It has been 47 years since a woman drove in a Formula 1 Grand Prix, when Lella Lombardi of Italy finished 12th at the Austrian Grand Prix in 1976.
In 2019, the all-female W Series started in an attempt to provide a way to get women behind the wheel, but it collapsed in June without seeing a woman close to a Formula 1 seat.
Now, F1 Academy has filled the void, an all-female racing series started by Formula 1 in April, with 15 drivers competing in three races during seven rounds. The first six are in Europe and the last in Austin, Texas.
But the series is more than about trying to find the next woman Formula 1 driver. It is also an attempt to bring women into other positions in the sport, such as engineers and mechanics.
“The concept of F1 Academy is to create a platform where women can be nurtured to progress further up the ladder, but also to inspire the next generation and to create opportunity, not just on track, but also off it,” Susie Wolff, managing director of the academy, said in an interview.
“We’re not just focused on finding the next female Formula 1 driver; we want to become a movement, which actually has impactful change in the sport and increases diversity in every area.”
Wolff enjoyed a healthy motorsport career. Following many successful years in karting, she raced in various categories before progressing to Formula 1 as a development driver with the Williams team in 2012.
Two years later, she became the first woman to take part in a Grand Prix weekend since Giovanna Amati in 1992 when Wolff drove in practice sessions in the British and German Grands Prix.
After founding the Dare To Be Different campaign, aimed at increasing the participation of women in motor racing, Wolff was team principal and then chief executive of the Venturi Formula E team from 2018 to 2022.
“I feel really lucky that I was a driver for 25 years,” said Wolff, who is married to Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team principal. “So I know what all these young drivers are going through and what the challenges are because I’ve been there.
“Now I’m with the F1 Academy, I’m not just flying the flag saying ‘I think it’s possible’, I know it is because I’ve been there. It is tough, but getting to the top of any sport is incredibly tough.”
The W Series shone a spotlight on a group of young female drivers aiming to break into Formula 1. All the competitors were subsidized by the series, with the overall champion winning $500,000. The program has fallen apart because of financial problems.
F1 Academy is supported by Formula 1, which is providing a budget of $160,000 a driver. The 15 drivers must match that with their own sponsorship, with the winner promoted to Formula 3.
“Credit where credit’s due, the W Series started something,” Wolff said. “Was it how I would have done it? No, but they still managed to achieve a lot.
“At F1 Academy, we would be naïve not to learn from what they did well and what they got wrong,” she said, referring to its business model. “But I still applaud them for trying because anyone that springs into action, and doesn’t just talk about it, deserves a certain amount of respect.”
There are five teams in F1 Academy run by established Formula 2 and Formula 3 teams: ART Grand Prix, Campos Racing, Rodin Carlin, MP Motorsport and Prema Racing.
Stephanie Carlin, team principal of Rodin Carlin, said the big difference between F1 Academy and W Series was the academy’s focus “on redressing the balance of females in motorsport.”
“It’s not just the drivers, but F1 Academy is a shop window for the potential of females in all areas,” Carlin, who is also deputy team principal of Rodin Carlin’s Formula 2 and Formula 3 teams, said in an interview.
“A year ago, we had no female staff that were not in either P.R. or accounts, and we now have two female mechanics and a female engineer being trained up to become part of our F1 Academy team. They’re here because there’s been such a drive to get women into motorsport.”
As for the ambition of seeing a woman Formula 1 competitor, Carlin said, “F1 Academy is a real enabler of talent, a driving force that will help produce that female star that’s going to go all the way, but it’s not going to be the work of a moment. It’s a long process.”
Chloe Grant, 17, is one of the hopefuls. She drives for the ART Grand Prix team founded by Frédéric Vasseur, the Ferrari team principal.
Grant said she felt lucky to be one of the drivers competing in the debut season.
“It’s a massive step up for me,” Grant, who finished ninth in last year’s GB4 Championship, said in an interview. “Last year, I was learning the basics of single seaters, but I wasn’t really learning that much.
“But after just a few rounds of F1 Academy, I’ve learned so much more this year than I ever did last year, and you can see that in my progress through my times, my pace and confidence in the car.”
As with every driver in F1 Academy, the goal of reaching Formula 1 is obvious, but money remains a hurdle. To progress up the motorsport ladder, from karting to Formula 1, would likely cost around $7 million.
“Financially, to even get to that point, to get through F3 and F2, at the minute it is unrealistic for me,” Grant said, “unless I get backing and support.”
Wolff said it could be eight to 10 years before a woman drives in a Grand Prix again.
“It pains me to say that, because obviously there are a lot of young girls racing now who might be good enough,” she said, “but we’ve got to always be realistic with our expectations. This is definitely a long-term project, and that’s why it’s so important Formula 1 is behind it, because we will see and reap the rewards, but it’s going to take time.”
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