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Female F1: Why they don't score to drive

2015-05-07 10:03


40 YEARS AND COUNTING: Ella Lombardi (L) is still the only woman to have scored a point in a F1 race in 1975. While Williams test driver Susie Wollf (R) has yet to start a GP. Image: Supplied

LONDON, England -  When Claire Williams was appointed vice-team principal of the Williams Formula 1 team she hoped her promotion and the presence of Susie Wolff as a test driver might open the door to an untapped market.

With women making up 40% of the audience, it seemed a good time to approach brands more interested in female consumers than the average petrolhead.

The response was hardly deafening. Williams, appointed deputy to father Frank in 2013, recalled: "I said (to sponsor-seekers) 'Let's go out there, let's really go hard at female brands'. And not one of them (brands) was interested." 

It's now been 40 years since the sole occasion where a woman finished in the points at a F1 race, Italian Lella Lombardi taking sixth and a half-point at a shortened 1975 Spanish GP.


F1has, in the past 40 years, become more inclusive - eight percent of Williams' engineers are female - and has come a long way from the days when the sport was sponsored by oil, beer, cigarettes and even men's magazines and prophylactics.

Wolff, who in 2014 became the first woman driver in 22 years to take part in a GP weekend, will be back on track in Barcelona on Friday (May 8) for first free practice but her dream of racing remains distant.

While F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone is convinced that a woman racer would be a commercial boost for the series, getting one who really excites the fans - and sponsors - has been the problem.


The 84-year-old said in March when he floated the idea of a women's championship: "For some reason women are not coming through, and not because we don't want them. Of course we do, because they would attract a lot of attention and publicity and probably a lot of sponsors."

Efforts so far indicate the situation is more complicated and that simply appointing a woman driver to a role within a team is not enough.

While Wolff has shown she can do decent lap times, she is unlikely to progress beyond a testing role at the former champions who were struggling but are now back in the top three.


But Sauber, which was in desperate need of cash in 2014 and also has a female principal, had been grooming Simona de Silvestro for a race seat until the 26-year-old Swiss failed to find a sponsor.

De Silvestro, who has stood on the podium in the US IndyCar series and was Indy 500 rookie of the year in 2010, returned to America instead in what was surely a missed opportunity.

Wolff said: "As much as people say 'We really want to see a woman in F1 and it would be such a great marketing exercise', the truth is... it hasn't happened. It can't be that great because nobody has made it happen."

The reason why, according to a motorsport marketing expert who has brought numerous top sponsors into F1, lies primarily in performance and the nature of a sport where men still make up 60-70% of the audience.


JMI chief executive Zak Brown said: "If you're strictly a female-directed product, you're most likely going to be wasting too much of your money talking to people that aren't your core consumer."

"If I have $1 to spend, 30c of it is working really good for me, but I'm wasting 70c. Unless the product I have appeals to both men and women and I like the female angle.

He used this example: "My wife buys my deodorant for me. I wear it, she buys it."

Williams has several such brands, among them Unilever's Rexona deodorant and title sponsor Martini, as well as others who use the sponsorship in education and diversity programmes and for whom Wolff is a definite asset.

But gender only goes so far...

Brown said: "I think it would be great to have a woman driver. But what's important is that you have a competitive one. At any time in sport, gender aside, you must be successful to have a sustainable career."


He cited IndyCar and Nascar driver Danica Patrick, now 33, as a person with the track record to create interest among sponsors had she switched to F1 earlier in her career.

Brown said: "If there was a top female driver the sales guys would be putting that in the mix of things with which to approach the market."

With race seats limited, Brown felt it might take a company such as Red Bull to bring through a woman on their production line of young talent.

He ended off by saying: "It needs someone with that same passion, desire and chequebook to make that type of commitment to go 'I'm going to find the next female (Sebastian) Vettel." 

"I think she's out there."

Stay with Wheels24 for the 2015 Formula 1 season.


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