Women’s Sport Series: The F1 Academy and the Future of Women in Motorsport

The inaugural season of F1 Academy ended in October 2023, with Spanish driver Marta Garcia lifting the first ever championship at Circuit of the Americas with two more races still left on the calendar. After the all-female W Series went into administration at the end of 2022, the F1 Academy is another attempt to give women in motorsports the opportunity and platform to develop their careers. This latest article in the Women’s Sports Series explores why women have historically struggled to reach the top levels of racing, and how efforts from the FIA and the establishment of the F1 Academy may be key stepping stones to ensuring greater diversity in motorsport.

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Why aren’t women participating in Formula 1?

The last woman to take part in a Grand Prix weekend was Jessica Hawkins, Aston Martin’s driver ambassador, who drove 26 laps of the Hungaroring racetrack in Budapest this year. Hawkins became the first woman to drive a modern F1 car in almost five years, but the last woman to actually drive in an F1 Grand Prix race was Lella Lombardi back in 1976.

F1 Academy winner Garcia attributes the lack of sponsors supporting young female drivers as a key factor limiting women’s access to the top level of racing; “It’s the same as guys when you start karting or single seaters – you need money and the economic support – if your family doesn’t have money, you need to find sponsors… If you don’t find sponsors, you are not racing, so everything is like a chain.”

Due to the expensive nature of motorsport, we’ve seen many (now) successful male F1 drivers from less wealthy backgrounds rely on sponsorships to gain the necessary experience to fight for a seat in the main F1 roster. Drivers like Esteban Ocon and even Lewis Hamilton come to mind. Unfortunately, women have historically not been seen as a worthwhile long-term investment in this male-dominated sport and have struggled to gain the backing to make it to F3, let alone F1.

FIA Initiatives – improving the culture in motorsports

The FIA, the international governing body of motorsport (which includes F1 as well as many other motorsport racing series), is working to improve female representation in motorsport with some key diversity initiatives.

Since 2009, the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission has made a global effort to create a motorsport culture that facilitates and values the full participation of women in all aspects of motorsport through developing programmes and raising awareness of opportunities available to women. Sponsored by the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission, the FIA’s ‘Girls on Track’ programme aims to inspire the next generation of female drivers, engineers, team managers and fans. This grassroots educational programme introduces participants to up to 22 different motorsport careers and role models through activities such as karting, media tutorials, or fitness workshops.

In June 2020, the FIA and its Women in Motorsport Commission launched its ‘FIA Girls on Track – Rising Starts’ programme in association with Scuderia Ferrari and its Ferrari Driver Academy. The programme aims to identify and develop female racing talent between the ages of 10-16, giving successful participants the opportunity to attend training camps and a pathway to F4. Following on from the FIA Girls on Track – Rising Starts programme, Formula 1 is now creating opportunities for young women in racing through its F1 Academy.

The F1 Academy – getting more women on the ladder

In 2023, Formula 1 established the F1 Academy as a series exclusively for young women between the ages of 16 – 25, in order to bridge the gap between karting and single-seater junior championships, seeking to eliminate the barriers to entry around lack of sponsorships and high costs. To avoid the F1 Academy suffering the same fate as W Series, Formula 1 covers the cost of each car with a grant of £150,000.

Crucially, the F1 Academy forms part of the F1 pyramid (being F1’s more junior leagues, including F2 and F3). In 2023, established F2 and F3 teams participated in the F1 Academy, with five teams (Campos Racing, MIP Motorsport, ART Grand Prix, Rodin Carlin and Prema Racing) nominating three drivers each. The aim is that the F1 Academy can create an avenue for women to reach F3 and ultimately climb the ranks to F2 and F1.  We’ve already seen part of this goal realised, with 18-year old F1 Academy driver Bianca Bustamante joining the McLaren driver development programme shortly after the end of the inaugural F1 Academy season.

Importantly, the F1 Academy doesn’t just seek to create opportunities for women behind the wheel, it also seeks to increase the number of women in other areas of the sport, including in engineering, strategy, and mechanics. According to the F1 Academy’s Managing Director, Susie Wolff, the F1 Academy is “not just focused on finding the next female Formula 1 driver; we want to become a movement, which actually has impactful change in the sport and increases diversity in every area.”

Looking forward – an exciting F1 Academy 2024 season

The F1 Academy is due to implement new changes in 2024 to help ensure more women are in the pipeline to secure an F1 seat. In the inaugural 2023 season, five established F2 and F3 teams nominated three drivers each to participate in the 2023 F1 Academy Season. In 2024, we will instead see the ten current F1 teams nominating a driver each to represent their team in the upcoming season.

Like Bustamante joining the McLaren driver development programme, the move to the F1 Academy drivers sporting liveries of each F1 team will hopefully see more fan interest and more women joining the junior academies for F1 teams. Once a part of junior academies, it is expected that more opportunities and further sponsorships will follow.

We will also see F1 Academy events officially become support races for F1 Grand Prix weekends. Unlike the 2023 season where viewers could only keep up on social media, the entire 2024 F1 Academy series will be broadcasted on the same platforms that have the rights to broadcast F1 in each country.

With these exciting changes for the 2024 season, the F1 Academy drivers will be given the platform to show off their talents on the mainstage, which will hopefully result in them winning F3 (and eventually F1) seats over the coming years.

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