With Claire Williams gone, what next for women in Formula One?

Chadwick opens up on her relationship with Claire Williams (1:32)

Williams development driver Jamie Chadwick talks about the support she has received from the former Williams deputy team principal. (1:32)

For over 20 years, Claire Williams would pack a suitcase almost every other weekend and leave for a grand prix. But when she returned home from the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in September, she unpacked for the final time and unplugged from Formula One following her decision to step down as boss of her family's famous team Williams.

Williams could not bring herself to watch the remaining nine races -- the sport her family helped shape which dominated her life for decades; It would be strange to watch other people run the team.

F1 was losing its leading woman, who was happy to step away quietly.

"I didn't watch it. I made a conscious decision not to really follow [F1] at all," Williams told ESPN in an exclusive interview. "I couldn't really bring myself to watch it, I needed a bit of space. It would just be too difficult, you know?

"I've grown up with Williams my whole life and worked in the team for 20-odd years. To suddenly have to turn on the television as it comes to Mugello after Monza, that would have been too weird not to be there and watch other people run your cars... quite strange."

A woman has not started a grand prix race for nearly half a century. All 20 drivers on the grid are male, 18 are white, one -- reigning champion Lewis Hamilton -- is Black and one -- AlphaTauri rookie Yuki Tsonoda -- is Asian.

Yet just a few weeks after F1 launched a diversity campaign last year, We Race As One, its only female team boss had left, and with no woman to take the wheel, it hit Williams hard.

"[Departing as the only remaining team boss] was one of the things that upset me quite deeply when I left," she said. "I felt that I had done a lot of work in this phase, and I'd only started to embrace that work. I had a lot more that I wanted to contribute after having finally kind of got my teeth into it, so to speak. I found that quite upsetting that I couldn't continue it."

Is Claire Williams a trailblazer? In reality, yes, one of two. In F1's 70-year history, Monisha Kaltenborn -- who was in charge at Sauber between 2010 and 2017 -- is the only other team boss who is a woman. Their positions in a historically male-dominant sport proved to the world that women belong there and can lead and succeed.

Phrases like "trailblazer" and "role model" don't sit well with Williams. Modestly, she sees her role as doing the best she could with the job she had.

"What I came to accept was that if people are thinking of me in that position and if I can use my position to do something good and to give the next generation of females a lift up, support, or whatever you want to call it, into their careers, whether they be in F1 or not then that's a really great thing I can do and if I can do that for just one girl then that's an amazing achievement.

"I talk to so many girls and it's wonderful to see them really fight for what they want to do and to be able to contribute to that is a real privilege and one I regret that I can't do it anymore."

Alternatively, Steph Carlin who is the commercial manager for Formula Two team Carlin and followed a similar path to management as Williams says she should be rightly applauded for leading the way.

"From a female perspective in Claire stepping down, I think it's a brave move for her," Carlin said. "She has put an awful lot into trying to save the team and trying to save its future for all of the employees they have at Williams and it's not a small company in that respect and to try and maintain its place on the grid, and all as a young mother as well. That's a big commitment.

"While women should have opportunities, we also do need to acknowledge the fact this lady has had a baby in the middle of trying to save a race team which is no small feat and I don't think it's a weakness to admit that. What she has done for women in showing what can be done when you've reached the highest level in securing investment for the team, that many other teams on the grid might be jealous of, should be applauded.

"And certainly, for me it's an inspiration to see another woman at the top level of F1, as I'm sure it is for others, and we need to see it happen more frequently. It's not something that's going to happen overnight, but what she's shown is what women can do in the sport and there's plenty more trying to follow in her footsteps."

Despite the obvious gender divide, particularly in public facing roles, Williams says she was never conscious of it until the latter years of her tenure. "I never noticed my gender when I stepped into a room at Williams, I was always very well supported -- I don't think it was even about that -- I just think it wasn't that gender was much noticed in F1 because really the sport is about being good at what you do.

"People are almost blind to whether you're a man or a woman but then I think that's my perspective, that is how I was treated at Williams and I know that's not the same across the board because that's only my experience. The only negativity I ever experienced was from people outside of the sport and people looking in and writing on social media that I never really cared about anyway."

Williams, now 44, went to an all-girls Catholic school. The nuns said you become a nun through a vocation from God. She recalls the sitting at the end of her bed at night, praying to not be called upon. Instead, she joined her father Frank's F1 team - which he had originally founded in 1969 -- as the communications officer in 2002.

After a year as commercial director, she took over the day-to-day running of the team from her father in the role of deputy team principal in 2013. The team is legendary, with nine constructors' championships (second only to Ferrari), seven drivers' championships and 114 race wins.

In the first four years of her tenure, Williams led the team to two third- and two fifth-place finishes in the constructors' championship. Three straight finishes at the bottom of the table followed, highlighting the team's struggle to compete with rivals with huge budgets -- according to figures reported by RaceFans, world champions Mercedes spent $450 million to Williams' $150 million in 2019.

By last year the fiercely independent team had no other options -- the Williams family sold to Dorilton Capital in September and stepped away from the sport.

"It's a very different economic environment that we were facing certainly over the last three to five years of my leadership of the team and that made it very difficult, combined with the fact expenditure levels in F1 were going through the roof," she explains. "It made it very difficult, and complex regulations as well certainly didn't help. So lots of things conspired to us being in the position we found ourselves in but also we always held our hands up.

"You can still make a very good race car without a lot of that stuff but we didn't manage to do that, unfortunately, for a variety of different reasons and clearly that's not what we wanted. But that's what happens and sometimes life deals you that set of hands and you just have to get on with it."

Williams reiterates that F1 is a meritocracy and since it is the pinnacle of motor racing, finding the best person for the job is key. The "boys and toys" stereotype lingered in the sport for longer than it should have -- generations longer -- and as a result most of the applicants for roles were male, but slowly it is changing.

"I think you can certainly see by walking down the paddock that there are so many women in F1 than there were 3-5 years ago, you can just see that. Lucia [Conconi] is on pit wall for Alfa Romeo, you see Bernadette [Collins] on the pit wall looking after Racing Point, and you just see the numbers are improving.

"We had female ambassadors at Williams from different departments that we would ask to go out into primary, secondary education to go and talk about their jobs to promote females in the workplace, promote engineering, to encourage those children to take up STEM subjects so that they could go to university to get the degrees that you need to work in F1. You have to a huge amount of work to get the traction that you need, but I believe that the traction is there and there is a lot more women applying for roles in Formula One."

Encouraging women in F1, though, is nothing new; at least not in the Williams team. In 2014 Susie Wolff became the first woman to be involved in an F1 race weekend in 22 years, driving in four practice sessions for Williams. Now she heads up the Venturi Formula E team and launched Dare To Be Different -- an organisation which aims to inspire and increase female participation in motorsport. In 2019 Williams signed inaugural W Series champion Jamie Chadwick as a development driver (a role which will continue in 2020); previously Colombia's Tatiana Calderon was a development driver for Alfa Romeo.

What would it mean to have a driver who is a woman to start a race?

"We all saw the impact and effect that Susie Wolff had during her time," she says. "We've seen the great work that having W Series in existence has done to raise the profile of women and obviously the driver is a pivotal and very visible position within a team so you've got a female driver and that sends a very powerful message out to the world that 'hey everyone thought F1 drivers were male, but there's a woman lining up' -- that's hugely powerful and would help the movement of getting more women into our sport."

But Wolff and others may not have had the opportunity if it wasn't for Claire's mother Ginny, who in the early days held it together and bankrolled the business when times were tough.

"My mum was an extraordinary lady she was always very determined, gracious and that typical British stiff upper lip, nothing ever phased her, she never really complained she just got on with things and she fell in love with my dad who was a struggling F1 team owner and she put everything she had into the team."

"Over the years, behind the scenes mum was very vocal contributor to decisions that were being made and she was really my dad's founding board. Dad always brought his work home with him and always discussed it with my mum and she had a hand on, when brands weren't really a thing, it was my mum who made sure everything looked fantastic and I suppose the aesthetic of Williams always emanated from my mum.

"She played a really important role in the team... People still talk about her today and she really was part of the fabric of Formula One for many, many years and she hasn't been forgotten."

Part of Williams' decision to sell up was to spend more time at home with her family.

"That's working out really nice," she says. "It's lovely because I missed so much time with my little boy in the early years and now he's three, but pretty much for the last year apart from those seven races that we had, I've spent all my time with him picking up from nursery, making his supper and get him up every morning. Previously I just wasn't able to do any of that so it's lovely for me and hopefully lovely for him too." There were also plans to travel as a family, but the coronavirus pandemic put paid to that and kept those suitcases empty for a while.

"It's a split scenario for me," she adds. "I've gone from being so all consumed and having F1 encompass my life and my world that to think about a new path is quite weird. I need to decompress from my F1 life for a little bit, get over that and then see what the future holds but I'm really excited about it.

"You don't realise how all-consuming it is until you step away from it, and how tight your body is and wound up you are until you get the opportunity to really decompress from it and it's quite an insight. I miss it, and I still miss it."

Will she watch F1 when the new season starts in Bahrain on March 28?

"I don't know, I think I'll probably stay away for a little bit. Hopefully by that time I'll be travelling around the world, we shall see."