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Changing the face of motorsport

Motorsports Australia Women’s Commission chair, Jessica Dane, speaks to Emily Patterson about the current state of play in motorsport.

You can’t be what you can’t see is a saying that has been relevant to women in sport for a long time. As ongoing work to improve the prominence of women in this space is done, this expression has become particularly relevant for those aspiring to compete at the pinnacle of motorsport, where the representation of women is faltering. 

At a time when other women’s sports are flourishing, motorsports appears to have not only stalled but moved backwards, with fewer women appearing at the higher levels today than 10 years ago.

There have of course been prominent female drivers featured in car races throughout history. From the likes of the only woman to win an IndyCar Series race, Danica Patrick, to the sole woman to score a championship point in Formula 1, Lella Lombardi, trailblazers have been scattered over time.

However, as Jessica Dane, chair of the Motorsports Australia Women’s Commission, helped me to understand, we have never seen stable or regularly successful female drivers at the peak of motorsport. 

“At a high level, there have been women involved over the years. They’ve come and gone, but we haven’t consistently had a female driver in a top-level motorsport championship for a while,” she said. 

So, what are some of the barriers that women face in motorsport that prevent them from excelling in lead driver positions in competitions, both internationally and domestically? 

The challenges female drivers face

Like in many sports, visibility plays a major part in facilitating a sense of belonging. If young girls aren’t exposed to high profile role models that they can relate to, they may never be able to envision themselves in a similar position. We have seen the power of this through the growth of national women’s competitions like the AFLW, WBBL and NRLW and Australia’s national women’s teams demonstrating strong emotional connections with fans.

Seeing more women as racing drivers will go a long way to encourage young girls to participate and believe in developing their abilities, as well as giving that sense of validation that motorsport is for everyone. But more work needs to be done at the grassroots level of the sport to rejuvenate motorsport participation for young women and girls. 

To this day, it is a common misconception that women lack the skills or physical traits needed to race on what should be considered a completely even playing field—the racetrack.

“You talk to any female driver and they see no physical or skill perspective as to why they can’t drive a car as fast as a guy,” said Dane. 

In a 2012 interview with BBC Sport, founder of Formula Medicine, a world-leading provider of medical assistance and training programs to the motorsport sector, Dr Riccardo Ceccarelli said that too much importance is placed on strength in Formula 1 driving.

“Yes, you need the strong muscles in the neck and upper body so you can have the energy to drive without any tiredness, but once you reach a certain levelthere’s no more benefit. There’s no point putting on extra muscle,” he said. 

Over the years, many commentators have tried to expose the deeply ingrained stereotypes and gender associations tangled in motorsport team selection, which continues to perpetuate damaging assumptions about the capacity and ability women have to drive at this level.

Additionally, because there is only a finite number of seats available in team line-ups as driver turnover is infrequent, it is still seen as a gamble for a team to choose a female driver. 

It is also common to find that teams don’t want to appear gimmicky, or that they are only selecting a woman for publicity, or disingenuously for budgetary reasons. These fears of being perceived as only doing something to pander to the women in sport movement, or being tokenistic, often halt any progress at all. This keeps the starting pool of drivers to choose from once you get to the top tiers of championships predominantly male. 

From the other end, the base number of girls entering karting and their retention percentage as they get older correlates to the number of opportunities women are offered for movement up the ranks. As opportunities become limited, women quickly fall away from the sport.

This is concerning, as without plans and programs to target these issues, there will never be enough preliminary female representation to choose from in the first place. 

Nonetheless, there is also the difficulty of maintaining interest in motorsport for women and girls, especially during adolescence. This pattern is evident across many other sports as one in two Australian girls will give away sport from the age of 15.

“It’s so easy for girls to give up motorsport. The environment being very male-dominated might stop them from entering in the first place or make them not want to continue,” said Dane.

What also needs to be understood more broadly across women’s participation in sport is the connections between other spaces that women have also traditionally not been actively encouraged to enter. In this case, motorsport would significantly benefit from more support being shown to girls to participate in STEM subjects at school. By encouraging and supporting more girls to pursue an interest in maths, science, technology and engineering, motorsport is only going to benefit from the new perspective. It’s incredible to think of the possibilities that might exist across so many sectors when women are supported in these areas.

Looking to the future

In a gigantic step forward for women’s motorsport, the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) in collaboration with Scuderia Ferrari established a driver development project earlier this year.

Scheduled to run for the next four years, the FIA Girls on Track – Rising Stars program sees the selection of twenty promising female candidates from across the globe, aged between 12 and 16, from karting or junior open-wheel racing backgrounds.

The program has many steps, beginning with a shoot-out in Europe before the top-12 contenders progress to two different karting and F4 focused training camps. 

From there, four drivers will attend a one-week course at the prestigious Ferrari Driver Academy, where two successful candidates may be selected to join Ferrari on a one-year contract for the 2021 FIA Formula 4 season.

The two lucky youngsters will become the first female racing professionals at Ferrari.

The talent identification initiative extends on the progressive work achieved by the W series racing championship, launched in 2018. 

Despite the series giving more exposure to female drivers by providing the framework for a racing series exclusive to women, it has been met with mixed reviews with critics claiming it confirms the assumption that women and men will never be able to race against one another on equal terms.

“[The] W Series goes against that [men and women competing equally]. However, if it gives girls seat time, experience, exposure and budget that they otherwise wouldn’t have had, it’s doing a good job,” said Dane. 

These ongoing conversations around gender equity programs are incredibly important as we continue to learn what is the best way to achieve these goals in sport. It’s hard to know if mixed sports, such as motorsport and racing, should aim to separate the genders for development purposes, or streamline more with mixed-gender opportunities. But as Dane says, at this point, these opportunities to just get women in the door and gain the experience they need, are a welcome addition. 

With all this in mind, Dane, also a former mechanic now involved in commercial operations at the Red Bull Holden Racing Team, says there is a huge appetite to get an Australian woman onto the starting grid of a major motorsport championship.

“The next five years will hopefully bring enough talent through in a well-supported way so that we can create the opportunity for a female driver,” she said. 

Notwithstanding the many obstacles in the way for women, Dane spoke highly of the racing industry’s internal attitude and her personal experience of feeling valued for her hard work in motorsport.

“What I’ve always found in motorsport is that it doesn’t matter what gender you are, people just want somebody who will get on with the job, work hard and handle the pressure-cooker environment,” she said.

“It is a testament to the sport that any woman that finds themself in the industry never feels like they’re having to constantly prove themself because of their gender, you only have to prove yourself in terms of how hard you can work and that’s the same whether you’re male or female.”

While motorsport is experiencing a decline of women in top positions, there is potential for the sport to change and for women to achieve at its highest levels.

Dane’s comments provide a sense of hope for women who have entered the field of motorsports, that there are not only setbacks ahead, but opportunities to flourish as she has. Moving forward, we just need more role models like Jessica Dane, to be what many young female karters can’t see, and ensure that her journey of reward for hard work, is what all women receive when they enter the race for opportunities in motorsport.

Emily Patterson is a second year Bachelor of Media and Communications (Sports Journalism) student at La Trobe University. You can follow her on Twitter @emrosepatterson 

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