Susie Wolff will join a select group of women racers later this year when she takes to the track in an official F1 practice session.
Even fewer have taken the next step of competing in a Formula One race and only one has won a race for F1 cars: Desire Wilson.
But while some were willing to support her efforts to start an F1 championship race, her progress was dogged by politics and the hostility of some of her male rivals, as she explained to F1 Fanatic.
Wilson made her way to Britain in the seventies after a sponsorship deal to race in her home country, South Africa, went sour. She and husband Alan found work at Brands Hatch where circuit owner John Webb became a mentor for her burgeoning motor sport career.
Webb was also the promoter of a British-based championship for Formula One cars and Wilson was duly placed in the Aurora-sponsored series for 1978. An astute publicist, Webb also made a show of entering Wilson for that year’s world championship round at Brands Hatch.
Wilson understood this was partly “an opportunity to get more promotion for the race tracks” and once the test was over Webb withdrew her entry from the race. But her error-free performance had done much to bolster her cause. Of the 26 entries present her time in a three-year-old March placed her 21st.
Webb continued to field her in the Aurora series. Although she contested only five of the twelve rounds in 1978, top-six finishes in each of the last four races were enough to place her tenth in the championship.
Her first full season in 1979 yielded four podium finishes and seventh in the championship. But more importantly, it also gained her a superlicence qualification, and now she was ready to tackle a world championship event.
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“They really didn’t want me in grand prix racing”
On April 7th 1980 Wilson made her place in the record books. In a depleted field of ten runners at Brands Hatch, Wilson piloted her four-year-old red Wolf WR4 to victory – the first and so far only victory for a woman in a race for Formula One cars.
Among those left in her wake was Emilio de Villota, piloting a Williams FW07 of the type the works team had introduced just 12 months previously.
Her performance helped win over some of those who had been sceptical about the place of women in motor sport. “They really didn’t want me in grand prix racing,” she admitted,
“In Aurora [it was] the same thing at first, it was like ‘what’s this woman doing here?’ But then all of a sudden I started beating them, I won a race and all of a sudden people had respect for me. I had to actually gain the respect to prove you should be there.”
Wilson was given her best chance to build on that when she was given De Villota’s FW07 to drive at the tyre test ahead of the British Grand Prix. The car represented a major step up in performance over her Wolf, boasting powerful ground effect aerodynamics which necessitated far stiffer suspension.
It was smartly turned out in the livery of Murjani jeans, the sponsors of tennis star Billie-Jean King who aimed to “encourage women to break through in traditionally male-dominated sports”.
Wilson made good on that aim, posting the 11th fastest time of the test. “The tyre test day went fantastic,” she said. “The car was really good.” Her achievement was even more impressive in light of the fact she did not have access to the soft qualifying tyres used by the top teams.
Chassis change spoils F1 debut
But come the race weekend itself the only thing about her car which remained the same were the sponsor logos. Although her RAM team principal John MacDonald insisted otherwise, the De Villota chassis she’d used at the test had been replaced by a different FW07.
Webb, it transpired, had not obtained De Villota’s permission to use his car. The replacement chassis provided for Wilson’s first grand prix entry had been crashed heavily by Eliseo Salazar in an Aurora race at Monza two weeks earlier. Hasty repairs had left the chassis flexing badly and even the most aggressive set-up changes did little to remedy its diabolical handling.
“We somehow got a different chassis, which was awful,” Wilson recalled. “It was actually an Aurora Formula One car which they threw some sliding skirts on and brought to the track. Whereas the car I drove at the tyre test day was the Emilio de Villota grand prix car, a very good car.”
Out on the track, Wilson discovered how unwilling some F1 drivers were to accept a female rival when Ligier’s Jacques Laffite forced her off the track on the approach to Surtees bend.
“There was a large amount of male chauvinism in those days,” Wilson admits. “Some of the guys, they just wouldn’t give an inch.”
“Some of them would basically, literally, try and move you right of the race track when going past you – without quite touching you but there’s ways of doing these things without touching a person, but you can actually give the driver absolutely no room.”
After the incident Renault’s Jean Sage told Alan Wilson: “Laffite is telling everyone that he drove Desire right off the track. He’s saying that no f*****g woman belongs in Formula One and he’s going to do whatever he has to, to keep her out.”
Given the dire problems she was experiencing with her car, Laffite needn’t have bothered. “I never got to the lap times I did in the practice session, which was insane because I was learning all the time,” Wilson recalled.
She prepared for her final run eyeing the time set by Keke Rosberg – the last of the qualifiers up to that point, and 0.8 seconds faster than her. With a set of soft qualifying tyres potentially offering over a second per lap, there was a slim chance she could drag the ill-handling FW07 onto the grid.
Then came the final insult: “The qualifying tyres didn’t fit on the car.” The car sat on its stands while the final minutes of the session ticked down and a dejected Wilson failed to qualify.
More frustration at home
Success came more easily in other categories that year. Wilson shared two victories with Alain de Cadenet in the World Endurance Championship at Monza and Silverstone that year. But the following season she was still trying to gain a foothold in Formula One.
After the prospect of a drive for Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team in her home race failed to materialise, Wilson landed a seat at Tyrrell alongside Eddie Cheever for what was supposed to be the first race of the new season.
Her race started badly – she stalled on the grid – but thereafter mounted a recovery drive, passing the likes of Nigel Mansell and team mate Cheever on the way. Her race came to an end when she moved off-line to let the Brabham of race leader Nelson Piquet lap her, spun and clipped a wall.
Although Tyrrell was eager to offer Wilson a full-time drive his cash-strapped team required finance. It was eventually provided by a succession of drivers who took her place.
On top of that, the ongoing row between Ecclestone’s Formula One Constructors’ Association and FISA (now the FIA) meant the one race she had started was stripped of its world championship status. And so the only woman to win a race for F1 cars never officially started a round of the championship.
“You’re always this underdog…”
Wilson went on to compete in some of motor sport’s greatest races including the Indianapolis 500 and the Le Mans 24 Hours. But she never felt at a disadvantage compared to her male rivals, even in an era of brutally tough ground-effect cars with manual gear levers and no power steering.
“I don’t want to say physically or mentally I ever had any disadvantages because I don’t remember having any,” she said.
The circumstances of her introduction to IndyCar racing speak for her own mental and physical toughness. In qualifying for the 1982 Indianapolis 500 Wilson’s team mate Gordon Smiley was killed in a crash of shocking ferocity.
“My first Indianapolis was a very hard month for me,” she said. “People have of course died around you before but you don’t really… it doesn’t affect you directly.”
“Gordon Smiley’s death did affect me terribly because I was in the same garage and I had to live with the sorrow, the family, the crew that was so down. The pieces of race car that wasn’t much bigger than, I think, the gearbox was the biggest part left on the car. It was a terrible accident.”
Despite that, when her crew chose not to participate in the following day’s practice Wilson urged them to let her return to the track.
Her first IndyCar road race at Cleveland the following year brought a challenge of a different kind as she brought her Wysard Racing-run March home tenth in searing 37C heat.
“I just stuck it out,” she remembered. “The IndyCars were actually much heavier to drive than F1 cars. And after that event I went and put another ten pounds of muscle on because I knew these were really… I didn’t have a differential! I had a spool diff, a locked diff.”
“The physical effort was so difficult, the heat, but there was no way I was going to give up,” she continued. “A bunch of the guys pulled in and quit, couldn’t drive any more.”
“I kept on going, halfway through the race I was really done in and then all of a sudden I pushed myself and the next thing at the end of the race I was going faster than I had been at the beginning of the race.”
Wilson doesn’t doubt that women are resilient enough to compete side-by-side on the same track as men. “I truly believe a woman, mentally, is much stronger than a man because (a) we’re multi-taskers (b) we have to put up with so much – I don’t want to say adversity because guys also put up with adversity – but you’ve got so much to deal with in your life.”
“And also you’re always this underdog, so you’re always fighting. Mentally, we can be incredibly strong.”
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Images © Wilson Collection, Ferret