The remarkable tale of F1′s only race-winning woman

Interview

Desire WilsonSusie 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.

“They really didn’t want me in grand prix racing”

Eliseo Salazar, Desire Wilson, Norman Dickson, Brands Hatch, Aurora AFX British F1 series, 1980On 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 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 Wilson failed to qualify.

More frustration at home

Desire Wilson, Ken Tyrrell, Kyalami, 1981Success 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.”

The full story of Desire Wilson’s racing career is told in “Driven by Desire: The Desire Wilson story”, published by Veloce and available from major booksellers including Amazon.

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43 comments on The remarkable tale of F1′s only race-winning woman

  1. … That was an amazing article, I feel privileged to have read it.

    Definitely won’t look at Laffite the same way again. And he’s a commentator?

  2. GeeMac (@geemac) said on 26th February 2014, 14:45

    A great read, I knew bits and bobs about the story of Desire Wilson but I’d never read such a complete piece since then.

  3. Mash29 said on 26th February 2014, 15:13

    Very moving. Nicely done Keith.

  4. andae23 (@andae23) said on 26th February 2014, 15:14

    Very nice article.

    “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.”

    The good thing is that I really don’t see this happening today: people just thought differently back then I suppose, but there is a small minority of people who still think like that today.

    Nevertheless, it’s quite strange that the number of women in motorsports isn’t much higher than thirty years ago. I guess it must be a combination of girls being less interested in karting than boys and, at a later stage, discrimination. I’m pretty sure a majority of the F1F community would love to see at the very least a couple of women competing in Formula 1, so I hope the ‘rotten apples’ in the motorsports system will go extinct as time goes by and we’ll see that happening.

    On a different note, I always find it very amusing to read how ‘loose’ everything was back then (the IndyCar differential being an exception!) in comparison to the somewhat cold F1 of today.

    • Duchess (@duchess) said on 26th February 2014, 19:37

      It’s not necessarily that girls are “less interested” in karting, it’s that they’re told they should be interested in other things ‘befitting their sex’. My own father 15 years ago strongly forbade me from karting with the retort, “That’s not for girls.” I’ve had to satisfy myself with amateur racing later in life, but the amount of male chauvinistic pride at having racing be a “man’s sport” today is appalling.

      Just something for race fans to consider when they complain about Susie Wolff getting a couple FP1 runs.

    • Steph (@stephanief1990) said on 27th February 2014, 9:33

      I guess it must be a combination of girls being less interested in karting than boys and, at a later stage, discrimination.

      Not sure that’s true- JA did a post a couple of years ago about women in motorsports and said that there were an abundance of girls competing in karting and regularly women but could never get the same opportunities that the boy racers got.

  5. Great article, Keith! Never knew she got the short end of the stick for her WDC races, it explains a lot.

    And Laffite has really lost a lot of respect, reading this.. I know he oozes ‘macho man from France’, but that’s a pretty silly thing to say..

  6. ajokay (@ajokay) said on 26th February 2014, 15:25

    Excellent. Cheers for that Keith!

  7. BasCB (@bascb) said on 26th February 2014, 15:36

    Great read, and brought to us at a great time of the year when we have young female racers who migth have a shot at bettering her in entering a WDC counting F1 race.

    This

    “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.”

    is what makes those sporters we all love to watch racing truely outstanding, I hope we get to see much more of that this season when cars start breaking down.

    • bull mello (@bullmello) said on 26th February 2014, 16:02

      @bascb – “is what makes those sporters we all love to watch racing truely outstanding…”

      Great point, either a driver has the heart of a racer, or not.

      Like others mentioned, I knew only a little bit about Desire Wilson and after reading this fine article feel like I know a lot more. I’d love to read her book.

      Life isn’t fair and racing is about the toughest business to break into, even for a man. Someday a woman will break through despite all the odds being against her. That will be a good day for racing when it happens.

  8. SP (@jb001) said on 26th February 2014, 15:58

    Keith, since it’s a closely related subject, how about doing a piece on Lella Lombardi?

  9. kpcart said on 26th February 2014, 16:04

    great article. sexism is still well and truly rife. the majority of the field of f1 drivers do not deserve to be in f1, if we were to value CLASS and MONEY in the same light as SEX, but the poor female drivers have to not put up with Sexism, which is the first step, but then also have to combat class and money to climb the ladder in motorsports. I welcome any female driver in f1, even if they are “placed” in the sport ahead of better drivers, which is no different to how half the field gets into f1 anyway! we need a few symbolic female drivers, even if they do not perform well, it will set the motions in place for equality and give young girls moving into motorsport more hope then they have now because of males shutting them down.

  10. Tim M (@tim-m) said on 26th February 2014, 16:04

    Great article, Keith!

  11. matt90 (@matt90) said on 26th February 2014, 16:12

    Very interesting.

    “We somehow got a different chassis, which was awful,” De Villota 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.”

    Should that be Wilson?

  12. Steven (@steevkay) said on 26th February 2014, 19:03

    I’d heard about this lady here and there, but didn’t realize how awesome she actually is, and how much she had to overcome. The stores about Laffite, if true, are damning and deplorable.

    Whenever the topic of ‘best female racer’ comes up, Michele Mouton is typically one of the first names to be given, and was the only name I could ever think of; at least now, I can say Desire Wilson, too.

    Excellent article, Keith.

  13. US_Peter (@us_peter) said on 26th February 2014, 19:05

    Great article Keith!

  14. Paul A (@paul-a) said on 26th February 2014, 20:57

    Great article. It makes me wonder, given that her victory was in the Aurora series, not the GP circuit counting for WDC (and this does not denigrate her), if F1 today could use outside series to allow young drivers, testing, tyre development, etc. Probably an impossible dream (low income versus expense — but at least some –, too much politics, Bernie would object, etc), but still a thought…

  15. Morty Vicar (@mortyvicar) said on 26th February 2014, 21:15

    Excellent article. I believe there is nothing that makes a male more naturally suited to driving a car at high speeds and winning races than a female. The things you need to drive at high speed are intelligence and a quicker-than-average limbic system. Neither of those requirements is the sole province of masculinity. Motor sports is the one category of sporting endeavour in which having a male genotype does not confer a natural advantage. It’s the one category in which male and female participants should be equal. In fact, given F1′s weight limitations and women’s smaller stature (statistically) and mass, there could actually be a physical benefit to being female. However I do not believe that testosterone (in masculine quantities) is necessary to be a race driver or a race winner. Still, I believe driving is more an intellectual pursuit than physical or emotional and women can compete on an equal footing. There will be more women in racing in the future and eventually there has to be a female world champion, it’s just a natural progression.

    • Excellent article. I believe there is nothing that makes a male more naturally suited to driving a car at high speeds and winning races than a female.

      I disagree with that statement. I don’t think there’s really a great deal of difference between men and women at all. Women are not proven to be better at multi-tasking – there are no conclusive studies on this. Men and Women are pretty much equal when it comes to spatial awareness (something once considered to be a male strength) and but area men do have a scientifically proven advantage which would pertain to a sport like F1 is actually reaction times – men have faster reaction times, but only by a fraction.

      The difference is then down to physical strength and endurance. Something males are more suited to (on average) but when you discard averages, as they’re not particularly valuable in this context, the top performing females won’t be too far behind the top performing males.

    • Johnny Five said on 27th February 2014, 13:17

      It’s a waste of time thinking about all the stereotype comparisons – multitasking abilty, spatial awareness, strength, stature, whatever. They only tell us how an average woman might compare to an average man in their likely ability to drive a F1 car competitively.
      The men who drive F1 for a living are well above average – and the woman that eventually competes against them, and beats them, will also be statistically remarkable – not just for her gender, but for her species.

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