Women in motorsport

A look at how women are championing for equality in a male-dominated sport.

Learning to dance in the rain | Credit: W Series

W Series pushes forward in a time of global uncertainty

13-time Grand Prix winner David Coulthard once said that women wouldn’t be able to beat men at racing because of their “mothering DNA”. Now he is at the forefront of a motorsport series that aims to get a female to race in Formula 1. 

Currently, the pinnacle of motorsport and all other series across the world are facing the biggest fight of all time: surviving and staying current during the Coronavirus pandemic.

With most motorsport authorities cancelling all activity up until the end of June, calendars have been thrown into turmoil. But, despite the uncertainty, drivers are willing to put their dreams on hold and to come back fighting once racing gets the green light again - whenever that may be. 

W Series is a championship that made shockwaves when it was first introduced in October 2018. It’s backed by some big names, including ex-F1 driver David Coulthard who holds the role of Advisory Board Chairman. He made those comments about women back in 2017, just 18 months before publicly taking up his new job. 

“It’s really interesting because I’ve always had a completely open view on it,” Coulthard says.

The Scot’s sister, in fact, used to race and he insists that the family accepted that she was more talented than him. 

“She was six years younger so if you fast-forward to when I was 17 and getting Sir Jackie Stewart calling me, she’s been racing in karting and winning races but all of the focus in the family went on me,” he says.

Coulthard’s views may seem contradictory, but even the drivers in the championship have been through the same thought process.

David Coulthard is a key part of W Series | Credit: F1

2019 champion Jamie Chadwick had “doubts up until the first race” and the runner-up that year felt the same.

“There have been many female-only championship ideas in the past which obviously you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Vice-champion Beitske Visser says. “When I first heard about it, I just thought it was another idea that was never going to happen.”

Visser is currently at home in the Netherlands, living with her sister and her boyfriend. She’s lucky that her parents live next door to them, too.

“I’m just trying to make the best of it,” a calm and collected Visser says. “We live further apart where I am and we have bigger gardens. That makes it all a little bit easier.”

She’s just bought herself a racing simulator, which she can now use to practise racing. She’s only had it two days, but has been on it non-stop.

“I try to use my time as best I can,” Visser says. “I don’t like being bored so I’m spending time on the sim at the moment. We’re still allowed to go outside - obviously not in groups - but this means that I can still go cycling.”

Visser isn’t sure how the Coronavirus will impact her racing career, having the ethos that everyone is in the same boat.

“At the moment, we have no clue when we’re going to start racing again - I just hope it won’t take too long,” she says. “We are still in contact with W Series. They’re in the same situation as us - they have no idea.”

Visser celebrating | Credit: W Series

Putting this pandemic aside, over the decades there have been some key figures suggesting that a female-only racing series is needed and each idea has been met with an abundance of criticism.

In 2017, former Lotus-F1 development driver Carmen Jorda said that women needed their own style of F1 racing because they were unable to compete with men. The idea was met with much hatred and senior female racers labelled Jorda’s decision to be appointed on the FIA’s Women in Motorsport Commission a “backwards step”. 

Then along came W Series in 2018 and the world seemed to change. Well, almost.

Whilst IndyCar racer Pippa Mann described it as a “sad day” for motorsport, others got excited. This could be their way into a world which is so male-dominated and has been since its very creation. 

However, many female drivers already under the spotlight were cagey about their views on the championship. 

2020 driver Abbie Eaton | Credit: W Series

In late 2018 after the news was announced, Chadwick’s PR team said that she wouldn’t be commenting on the matter. This was surprising, considering she was looking for a 2019 race plan on the back of becoming the first woman to win a British Formula 3 race.

“There were a few sides of it back then when it was first launched,” Chadwick says. “I didn’t want to talk about it; it wasn’t me. If I was going to do it then it was a decision that I was going to make. I wasn’t a spokesperson for W Series at that point.”

However, in little over four months her opinions began to change completely. The official test in Melk, Austria was the turning point.

“It wasn’t my part to play back then as I didn’t know anything about the championship,” she says. “Off the back of meeting everyone and having the year that I’ve had, I would be proud to be a spokeswoman and that's a personal thing to be proud of too.”

The championship is unique in that it pledges to cover all costs. From travel expenses to race fee entries - all of it is completely free for a driver to enter. This makes it accessible for all and takes down the gigantic pay wall which has always tormented potential talent in motorsport.

2019 marked its inaugural season and the events were covered by all major publications, including the BBC and industry giant Autosport. Thanks to the ties with Coulthard, all six races were aired live on Channel 4 and hosted by renowned broadcast journalist Lee McKenzie and Coulthard himself. 

2019 British drivers | Credit: W Series

“My absolute belief was that the system hasn’t worked until now,” Coulthard says. “It hasn’t worked because when you really get to the crunch moment, or when it gets expensive, all of that great talent that’s come through karting find it really, really difficult.”

Creating an all-female series seemed like a natural thing to do, despite the enormous amounts of backlash that it provoked. 

“I don’t see it any differently to when they created Formula E,” he says. “A lot of people thought ‘why are we creating an electric championship when we have so many wonderful and different internal combustion engines?’ Well, they created it because there was potential. There was a slot and they continued to build that into something which is much, much more significant today.”

Coulthard says that’s exactly what W Series is doing now. 

However, in spite of offering prize money for the drivers - and Chadwick receiving $500,000 USD last year - all of the top-12 finishers still chose to return to W Series.

2019 champion Chadwick | Credit: W Series

Chadwick, herself, is combining this with a recent winter programme in Asian Formula 3. As a result, many criticised W Series for not providing enough of a cheque, but this isn’t the issue according to Chadwick, and a lack of money isn’t why she went against making a move further up the motorsport ladder.

“I wasn’t in a position to jump into FIA F3 with only one official test day and then perform to the ability and level that I know I’m capable of with one of those top teams,” she says. “I feel like whether people agree with me or not, I can buy a bit of time at this point in my career. I want a year now where I can develop - that’s why I went to Asia and did that championship.

“I have the W Series and I want to develop as much as possible so that if I decide to do FIA F3, F2, or Super Formula, I go in and I compete at the level I know I can and ultimately win races and I’m at the front.”

Chadwick went one step further, saying she took her success “for granted” last year and, even in Asia at the start of the season, she was rusty and “didn’t work as hard as what she could’ve done”. 

2019 W Series grid with Lee McKenzie | Credit: W Series

For 2020 the championship is pushing boundaries further. In addition to European rounds, the series will also support Formula 1 at the Mexican and USA Grand Prix. 

It’s evident that the drivers are extremely grateful to have this opportunity to race on the international stage, alongside the pinnacle of motor racing. 

“It’s going to be cool,” says Visser in her typically laid-back way. If you didn’t know her, you’d think the Dutch driver was playing the achievement down. “It’s a huge step compared to last year and it shows that whatever W Series did last year was good and that it’s being acknowledged.”

Chadwick isn’t a stranger to the F1 circus. Her role as development driver at Williams means that she’s travelled to events with the team before. 

“I’d heard rumours about it but it wasn’t confirmed, so I was like it’s definitely not going to happen,” Chadwick says. “It’s amazing because I’ve been to F1 weekends with Williams and I’ve seen how great it is to be on one of those weekends, so to know that I’m actually going to be racing is incredibly exciting.”

Drivers at the awards night | Credit: W Series

If W Series hadn’t put itself at centre stage before, it certainly will this year with millions of fans tuning in to watch Formula 1 weekends broadcast live across the world. 

“We invented the W Series and we performance positioned it to exactly the level that girls - 15 and 16-year-olds hit a glass ceiling which is at a level where Jos [Verstappen] said sorry Victoria, I can’t afford the two of you so Max is going to have to get the vote,” says Matt Bishop, head of Communications at W Series.

He uses the analogy of F1’s youngest ever driver Max Verstappen and his younger sister, Victoria.

“The reason he thought that is that he could believe that Max would end up earning 10 or 15 million a year which is happening and Victoria couldn’t,” Bishop says. “There wasn’t the speculation to accumulate motivation or belief.”

Ultimately, Victoria has never got to race professionally and she is now instead recognised as a fashion influencer on Instagram - a far cry from the racing career that she could’ve had if her father had backed her as well. 

It seems that the view that women shouldn’t be able to race was left back in the last century and, for the first time, females are being given the opportunity they deserve to shine thanks to the platform that W Series is providing. 

Whenever racing does get underway again, the W Series hopefuls will be raring to go and show the world what they’re capable of.

Celebrating on the podium | Credit: W Series

Hannah Schmitz, senior race stratigist at Red Bull Racing F1 team | Credit: Red Bull

Dr Kathryn Richards: Life as an F1 wind tunnel test technician

Since its very creation, motorsport has been considered as a man’s world. Yet, working away in Brackley, Northamptonshire at Mercedes AMG Formula 1 team, Dr Kathryn Richards has been manning their wind tunnel for over a decade. 

Dr Kathryn Richards, a wind tunnel test technician at Mercedes AMG Formula 1 team | Credit: Mercedes

“For the majority of my studies and working life I have been in a male-dominated environment,” the 45-year-old says. “At times I have found it challenging and a struggle, but I have never encountered any issues concerning sexism. I am lucky enough to work with some great people who have always accepted me for who I am and my ability to do my job.”

Compared to when she first started working in F1, she’s beginning to notice more gender diversity in the workplace. However, this hasn’t been a dramatic change.

“There are definitely a few more women in the engineering roles,” she says. “This is evident up and down the pitlane. As far as whether there are more women applying for positions, I could not tell you.”

In her spare time, Dr Richards is a key part of initiatives that inspire more women to get involved in motorsport. Although, the way to get more women into the sport isn’t exactly straightforward either, with the number of women studying a science or maths-related subject at university significantly lower than their male-counterpart. 

“Currently only 16% of students graduating from engineering and technology courses in the UK are women,” she says. “If women aren’t studying engineering, then employers can’t recruit them. Employers, schools and universities can all work together to create that pipeline, which is where initiatives such as Dare To Be Different and the FIA’s Girls On Track come in.”

Susie Wolff's Dare To Be Different is another initiative that promotes women in motorsport | Credit: Dare To Be Different

Dr Richards’ job is demanding - but vastly rewarding and one she absolutely adores - with the wind tunnel being an integral part of equipment for any F1 team. Without it, aerodynamicists wouldn’t be able to run test simulations on the car. 

“My primary role is to run the wind tunnel and ensure that it is working properly so that the aerodynamicists can do their job and put aerodynamic performance on the race car,” she says. “On a day-to-day basis my tasks range from running the tunnel, tunnel maintenance, tunnel data diagnostics and writing/updating operational procedures.”

Mercedes is a team that has dominated the sport for the past seven years, scooping up both the Constructors’ Title and the Drivers’ Title in each consecutive season. Despite all of the team’s success, she still chooses meeting seven-time World Champion Michael Schumacher as her career highlight. 

“I feel very privileged to be part of such a successful team - I have been with the team for nearly 15 years and have seen many changes,” she says. “There is no real one highlight as it has been and still is an amazing journey but if I had to pick something it would be meeting my hero Schumacher when he drove for the team in 2010.”

The trailblazer aiming to be the first transgender woman to race at Le Mans

Charlie Martin LMP3 test | Credit: Charlie Martin

Charlie Martin has been on a journey that most of us can’t begin to imagine. She used to race to distract her from her inner turmoil, but now she races to change the face of motorsport. 

One of her earlier memories was realising that she’d been born the wrong gender and, after decades of constant worry and anxiety, in January 2012 she decided to transition. Putting aside her racing plans, Charlie underwent extensive surgery that would change her life.

Eight years on from the start of her new chapter, an exuberant Charlie is reaching new heights as a racing driver and as a key ally in the LGBT+ community. The 38-year-old has one aim: to be the first transgender woman to compete at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race.

“Having a passion that I was very sure of and a thing that I love was very important to me. It really helped me,” Charlie says. “I always lived within my limitations of what I thought I could achieve.”

Despite her absolute love for racing, she very nearly gave up on her dream with the pressure that came with transitioning - this is a far cry from the confident role model that she is now.

“I had to think about planning surgery and I know that I had 15 odd grand wrapped up in a car and a trailer which I thought might be quite handy for other stuff,” she says. 

Credit: Charlie Martin

In the end though, her pride and joy wasn’t sold and nine months later she was free to be the person she’d always known she was. 

Her first race as a trans woman was the Loton Park hill climb, although she can’t remember for certain with all of the chaos that was happening in her life at that given time. 

“My first year back was just really getting through it,” she says. “I then went and had facial feminisation surgery in Spain. That had a massive impact on my confidence. It had an impact almost overnight because people didn’t just gender me as male anymore. I started to believe in myself more and for that reason I really started to push myself.”

Credit: Charlie Martin

Charlie’s first outright victory came shortly after this in an event where she won by a margin of over three seconds - a huge achievement in any hill climb. Now, she uses it as a marker for everything that’s followed.

“It was a real catalyst that changed so many things for me,” she says. “I came back feeling like I was actually good at driving. If you tell yourself something and you believe it, then you’ll have that subconsciously. It was just really life changing - that race and everything that came after it.”

Her remark sums up her attitudes. Charlie is a go-getter who uses philosophy and yoga to partly power her dreams.

Now her aim is to race at the formidable 24 Hours of Le Mans. If she achieves this, she’ll be the first transgender woman to do so.

Charlie raced at Le Mans on the Bugatti Circuit and ended up earning a podium. 

“The last time I’d been there I was a 19-year-old, scared of being a boy basically,” she says. “I was a spectator drenched in the rain. I never thought I’d race there. I said there and then that I was going to go for the 24 Hours. I know it’s crazy, but it has to happen.”

Fighting is something that Charlie has done her whole life and now she’s ready for another battle to make it to the most demanding endurance race in the world.

“It’s not like I have money, so I can’t just go and buy my way into the team,” she says. “I don’t have a million pounds to spend. Sure, that would be lovely but there’s not such a great sense of achievement with that. I’d have to get there entirely by fighting my way there.”

A huge thank you to everyone who has helped me with this project - from the lovely W Series drivers, to the incredible Charlie Martin and Dr Kathryn Richards. I'm so proud to be a part of the women in motorsport community. This is a piece that was produced for my BA Journalism course. The journey hasn't been easy and has involved a big personal issue that unfortunately occurred during writing this. Nonetheless, we fight on. Thank you for reading. H x