Women have a thin history in F1, but there's hope that's changing

Jamie Chadwick has won consecutive open-wheel racing championships. Yet the 23-year-old British driver has a difficult road to maneuver her way to the pinnacle of her sport, Formula One racing.

A woman hasn't started a Formula One race in 46 years, since Italy's Lella Lombardi competed in the 1976 Austrian Grand Prix, and there's no sign of that changing soon.

With only 20 drivers on the grid and 10 teams, a seat in F1 is scarce, and the likelihood of drivers making it through the echelons of feeder series Formula Three and Formula Two is narrow, requiring not just talent but millions of dollars in funding.

Susie Wolff, current CEO of Formula E team Venturi and wife of Mercedes team principal and CEO Toto Wolff, was a test driver for the Williams Formula One team for the 2015 season, and remains the last woman to be close to driving in F1.

More recently, Colombia's Tatiana Calderon made it as far as F2 -- the only woman to do so -- driving for Arden, and spent the 2019 season as a test driver for Alfa Romeo. She has since switched to IndyCar, where she is a part-time driver with A.J. Foyt Enterprises, after she could not secure an F2 seat for the following season and struggled to score points, finishing 21st in the championship.

Could Chadwick get there? Right now, she's focused on what's in front of her.

"From a sporting side, I definitely want to win that third title," she told ESPN. "But also from a wider picture, I want to prepare as best as possible for whatever the future might be. [It's] still going to be a tough ask to try to win the third title, I'm under no illusion of how competitive that will be but I think a little bit more forward-thinking this year and plan ahead more."

Chadwick, the two-time W Series defending champion, is believed to be the next hope for a woman driving in F1, with her role as development driver for Williams and her success in other series, but has yet to secure an opportunity in F3.

"The reality is Jamie is still behind the curve of similar drivers in a Formula 3 or Formula 2 environment," David Coulthard, a former F1 driver and now chairman of the W Series advisory board, told ESPN in Miami ahead of the opening race of the season. "The future is in her hands, she's won the championship twice, she's got the funding that came from that -- a million bucks in two years. If there's anyone who's good enough in W Series to make Formula 1, they have to beat Jamie as she set the benchmark.

"Jamie is a very good racing driver and she's shown that across winning various things, but let's remind ourselves if you're going to make it to the next level you have to be a Lewis, a Max, a Charles. I'm not saying they're not that but there's a lot of people who already think they're that and some of them are already in Formula One. So being good enough is one thing, but being there and having the opportunity is another."

W series, which is now in its third year, was launched by Catherine Bond Muir and Coulthard along with several investors. This year, the all-female series will run a team format with two drivers for each of nine teams. The series was set up to help raise the profile of women in racing, and provide the financial backing for women to race on the world stage for a $500,000 prize. The series will spend its third campaign on the undercard of eight F1 grands prix across the season, starting with a double-header in Miami on Saturday, perhaps giving a peek at the future of racing.

"It's nice seeing how the series has grown from its first season where it was still competitive, but there were a lot [fewer] young drivers," Chadwick said. "It was kind of top-heavy in terms of most drivers were over the age of 20, whereas now you've got 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds -- I think maybe the youngest is 17 -- all coming through and super competitive."

A lack of female drivers in F1 is nothing new, and although there's a long way to go for equality and diversity in behind-the-scenes roles for F1 and in its 10 teams, there are plenty of women in jobs that don't appear on TV race coverage or Netflix's "Drive to Survive," as ESPN reported last year. Many women are involved in Formula One, often behind the scenes as engineers, directors, in marketing and in hospitality for teams.

So why has there been such a prolonged absence of female drivers from the F1 grid?

"Numbers," Coulthard said. "For so long, it's been a purely numbers issue. If you take, let's say, 1,000 karters competing at a junior level, for so long one or two of those have been girls. When only five of those 1,000 make it to a junior racing series, and only one of those maybe makes it to Formula One, the chance of it being one of those two girls is slim. So that's why, as great as W Series has been, the real change has to be at the grassroots level.

"Opportunity is key, too. We'll never know how many women were talented enough to have a shot at Formula One but didn't have a chance to make it to F1. That's true of a lot of racing drivers in general -- the opportunity, the money, timing, it all has to play a part."

Formula One is making efforts to be more inclusive overall, with the help of campaigns such as Racing Pride and F1's "We Race As One" initiative, which was launched in 2020 with the aim of reducing inequality in the sport. Drivers Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton have used their profiles in the sport to promote change on a public level, with Vettel protesting Hungary's anti-gay laws that were passed last year, at the Hungarian Grand Prix, and Hamilton taking a knee before each race and wearing several T-shirts with slogans such as "Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor." Caitlyn Jenner, a transgender woman, became a W Series team owner this season.

"The environment [in F1] is much more female-friendly," said Chadwick, who drives for Jenner Racing. "There's a lot of cases where, I think for everybody in the sport -- naturally it's been so male-dominated -- it's so refreshing seeing more women in mechanic roles, engineer roles, all these different roles within the teams. It makes a difference in the environment, a positive experience. I'm sure a lot of men in the sport will think that as well. It's nice to have this diversity and a new face of motorsport changing in the next few years [as it reflects wider societal and equal values]. But still a long way to go, of course."

Netflix's "Drive To Survive" has opened up the sport to a wider variety of fans, which coincided with ESPN's own TV audience growing to an average of 949,000 viewers in 2021 from around 550,000 in 2018. The 2022 season opener in Bahrain drew a television audience of 1,353,000, the largest for an F1 race on any of ESPN's networks since 2018, when the sport returned to ESPN. Last year's U.S. Grand Prix in Austin, which aired on ABC, set the previous high with 1.2 million viewers.

"I think it's a domino effect," Chadwick said. "I keep saying this, but I think as soon as it starts to happen, which we're seeing with more and more women getting involved, then it's going to go quite quickly because suddenly it will become a much more diverse environment and more comfortable for women to be in.

"I think that'll make a big difference and I think the interest in the sport is there now. People used to say women aren't necessarily interested in motorsport and that's why they're not getting involved, but now I think they are. I think it's changing and that's a really good thing for the sport."

W Series also had the help of spending its first two seasons on free-to-air Channel 4 in the U.K. This year, it has signed a three-year deal with Sky Sports in the U.K., Italy and Germany, with C4 broadcasting highlight packages, while it was announced this week that the series has partnered with ESPN in the U.S.

"We always say -- if you can see it, you can be it," Bond Muir said. "The visibility for W Series has been amazing. Over the past few years we've seen more people watching women's sports and that has been huge for us. People forget we're only in our third year. We can't completely change things overnight. But girls seeing W Series on TV, and so closely linked to Formula One, should help them see there is a pathway for them. And it doesn't just have to be about driving, we want more women in STEM jobs and this hopefully turns more people towards that path."

Exposure can only help W Series, but the biggest obstacle to putting a woman into an F1 seat -- money -- remains. All drivers, no matter their gender, need an exorbitant amount of funding to make it to F3 and F2, let alone F1. The sport remains exclusive to those who can afford the price tag.

F1 teams have a budget cap of $140 million in 2022 in an effort to level the playing field on spending. By contrast, Mercedes spent $442 million in 2019.

Some drivers, such as Lance Stroll and Nikita Mazepin, are backed by their wealthy families. Billionaire Lawrence Stroll, Lance's father, bought the Aston Martin team. Russian driver Mazepin was recently ousted from Haas amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine because of his oligarch father's links to Vladimir Putin. But many drivers have financial backing from a variety of sponsors, which can be difficult to secure.

The difficulty in securing funding has long been an issue for women hoping to break into the sport. Alice Powell and Abbie Eaton saw their careers hampered by the struggle to get sponsorship, and they took sideways career moves before W Series. Powell was the first woman to win a Formula Renault championship and in 2012 became the first woman to score points in the GP3 Series, yet she couldn't secure sponsors. Eaton became a stunt driver on the Amazon Prime car series "The Grand Tour."

Aside from securing a drive, some experienced drivers have had alternative opportunities that weren't previously available to them. Powell, Naomi Schiff and Chadwick have been regular pundits for F1's broadcast coverage this season, a change from the long-standing predominantly male TV figures.

W Series is the only racing series in which drivers do not have to pay to enter. That opened the door for Chloe Chambers, Chadwick's 17-year-old teammate with Jenner Racing and the only American driver in W Series.

"My dad and I had made a plan in 2018 when W Series was announced that basically, he could fund my first year in cars and just hopefully that'll give me enough traction to get noticed by W Series, get invited to a tryout and then get into the series," Chambers said. "That was our plan all along and we did end up pulling it off."

Chadwick has received a lot of exposure by virtue of her two W Series championships and drives in other race series such as Extreme E, but she has yet to reach the next level. Exposure and winning does not automatically equate to funding.

"I think it happens a lot in motorsport, in levels equivalent to W Series, drivers that have won and then not been able to progress up through the ranks," Chadwick said. "From my side, I think it's still the goal, even a year later than I'd like. I can't be more grateful to W Series for giving me this third opportunity to keep working toward that.

"Definitely, I think times are changing. If you look at women's sport in general, in football [soccer] where some of the big sponsors have been getting involved with that, I think it's only a matter of time."

Motor racing is one of few sports where men and women can compete head to head, as long as the financing and opportunities are available. Chadwick said overcoming the challenges facing women in open-wheel racing starts with those opportunities.

"I think firstly, straight out of W Series the opportunity to be in a competitive environment and to be prepared enough, and be in a competitive environment in F3 or F2, is important," she said. "And then, understanding the challenges of F3 and F2 ... because in my opinion, there must be a reason no woman has been successful in those two championships. ...

"We'll only understand that once we get more women in there and in that environment."

Chadwick said she hopes there will be a woman on the grid in F1 within the next five to 10 years: "I definitely think there's a whole crop of young talent coming through that, if a pathway is paved a bit more for them and they know what route to take, I strongly believe it'll be possible."

Additional reporting by Bethan Clargo and Nate Saunders.