Silverstone, England – As the Formula 1 season kicks off this weekend in Bahrain to a sold-out crowd, fans can expect blistering speeds, squealing tyres, fast corners and daring overtaking maneuvers.
What they don’t see is a female driver.
There hasn’t been a female driver in a Formula 1 race for over 40 years. But that could be about to change.
With about 40 percent of F1 fans now female, the motorsport industry is making a concerted effort to ensure that at least one of the 20 drivers on the grid is female.
Formula 1 has put its clout behind the F1 Academy. On Wednesday, the organization announced that the initiative for female drivers will be led by Susie Wolff, former racing driver and wife of Toto Wolff, the CEO of the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 team.
The F1 Academy subsidizes the budgets for 15 women who drive for five teams.
Another initiative is More Than Equal, a non-profit founded in June with the sole purpose of getting a woman on stage.
More Than Equal will explore the world in search of talented young female drivers and then lead them to success.
Founder Kate Beavan rejects the idea that women don’t have the strength to compete.
“Seventy-five women have been in space with all its physical challenges, G-forces, with its engineering challenges to understand the technology behind it, and it’s a very competitive environment as a program to get into,” Beavan, a former Formula 1 manager, Al Jazeera told.
“So I think that argument settles down.”
There are no rules preventing women from competing in Formula 1, but the pipeline of young female drivers is a trickle and they face additional hurdles, including a lack of self-confidence.
“I have always doubted myself. I never thought I could be there to beat the guys. I think I definitely had a bit of harassment or impostor syndrome, which may have resulted from that,” said Jamie Chadwick, a driver for Williams Academy and a three-time winner of the W Series dedicated to female drivers.
She said the confidence eventually came with “time, getting older in the sport, getting great opportunities and great people supporting me and helping those opportunities. But honestly, it’s only recently, in the last five or six years,” said the 24-year-old, who now competes in the INDY NXT series in the United States.
Speaking to Al Jazeera at the Williams headquarters in Wantage, England, surrounded by dozens of F1 cars, Chadwick said her dream is “eventually Formula 1”.
Another young driver with dreams of Formula 1 is Macie Hitter.
The 15-year-old has been racing go-karts since she was eight, winning countless races and amassing a glittering collection of trophies on display at her home in Griston, England.
The schoolgirl does not go to parties or go shopping with friends. For the past seven years, Hitter has been in the gym or on the track preparing for the next race. On race day, she faces an additional stumbling block: being a woman.
“When women come to the track, the guys don’t really know why they’re here because it’s a male-dominated sport. When you arrive they say ‘is that a girl over there?’ Many of them don’t want to be hit by a girl. So I’ve had some challenging weekends where I was taken off[the job],” she told Al Jazeera.
“But the more experience you get and the more you’re with the guys, they realize you’re there and they start racing with you, but it was tough.”
The day Al Jazeera saw Hitter on a go-kart track in northern England, she was by far the fastest, hitting 75 mph in a machine just inches from the tarmac.
Despite a successful karting career, Hitter has struggled to find sponsorship – which is critical to making the move into cars. Sponsors want to support winners and women are not on the podium.
“You don’t see a woman in F1 at the moment, so I would say it’s harder for a woman to get (sponsorship) but I hope it will happen more often,” said Hitter.
Hitter may be a driver in More Than Equal’s sights.
Beavan said the organization is investigating why female drivers don’t make it to Formula 1, or even F2, F3 or F4 where only a handful of women race. Once More Than Equal has the data, it starts looking for talent.
Despite fan enthusiasm for a mixed grid, those involved in making it a reality estimate that it will take eight to nine years for a Formula 1 race to include a female driver.
“A very small proportion of the drivers in the world are women and we need to figure out where they are, what they race in, identify their racing abilities and pick them and then develop their skills – be it physical, mental, racing.” craft – and help drive them all the way to Formula 1,” said Beavan on a gray day at Silverstone, home of the British Grand Prix.
Tickets for this season’s Grand Prix at Silverstone in July sold out in record time. Audiences for Formula 1 have skyrocketed over the past three years, thanks in no small part to the Netflix series Formula 1: Drive to Survive – a huge hit during the lockdown. That’s how Isabella Vittoria, 27, became addicted.
Vittoria, a marketing executive at Bumble, the online dating app, is a quintessential new fan: young, female and involved with Formula 1 on social media. Ahead of her upcoming wedding, she celebrates her bachelorette party at the Barcelona Grand Prix with her sister Alexa and five friends.
“I would love to see a female driver in F1. It’s such a male-dominated sport, not only for the drivers, but also for the teams behind the scenes,” said Vittoria.
“I would like to see what a female driver adds to the dynamics on the track.”