In Formula One’s 70-year history just five women have entered one or more grand prix. Only two women have been team principals – Monisha Kaltenborn and Claire Williams. But female representation in the sport could soon see a sharp improvement. This year sees the all-female W Series partner with F1 to promote women’s involvement in motorsport.
Kaltenborn left Sauber in 2017, and last year, just weeks after launching its equality and diversity campaign ‘We Race As One’, F1 lost its last leading lady. I spoke with Williams about her departure from the world of F1 and the arrival of the W Series.
“I really believe that if you are going to see more women in Formula One then you need more women exposed in F1 doing what they’re doing”, said Claire. “If other girls don’t see women doing those jobs they’re going to think that either it is not a welcoming environment, or they can’t do it, or I don’t want to work with a whole load of blokes and be the only girl in the room.”
Claire’s prominent position in a historically male-dominant sport helped prove to the world that women belong in F1. More importantly, she proved that they can also succeed.
Williams took over the day-to-day running of her father’s team, Williams Racing, in 2013. In her first four years, Claire led the team to two 3rd- and two 5th-place finishes in the constructors’ championship. But last September, with a last place for the third year in a row imminent, the Williams family had no choice but to sell to Dorilton Capital.
“I think one of the biggest disappointments of me leaving Williams was not being able to continue on the path that I had started a few years previous, in trying to develop a very strong programme at Williams to support the females we have within our team,” explained Claire. “At Williams, it was something like 16 or 17 percent females in our workforce, which was the highest number of females in the paddock. But you don’t see them.
“I think mostly on a race weekend you saw myself and Sophie, the Head of Comms, and that was about it. So two in a team of 80 trackside. But then go back to the factory and nearly 20 percent of the workforce were female. We were proactively working on that in order to increase those numbers over the next five years.”
Breaking the mould
Under her direction, several female figures got the kind of exposure highlighted by Claire as inspirational for younger generations. In 2019, the Williams team signed inaugural W Series champion Jamie Chadwick as a development driver. Go back further to 2014, and Susie Wolff drove in four practice sessions for the team. This made her the first woman to be involved in an F1 race weekend in 22 years.
Now, this race weekend will see not one but 18 women on the track as the W Series takes to the F1 stage. The all-female series’ second season will begin as a support race to the Styrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring in Austria. Claire views this as a positive sign of progress:
“I’m surprised that it has happened as quickly as it has actually, and I think that is probably down to people understanding that this movement is so important.
“I think it shows what a great job they’ve done in the two short seasons that they’ve been operating, but also how open Formula One is to having the W Series on the agenda.”
The W Series covers all the costs for its drivers, who are chosen on merit. This provides a platform and opportunities that have previously been denied to women in motorsport. The series is aimed at promoting women in motorsport, whether as drivers or as engineers. The goal at the top of their list is to help get a female driver in F1. Reflecting fondly upon the W Series’ successful debut in 2019, Claire recalls her emotional experience of the very first race:
“All the drivers were out of their cockpits. I looked at them, and I know it sounds ridiculous, but it hit me. Every single one of those drivers is a woman, and that was such a monumental thing.
“I’ve been looking at Formula One grids for 44 years and they are all men. All of them are men. In my lifetime anyway, or the time that I’d been doing it. So that was extraordinary. It is actually very emotional. Particularly if you’re a woman, and you really fight the fight for the opportunities for women.
“I think people need to keep fighting for those opportunities for them. Particularly now that we’ve got this pandemic and potentially women are going to be the worst losers when we count the cost of this. Or one of the worst losers when we count the cost of this.”
The W Series 2020 season was cancelled because of the pandemic and replaced by an Esports series. However, it seems that the series has come back stronger than ever. As well as partnering with F1, which will host all eight of their races, this year the all-female series has introduced new liveries and partners as part of a new team structure.
The grid still consists of 18 drivers, but the W Series have now divided them into nine two-car teams. However, the new structure will not mirror the technical competition of F1. The W Series cars will remain identical to ensure a level playing field.
This women-only playing field has faced criticism since its inception. Opponents of the series argue that it will segregate female racers rather than promote their inclusion. But Claire was quick to defend the format of the series:
“The other side of the coin is why differentiate them and why pull them out. They should compete against men, I understand that. But equally it is so hard for women to get those opportunities that give them their own platform.
“I think any platform that gives females an equal opportunity, that is great. Or even just a leg up, because we haven’t ever had it. Women deserve a leg up, and the W Series provides that and I have no issue with that. The best drivers will come out of it and hopefully it will then make [F1] team bosses see them a bit more.”
Yesterday the three drivers that came out best in qualifying were Alice Powell, Sarah Moore and Belen Garcia. This afternoon will see the W Series’ first race of 2021 and perhaps the first real tangible step towards a female driver in F1.