Inside F1 Academy, the new all-women drivers' championship | FT Scoreboard
A new race series aims to create more opportunities for women to compete at the pinnacle of motorsport, and increase inclusivity. The FT talks to academy chief Susie Wolff and some of the drivers hoping to make breakthroughs on the circuit
Filmed, produced and edited by Petros Gioumpasis. Additional footage, Getty Images, Reuters
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We want to see more women in our sport, at the very pinnacle of our sport.
Of course I want to get to the top. I think anyone in my position would be saying they want to get to the top of motorsport and be in Formula One.
I don't think there's any reason whatsoever why there shouldn't be a female driver on the F1 grid. It's not the work of a minute. It's not the flick of a switch.
Some drivers are fortunate enough to either be paid to race or have enough sponsorship that they're able to earn a living out of it.
Formula One has seen global interest explode in recent years. And with that new audience there's come a realisation from within the sport that it needs to be more diverse, and that includes on track. So that's why F1 decided to launch its own all-female racing championship.
F1 Academy is a series started by Formula One to really aid the progression of female drivers in our sport. It's with the best five junior teams. And the aim is to really help those 15 young drivers to be nurtured to be the best racing drivers they can be, to then obviously go on to further progression in the sport.
Essentially, F1 Academy is a kind of talent incubator that takes top female drivers and gives them the time on track so that they can compete against their male counterparts.
Rodin Carlin is quite a well-established team. It's one of the top junior teams in the world. We kind of pride ourselves on forming the ladder. Basically we're taking drivers from karting to the door of Formula One. A few noticeable names that have passed through our doors would be Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo, Carlos Sainz Jr, more recently Lando Norris and Logan Sargeant.
And those guys went straight from Carlin to Formula One. So it's been really nice to be part of that story and to see the success that those guys are now having. And what would be really great would be to send a female driver after them that's also been through the team.
I'm Abbi Pulling. I'm an Alpine Academy driver racing for Rodin Carlin this year in the F1 Academy. I got into racing through my dad, actually. He raced long-circuit motorbikes, endurance. So a little bit different to what I'm doing, I'm on four wheels instead of two.
And yeah, I've been in a race paddock since I could remember. A bit before eight, I kind of started pestering my dad. When can I have a go, when can I have a go? And at the age of eight I got my own go-kart. And then that's kind of where everything started.
As soon as I jumped in the car and I came back home, I was, like, OK, when are we going again? It was something that I've always wanted to do every day of my life. It was only kind of when I got to the age of maybe 14, 15, 16 where I was, like, actually I want to go the next step and go into cars and try and make a professional career out of it.
One thing that I always say that I love about racing is how it brings people together. And I'm very close with my dad because of the racing. Obviously, there's things like the speed and challenging yourself and getting better and seeing that lap time come down, it's just such a very satisfying feeling. But yeah, I think the people you meet and the lessons you learn I think is what I love as well.
What marks motor racing out from other sports is that just to compete need a huge amount of money behind you. Karting costs can run into the tens of thousands of pounds. And those numbers just rise quickly once you get into F4, or F3, F2.
So if you're really talented, you're still going to need hundreds of thousands of pounds a year just to get on track. And that's before you get close to Formula One.
There are many challenges for women wanting to be drivers in motorsport. And to be honest, a lot of those are shared with male drivers as well. When we show people around our factory, or we welcome people to the racetrack and show them around and they don't have much knowledge of motorsport, they're always quite surprised at the business model. They'll ask us how much the drivers get paid to compete.
And actually, it's completely the opposite. Even in Formula One there's drivers that have to bring a sponsorship budget to their team in order to compete. The teams provide the cars, the engineers, the mechanics, the truck, everything else to form that package. But the driver has to bring that budget.
My name is Megan Gilkes. And I'm a driver for Rodin Carlin in the F1 Academy and a trackside support engineer at Aston Martin Formula One. Very few drivers are able to make a really, really healthy living out of motorsport. Some drivers are fortunate enough to either be paid to race or have enough sponsorship that they're able to earn a living out of it. But quite often, drivers are just scraping by trying to find the budget to be able to go racing.
I've definitely spent probably more time finding money than actually driving the car. I've been doing it since I was in secondary school and going through my GCSEs.
I was in business. And my business teacher would come over and be like, what are you doing on the computer? And I'd be, like, oh, the thing. And I'd be on PowerPoint making a sponsorship proposal.
Networking is a huge thing. Takes up tons of time. If I'm not racing on a race weekend of my own, I'll normally be at a different race weekend networking somewhere in the UK. So yeah, it's a full-time job away from the racing as a full-time job.
My goal has always been to make it to F1. And as a little kid I always wanted to be a racing driver. Having started off in karts, that was my dream. I want to be an F1 driver. I want to race professionally.
And reality sort of hits. And you realise that the amount of talent, budget, and luck that you need to make it to F1 when there's 20 seats on the F1 grid and many, many thousands of drivers that are vying for those seats. I decided that I needed a bit of a back-up plan. And that was engineering. So at the moment my goal is to someday become a race engineer in F1.
Physiologically, a 19-year-old woman is not going to start off as strong as a 19-year-old man. That's just the way it is. So we have to kind of overcompensate for that through training.
Some people don't even count motor racing as a sport. But it absolutely is. The driver is out there. It's a very high pressure environment.
They are experiencing G-forces. They have to be strong. They have to be light.
So we're looking for lean muscle. But they have to have a core strength. They have to have strong arms.
The force alone that they're putting through the brake pedal is beyond what anybody would normally comprehend. It's essentially stamping into the ground as hard as you can. So there are a lot of physical demands.
When I'm at home I go to the gym every day and go on a bike for, like, a three-hour bike ride once a week. Well, obviously, when I'm away racing, there's only, like, two days of the week. Physically, it's your neck and your shoulders and maybe a little bit in your brake leg.
I was kind of used to the neck and the arms from karting. But the leg, my legs definitely I had to strengthen up a lot to go into car racing. The brake is really hard to press in a car compared to the karting.
The thing about the F1 car is your neck. You've got to be so strong in your neck for the G-forces. So although I've not experienced it before, I think as long as you put your mind to it and, like I say, train every day, I think a female can get to that level.
We get to our peak physicality maybe late 20s opposed to early 20s, like a male. So it might be that it just takes a little bit longer. And it takes someone a bit older. And I think you've got to weigh it up a bit as an F1 team. Does the age actually really matter?
It's not unheard of for women to compete in Formula One. Over the years a handful of female drivers have made it onto the grid. In the 1950s, Maria Teresa de Filippis became the first woman to join an F1 race. Then in the '70s, Lella Lombardi competed in a dozen races and even won points.
More recently, Giovanna Amati took part in qualifying for the Brazilian Grand Prix. But that was more than 30 years ago. And since then, the closest any woman has got is as a test or development driver for an F1 team.
Motorsport isn't segregated. Women race against men. It's one of the three sports in the world which isn't segregated, alongside sailing, obviously involves quite a big boat; horseriding or jumping involves a big animal; and motorsport, which involves a big car. And I think Formula One, generally motorsport, has fundamentally always been seen as very male dominated. It is to a certain extent still very male dominated.
But the sport is changing. I think this huge growing fan base, the fastest growing demographic in that new fan base is a young female audience. So we want to make sure that we're capitalising on that and showing that our sport has opportunity for women.
There have been previous attempts to run all-female racing competitions. But they've always had to stand on their own two feet. The high costs associated with motorsport mean that it's very difficult to make the finances stack up. But by having the support of Formula One's operational, broadcast, and commercial machinery, F1 Academy has a huge advantage over all those past efforts.
The finances have always been an issue and will always be an issue. That is the nature of our sport. It's not like football or tennis, which in the end if you have a pitch and a ball or a court and a ball you can go and practise. The nature of this sport means you need a team. And you need a car. And that obviously has implications financially.
Niki Lauda had to finance his way into Formula One initially. And so I think we are not going to be able to change that. But obviously with F1 Academy, we are giving the driver huge financial aid to make sure that the drivers are getting enough track time and are getting all the possibilities to try and progress in the sport.
The more you practise at something, the better you're going to be. Talent will only get you so far. And in motorsport that translates to time on track. So the more time on track you have, the more time there is to hone that talent, hone that race craft, become more confident so everything becomes second nature.
At the moment I think it's a great time to be a female in motorsport. There's the most support they've ever had. There's so many programmes and initiatives being put in place. And championships like F1 Academy, which is all-female, but provides great track time and development for us females to push us forward to go into mixed competition.
You dream of making it to Formula One. And you do a lot of preparation, a lot of work to get there. But I will never forget the first moment I hit the track at Silverstone in the Williams Formula One car. I was so well-prepared. I knew exactly what was expected of me. I knew exactly what I had to achieve in the car.
But I still had that moment of, wow, this is incredible. And what that car is capable of in terms of its braking performance, its cornering speed because of the huge aerodynamic effects, it is... I can only say it's incredible.
This is the launch event for our partnership with F1 Academy and Motorsport UK, which is all about broadening the talent base of girls competing in motorsport. We have about 1.8mn drivers a year - about a third of them are female.
But when it comes to them progressing up to racing competitively in our Academy programmes, they only have about 5 per cent female in them at the moment. And we really want to address that balance and encourage more girls to take up karting at the grassroots level.
I think that's one of the magical things about a go-kart. It's not only a miniature machine, but it's a microcosm of all the skills that you need to drive pretty much every type of competition car. I think famously Ayrton Senna, when he was asked what his favourite form of motorsport was, he said, well, I have two. Formula One, of course, but also karting, because it's the purest form of motorsport. And the skills that you need in order to drive that quickly around an indoor kart circuit is exactly the same as you need to drive a Formula One car, maybe just a bit quicker.
The skills that you do take through is things like braking, your racing lines, and throttle application. They're the three kind of big things. And then also the racecraft, the racecraft is like nothing else in racing in a go-kart. And 1,000 per cent karting is key to getting more getting a female to Formula One, I think.
At the end of the day, it's not just girls in the F1 Academy that get there. It's the 10-year-olds watching, or eight-year-olds watching that are inspired to jump into a go-kart to then progress through the ladder. And in 20 years' time then they will be at that age where they're looking to go and make that step into Formula One. And it's so important to inspire the young generations and get them in early and open up that avenue and opportunity to them early on.
When it comes to finding a female driver who can get to the very top of motorsport, ultimately it's a numbers game. That means getting more girls into racing from an early age and then keeping them on track as much as possible.
I think recently we've seen a slight increase in participation of women in motorsport. And that's because society has changed. There's more of a belief that probably there are opportunities there.
But what I do think has been missing is just that accessibility to the sport. And that's where I really think F1 Academy can play a big role. We can break down the accessibility. We can inspire. We can create global awareness for all of those young girls that are currently racing in karting.
We want to be the bridge into single seaters. We want to nurture and develop the talent. And that's something which I think has been missing in the past.
Ultimately, to be successful in motorsport, you need to have a very competitive nature. You need to be very determined. You need to like the adrenaline and the pressure that comes with competing.
A racing driver has to be able to withstand a lot of pressure. They're out there with the focus on them. But behind them is a team of people that have put weekends aside, evenings aside, work through the night to get their car ready, a team of people looking at them, people on the internet, people on TV watching them.
So they already have to withstand a lot of pressure. When you add to that a female driver is going to attract far more attention, potentially far more criticism, then that requires, again, another level of determination. And that's what I think our drivers have. And I see it in them.
I've never really experienced anything where someone's made me feel like I can't do something because I'm a female. It's all moving in the right direction.
And the only time that I've ever really experienced anything is it will be the dads in go-karting. When I was eight years old and I'd beat their lad that's eight, nine years old. And the dad would be, like, you can't let the girl beat you.
For every high that you have in motorsport, there's probably about 10 or 15 low moments as well. You've got to be, when you get to the circuit, even before you get to the circuit, you've got to be ready to expect anything that could happen.
The truth is sport is brutal. You lose more than you win because there's only ever one winner. And for me without a doubt, the most important character trait I had was tenacity. I just chose not to give up.
Are we going to see a female driver in Formula One in the future? Absolutely, yes. If we don't, then I have failed.
And I truly believe it's going to take time. But there is talent out there. And nurtured in the right way, we will see a woman in Formula One.
We're not going to produce an F1 champion potentially in season one. Because this is about creating role models. It's about investing in these drivers and giving them opportunity. And you can't overnight kind of just turn that into an F1 driver.
I think in 5, 10 years' time, we are going to see that happen. There's no reason why it shouldn't. It absolutely has to, because we're missing out on a whole pool of talent that's just so far been neglected. But it is going to take a little while.
My ultimate dream will be F1. But I think realistically I would just like to get as far as I can in a career in motorsport.
I'm not in a bad position. The F1 Academy is providing a great platform for the drivers to develop with the seat time that they're providing. And then also, the progression path that they're also offering is great.
So hopefully if I get a few more good results in, hopefully it will help, again, me progress further. I'm happy to be where I am. I'm happy to be driving. Any year that you're driving it's a good year. So it could be worse.