With the 2023 F1 season well under way, comes some very exciting news. It’s not about the Red Bulls fiercely dominating the start of the season, Mercedes’ continuous battle with the design of their car, or Ferrari’s engine issues. This time it’s about women’s motorsport.
Susie Stoddard back in 2003 was not shy of challenging gender stereotypes in motorsport as she reflected “Once I put my helmet on, my gender is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is how I perform in the car. The boys don’t expect special treatment. And neither should the girls.”[i]
Some 20 years later after having made history by becoming the first female driver to take part in qualifying at the 2014 British Grand Prix, having spearheaded the Dare to be Different programme encouraging female participation in motorsport, and having overseen Venturi Formula E team’s most successful season in 2021/2022 as their CEO, who better than the (now) Susie Wolff to be appointed to the role of Managing Director of the new all-female F1 Academy.
The F1 Academy, which launched in November 2022, presents an opportunity for female drivers that we haven’t seen before. It even got airtime in Parliament on International Women’s Day when Greg Smith MP and Penny Mordaunt MP congratulated F1 for recognising the need for promotion of female participation in motorsport.
The purpose of the F1 Academy is to develop and prepare young female drivers for elite competition and propel them through the F1 pyramid. With F1 having committed £2.25 million to the project and matching the driver budget of £150,000 per car for the 15-car field, it is set to be an exhilarating first season. The grid will consist of 5 teams, all run by experienced current F2 and F3 outfits, with each entering 3 cars. The seven-event calendar kicks off in April consisting of 3 races at each round and ending the season in October supporting the US Grand Prix in Austin, Texas. But will this be enough to ensure its survival beyond the short-lived W Series? (See here for our previous article in which we consider both the achievements and the downfalls of the W Series).
Whereas the W Series worked as an independent organisation that was the equivalent of the F2 and F3 driver categories, the F1 Academy has the financial backing of F1 itself and with “F1” in its name, it’s hard to ignore.
Whilst the W Series succeeded in creating a parallel category for female drivers to competitions such as F3, the F1 Academy arguably goes further than this. Its purpose is not to be a permanent place for female drivers, but a platform equipping them technically, physically and mentally to progress to higher levels of racing including, eventually, F1.
What barriers remain preventing female progression in motorsport?
The news of the introduction of the F1 Academy is undoubtedly a huge boost for women in motorsport and will hopefully be the next big step taken towards greater gender parity at the higher echelons of the sport. However, it is prudent to analyse the barriers which could stall this progress, and which have left women laps behind their male counterparts in terms of motorsport success.
1. Lack of female role models
The current lack of female role models for young aspiring female drivers to look up to is undeniably a huge barrier to their progression to the top of the sport. It is an extremely male-dominated industry where outdated attitudes are still permeating the sport making it very difficult for a young female driver to ever feel like they belong in that environment. For sponsors, there is little precedent for backing a female racing driver (and certainly not to the same value and degree that finance the junior careers of their male counterparts) and for many sponsors, it is not worth the risk.
Due to the lack of role models, women tend to start training much later than men[ii] and it is therefore, harder for them to find sponsors or teams that would take a chance on them. With few role models in the sport, women don’t realise it is something they have an opportunity to try until much later than men. By this point it can often be too late; women are attempting to compete having had far less training and testing time than men. Right out of the gate, women are at a disadvantage.
2. The cost
One of the main contributors to the lack of female drivers is money. The sport has always been an expensive one. It has been estimated that the cost of jumping through the necessary hoops to reach F1, starting off with karting and working through the various junior formulas, could be around €8 million[iii]. For many drivers to afford this they have to be funded by large sponsors who back drivers they want to see as world champions.
3. The lack of marketing
There have been suggestions that the F1 Academy (as well as the W Series) have not been marketed well enough to bring in new fans and crucially, sponsors. The F1 British Grand Prix in 2022 attracted just shy of 3.48 million viewers[iv] whereas the W Series could only manage an average of 713,000[v]. Whilst you wouldn’t expect a ‘junior’ series to match the figures F1 is attracting, the fact the ‘premier’ female category of motorsport was attracting only 20% of what F1 managed for the same event, shows there is still a lot of work to be done. It is hoped that with the ‘F1 name’ front and centre and the commitment from F1 to invest significant sums into the series, that there will be more of an emphasis on marketing the competition to new and existing audiences so as to increase exposure to the series as a whole.
4. The F1 Academy itself?
This may seem ludicrous but hear us out. A criticism levied at the W Series was its inability to properly progress the careers of any of its participants (especially multi-time champion Jamie Chadwick) beyond the confines of the competition itself. One of the main reasons for this was due to the inherent limitations of a single-gender series when the pinnacle of the sport is dominated by men. There are legitimate concerns that the same factor could limit the success of the F1 Academy. Are F1 teams going to take a chance on young female drivers in favour of those who have progressed from more established routes such as F2 or F3?
Despite competing in a sport which risks life or death, F1 teams are ironically risk-averse when it comes to choosing its driver line-up. However, the point of the F1 Academy is to act as a steppingstone for female drivers to showcase their abilities in a F1-sponsored series and thereafter, obtain a move to Formula 3 or even straight to Formula 2. The fact that the teams who will be operating the cars in the F1 Academy series are the same as those who currently compete in F2 and F3 should prove priceless in aiding this transition. Ultimately, these teams will have run the simulations and will be well aware of the absolute lap times of their cars and will have all of the data they need to properly assess the performance of the drivers.
Commercial power of female fan participation
Beyond the clear sporting benefits to improving motorsport diversity, there are also clear commercial benefits to developing greater female participation in motorsport; both to capture the ever-greater audiences drawn by women's sports, and to harness the buying power of motorsports' growing female fanbase.
As of 2021, the fanbase for F1 was reportedly made up of 40% women, more closely resembling the gender make-up of society than the 32% reported female fans in 2017[vi]. In addition to a strong digital-first marketing strategy, this move towards gender balance is also thanks in part to the success of Netflix's "Drive to Survive" in bringing on board new female fans.
While the success of the series has increased F1 fandom across all genders, a survey by Heineken in Australia found that almost two-thirds of new fans are women[vii], and marketing chiefs have credited the success of the Netflix series in bringing on board new female fans[viii].
Maria Sherman in The Cut identified a particular segment of this fanbase: young women[ix]. These are fans who engage with sport both in the traditional way but are also driving new trends on TikTok, Instagram and other social media platforms. Content creators identify and target this group; Lissie Mackintosh is an F1 content creator who has over 400k followers across Instagram and TikTok, and almost 8 million likes on the latter. While current male drivers like Charles Leclerc have featured in her content, Mackintosh also recognises the potential of having more women on the track:
"We need more relatable role models in our sport. It's tough. If you sit down and watch a race, sometimes I think you can run the risk of only seeing 20 male drivers, ten team principals who are all men and two male commentators… We need more women who are relatable and being shown. That's the way to get younger girls interested in the sport. The roles aren't just male roles. We all need to be aware of the fact that representation on F1 isn't quite where it needs to be at the moment."[x]
The commercial power of young women, the "fangirls" identified by Sherman, has long been recognised in entertainment and media. Sports organisations that are able to tap into this are also seeing the dividends: 46% of all official NFL merchandise is bought by female fans, and for sports apparel in particular, women are responsible for 80% of all spending[xi]. Where this is tied to female role models, demand is unprecedented. When the USWNT won the World Cup, there was a reported 500% spike in jersey sales [xii], and retailers reportedly ran out of shirts when the Lionesses reached the Euro 2022 final [xiii].
After almost 50 years since the late Lella Lombardi started an F1 Grand Prix in 1976 and became (to date) the last female participant in an F1 race, there is hope for the F1 Academy to nurture a young female driver into pole position. Only time will tell whether the new series achieves its ultimate aim but the boost in exposure this will give women’s motorsport will surely chip away at the barriers which continues to prevent women from climbing up the motorsport ladder.