world they are not and that is just a fact.
    If a woman (ugly or not) were good enough then F1 would grab her as she would be a money machine, fact is she isn’t out there so to my fellow sisters – get over it.

  11. Well, if we’re going by chest size, my 34Es qualify me to say that if there’s 34,000 racing license holders in the UK out of a 60m population*, there’s a fair amount of people of either gender who would be perfectly suited to driving F1 cars and haven’t had the awareness and opportunity to pursue it.

    Those female drivers I mentioned up-thread are far better than Patrick, Legge and Stoddart were at the same age so it’s a bit premature to say there isn’t anyone out there.

    Very few women get anything by positive discrimination – if Rubens Barrichello had boobs he wouldn’t have got beyond F3. To be the first of any minority to do anything you need to be the best. Witness the way any time Lewis Hamilton puts a foot wrong there’s no shortage of snarkers saying he’s only where he is because of his race, when in reality he screws up far less than most.

    *not trying to be Brit-centric but that’s the stats I had to hand.

  12. Journeyer said on 21st April 2008, 18:00

    Well, I respect your view DD, but how can you be sure all women can’t compete on equal terms?  I think you’re underestimating many female racers out there.  You have to give them a chance too.

  13. MJohnHurt said on 21st April 2008, 18:13

    I would love to see more women in racing.  Honestly, I want them to reach at least the point where it isn’t a story anymore.  I just want to watch the cars.  I was furious when I found out Erin Crocker was sleeping with Ray Evernham, the more women who succeed on merit the better, but Crocker sleeping with the team owner set back women in NASCAR at least a decade I bet.

    Couple of points regarding strength.  @#3’s comment about Vettel, I think that was half kidding, but Danica weighs 100 pounds.  I know race drivers are tiny, but show me an adult male race driver who weighs 100 pounds.  At least she’d get some good ballast advantage =).

    And about strength in general, I honestly don’t know how big a deal it is, but I do know that when IRL started testing "steering assist" or some such a year or two ago there were conspiracy theories that they were trying to level the field, strength wise, and give Danica a better chance at winning.  I generally feel that if every driver has the same stuff, who cares what the stuff is, but the real conspiracy is that during testing they had a select few drivers running the assist technology and she was one of them and the usual race winners were not.  Of course those same conspiracy theorists were silent when they went to driver+car weights and took away some of her natural advantage…

  14. Loki said on 21st April 2008, 19:33

    Wasn’t it Jenson Button who said their breasts would get in the way of the harness, or distract the mechanics? (Something along those lines).  Maybe the women are all afraid of DC?

    I think if a woman were to enter into F1 at any point from here-on, it would have to be a dramatic entrance to sustain any possible future.  Not in terms of results ala Lewis Hamilton’s debut year (because that will be hard to top), but to prove it’s not just a PR stunt, they can give as good as the other drivers (I’m sure they can) and, like most drivers, are capable of winning a championship given the good set of wheels.  Perhaps it’s more social and mental pressure than their actual ability.

    I don’t doubt that women racers have the technical ability – the number of times I’ve seen women out-perform, or at least  par with, guys on equal ground in physical activities such as martial arts and in the forces I’m surprised more women aren’t out racing.

  15. Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 21st April 2008, 19:48

    Sounds like something Eddie Irvine would say I reckon Loki!

  16. Was definitely JB who made the crack about boobs getting in the way! I have DC on the record saying that there’s nothing wrong with female drivers and that his sister had more natural talent than he did when they were young, so he’s nothing to be afraid of.

  17. Men are for driving us women are there at an F1 venue to give it sex appeal and to be sought after.
    I like it that way – come and get me boys!

  18. Uppili said on 21st April 2008, 20:54

    Alianora points to an interesting statistic there. One thing that strikes right  in the face though is why doesn’t a company like Redbull, Mclaren, Honda etc have a female driver in their young driver development programmes which they pride so much about?

  19. read this on Yahoo Sports…. putting Danica’s win in perspective:
     Patrick’s win came against a shrunken field of competitors, one which was devoid of the last two series champions (who both left the open wheel series to race in NASCAR), not to mention lacking any of the Champ Car drivers, who were in Long Beach, Calif., competing in Sunday’s finale for that series before the two – IRL and Champ Car – unite for good. Only 18 cars took the green flag in Japan – six to eight fewer than will be competing when the two series are reunited at Kansas Speedway next weekend – and just seven were running on the lead lap at the checkered flag.Despite her having only won in go-karts and not while driving in a professional auto race, Patrick has been able to command a legion of fans, perhaps for no reason other than she is a woman participating in what most regard as a man’s sport. And after tiring of fending off questions about when she would win, she distracted her detractors by posing in swimsuits and making suggestive ads for her sponsors. For now, Patrick’s lone victory is more a marketing executive’s dream. She can now be identified in her product endorsements as IndyCar “race winner” Danica Patrick instead of just Indy car driver. 

  20. MJohnHurt – “Couple of points regarding strength. @#3’s comment about Vettel, I think that was half kidding, but Danica weighs 100 pounds. I know race drivers are tiny, but show me an adult male race driver who weighs 100 pounds. At least she’d get some good ballast advantage =)”

    Sorry guy, you’re a day later and a dollar short. IndyCar took away the weight advantage before 2008 season started.

    Sam- Screw what Margolis said at Yahoo sports. He’s one of those “Yeah but,” types, and that’s just what he did in that piece.

    “Danica won…BUT..” And also note that article went up so fast after she crossed the finish line it was as if it had already been written and waiting for the chance to publish it.

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