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Formula 1 CEO doesn’t see ‘a girl coming into F1 in the next five years’

Lella Lombardi of Italy during a 1980 endurance race in England. (Bob Thomas/Popperfoto/Getty Images)

The head of Formula 1 can’t foresee a scenario in which a woman races an F1 car in the next five years — unless a “meteorite” hits the Earth.

Stefano Domenicali, head of Formula One Group, said Wednesday in a news conference that the auto racing organization is making progress on fostering a talent pipeline for female drivers to enter its male-dominated grid but urged patience.

“Realistically speaking, unless there is something like a meteorite, I don’t see a girl coming into F1 in the next five years,” he said, according to Sky News. “That is very unlikely.”

Domenicali is not the first F1 executive in recent years to suggest progress will come slowly for a sport in which only two women have ever competed at the Grand Prix level. It has seen its popularity climb with the 2019 release of the Netflix docuseries “Formula 1: Drive to Survive” but has struggled to shed its reputation as a boy’s club.

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In Formula 1, 20 drivers compete in Grand Prix races around the world to accumulate points, which determine the winners of the World Championships for drivers and for constructors. Only drivers who finish in the top 10 earn points. Each team races two cars and two drivers.

For as long as F1 World Championship Grands Prix have existed — over 70 years — only two women, both Italians, have made race starting grids. In the 1950s, Maria Teresa de Filippis competed in the Monaco and Belgian Grands Prix, and in the ’70s, Lella Lombardi became the only woman to score a Grand Prix point, though it was actually a half-point.

Some industry executives say women aren’t as physically able as men to race the dangerous, high-speed cars at competitive levels; others say female drivers wouldn’t be taken seriously by the fan base — or sponsors, whose funding powers the capital-intensive sport. Bernie Ecclestone, the 91-year-old British billionaire who led Formula 1 racing until 2017, said something of the sort in 2016.

Some efforts are taking shape to remedy the gender imbalance. In 2018, a group of private investors launched the W Series, a women-only auto racing competition with the goal of “bringing more females into the grassroots of the sport.” The idea was to create a free-to-enter pipeline for female talent in motorsports so it wouldn’t be “another 40 years before a woman has the experience and qualifications to start a Championship Formula 1 Grand Prix again.” Caitlyn Jenner, an Olympian and transgender rights advocate, bought a W Series team in 2022.

W Series drivers race in Formula 3 Tatuus T-318 cars during Grand Prix weekends in partnership with Formula 1. A crucial difference is that F3 cars are less powerful than F1 cars. Formula 3 is the sport’s third-class racing tier — the pipeline through which young talent attempts to reach Formula 2 and Formula 1.

Domenicali said Wednesday that “we are very happy with the collaboration with Formula W. But we believe that to be able to give the chance to girls to be at the same level of competition with the guys, they need to be at the same age when they start to fight on the track at the level of Formula 3 and Formula 2.”

“We are working on that to see what we can do to improve the system. And you will see soon some action,” he added.

Lewis Hamilton, an F1 star who drives for Mercedes, recently expressed frustration that there is no clear “progression” from the W Series into Formula 3 or Formula 2, according to the racing news site PlanetF1.

“I feel it’s great we have W Series, but we as a sport need to do way more for young girls getting into the sport,” the site quoted Hamilton as saying during a July meeting with the W Series team in Hungary.

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Female racecar drivers have spoken out on the issue for years — though some with reservations about the prospects of more gender-balanced grids.

The first and so far only W Series champion, British driver Jamie Chadwick, said in June that while she set “a goal of competing in Formula One,” she didn’t know whether it was possible for female drivers to race at that level in current conditions — because it mostly hadn’t been done.

“To get into Formula One you have to go through the feeder series — Formula Three and Formula Two — and it is extremely physical,” Chadwick told the PA news agency. “We don’t know exactly what women are capable of in the sport. If you are aged 15 or 16, and go into car racing, without power steering and driving big heavy cars, a lot of women do struggle, even though they have been successful in go-karting,” she added.

Chadwick said the sport should study whether changing the structures of the cars — for example, wider cockpits and thinner steering wheels — would help female drivers’ performance.

Abbi Pulling, a W Series driver and member of the Alpine F1 team’s affiliate program, disagreed with Chadwick in an interview with the Guardian in July. “That’s Jamie’s opinion, but … we definitely believe a female can be fit enough to race at those levels,” she said. “I think it’s possible a female can be in F1 in the next five years.”

Susie Wolff, who in 2014 became the first woman to participate in a Grand Prix weekend in more than 20 years, cast doubt on the oft-repeated idea that women have less muscle mass than men and so can’t compete in F1 championships.

When she drove for Williams Racing in practice sessions at the Silverstone Circuit in Northampton, England, in 2014, Wolff said, she realized that wasn’t as big an obstacle as she thought. “Already on my first lap out of the pits I knew it was going to be manageable,” she said, according to CNN.

“I think we are at a slight disadvantage in terms of physical strength but it’s something that can be overcome and it’s something that won’t stop us being successful in F1,” Wolff said at the time.

Beyond technical questions, a perception issue is also at play, according to Toto Wolff, CEO of Mercedes-AMG Petronas, one of the top three F1 teams, and husband of Susie Wolff. Her “final chance was denied,” Wolff said this month in an interview with the Financial Times. “She was within a few tenths of [Williams driver] Felipe Massa,” he said, but the F1 team “never dared to make that call.”

Cindy Boren contributed to this report.

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