Formula 1 embraces equity in motorsport through an all-women racing championship
Motorsport is one of the few sports where, in theory, men and women can compete equally. However, since Formula One (F1) began in 1950, only two women have raced in the championship - Maria Teresa de Filippis and Lella Lombardi.
The first woman ever to compete in Formula One, Maria Teresa de Filippise Filippis raced in five grands prix in 1958 and 1959. Born in Naples, she began racing at the age of 22 following two of her brothers saying she couldn’t drive fast. Maria won her first race on the Amalfi coast in a Fiat 500, and made it all the way to F1. In 2006, she said: “The only time I was prevented from racing was at the French Grand Prix. The race director said: 'The only helmet a woman should wear is the one at the hairdresser's.' Apart from that I don't think I encountered any prejudice - only surprise at my success.”
To date, Lella Lombardi is the only female driver to score points in Formula One, finishing sixth at the Spanish Grand Prix in 1975. Lella started her career as a delivery driver for the family business in Italy. She entered 17 F1 races, competing in 12. Her participation in the 1976 Austrian Grand Prix was the last time a woman competed in F1.
Building a more diverse and inclusive sport
There are no rules preventing women from competing against men, but the cycle of lack of sponsorship and representation is often cited as a barrier for female participation in motor sports. With far fewer women stars than men at the top-level, sponsors have been wary about risking investment in bringing new talent through an F3 season, let alone the higher profile F1. Yet, following the launch of F1's Diversity & Inclusion Strategy in 2019, the organization committed to building a more diverse and inclusive sport, breaking down stereotypes associated with a career in motor sports, and encouraging people from all backgrounds to get involved.
Now, F1 has created the F1 Academy, a pioneering initiative that aims to address the lack of women drivers in motor racing and help build a pathway for a woman to reach F1. Created in early 2023, the F1 Academy is designed to develop and prepare female drivers to progress to higher levels of motorsport competition. Watch here.
Supporting women drivers to reach highest championship levels
F1 Academy is an entry-level, single-seater racing championship for women drivers taking their first steps in motorsport.
F1 Academy saw its inaugural season in 2023 where 15 women competed across five teams in a total of 21 races, using the same cars as currently compete in Formula 4. The first race took place in Austria, with further races held in Spain, Netherlands, Italy and France. The season finale was held in the USA alongside Formula 1's weekend in Austin, Texas.
“Everyone should have the opportunity to follow their dreams and achieve their potential and Formula 1 wants to ensure we are doing everything we can to create greater diversity and routes into this incredible sport. We are committed to maximising the opportunities in our sport for anyone to reach their true potential and achieve their dreams, and we believe F1 Academy is a very important part of our plans to be a more diverse and inclusive sport," said Formula 1 President and CEO Stefano Domenicali.
"Over the past few years, we have been making strong progress on these important issues within our own business and across the sport. [The F1 Academy] is a very important commitment that will ensure young female drivers get the very best opportunity to begin their professional motorsport career and climb the ladder to the top by developing their skills and experience in the right way and with the right level support."
Addressing barriers to women's participation in motorsport
The F1 Academy addresses some of the key barriers to participation for women in motorsport. Acknowledging funding issues, the F1 Academy is financially backed by Formula One Management, the same company that runs the F1 world championship. The Academy also provides a €150,000 subsidy for each car, while the drivers cover the same amount of costs – a fraction of the usual costs in comparable series – with the teams covering the rest of the budget.
It is said that young female drivers lack the same amount of experience as male counterparts at the same age. As such, F1 Academy aims to provide young talent currently in go-karting or other junior categories with access to the fundamental level of experience needed before going racing in F3 and joining the pyramid to F1. This experience includes more track time, racing and testing. The racers also work with professional teams renowned in motorsport for nurturing young drivers, and who help them develop crucial technical, physical, and mental preparation skills needed for elite competition.
“Diversity is extremely important in motorsport, and with the F1 Academy we will prove that female drivers have what it takes to compete at high levels. I am absolutely convinced that if young women are given the same amount of experience as any other driver, they can successfully make their way through the pyramid," explained Manager of the F1 Academy, Bruno Michel. “Our goal is to see female drivers on the F3 grid in the next two to three years, and for them to quickly challenge for points and podiums. The aim is to increase the field in the near future, because we hope that this category will inspire more young girls to compete in motorsport at the highest of levels."
Inspiring girls to be included in motorsport
A role model for women in motorsport sits at the helm of the F1 Academy. Managing Director Susie Wolff [pictured above] describes the Academy as a "landmark moment" that "not only demonstrates the depth of support for F1 Academy from across the F1 community but will inspire a whole generation of young girls to realise the opportunities both on and off track in motorsport."
Susie has a wealth of motorsport experience, both as a driver and team leader, from her previous driver development role with Williams that included several F1 free practice outings, to racing in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM), and leading the Venturi Formula E squad as Team Principal. Leading the F1 Academy combines Susie's experience in the sport with her passion for diversity and empowerment: in 2016, Susie launched non-profit Dare To Be Different, a call-to-action aimed at driving female talent by inspiring the next generation and increasing female participation in all levels and aspects of the sport.
“The F1 Academy presents an opportunity to promote genuine change in our industry by creating the best possible structure to find and nurture female talent on their journey to the elite levels of motorsport, both on and off the racetrack. There is a lot of work to be done, but there is also a clear determination to get this right. In doing so, I believe the F1 Academy can represent something beyond racing. It can inspire women around the world to follow their dreams and realise that with talent, passion and determination, there is no limit to what they can achieve. This is also the start of an important new chapter in my career, combining the experience I have developed so far with my passion for diversity and empowerment, so I would like to thank Stefano for entrusting me with a role that means as much to me personally as it does professionally," explains Susie.
Speaking in an interview with The Financial Times, Susie further explains the purpose and the potential impact of the F1 Acaemy.
"The aim of the F1 Academy is to help these young drivers be the best racing drivers they can be to go onto further progression in the sport. Motorsports is one of the three sports in the world that isn't segregated, alongside sailing and horse riding. F1 is to an extent very male dominated, but the sport is changing. The fastest growing demographic in this new fan base is a young female audience, so we want to make sure we're capitalizing on that and show that our sport has opportunities for women," says Susie.
"The finances have always been an issue. That is the nature of our sport. You need a team, and you need a car, and that obviously has implications financially. With the F1 Academy we're giving the driver huge financial aid to make sure that the drivers are getting enough track time and are getting all the possibilities to try and progress in the sport," comments Susie.
"Recently we've seen a slight increase in the participation of women in motorsport, and that's because society is changing. There's more of a belief that there are opportunities there. What I do think is missing is that accessibility to the sport, and that's where I think F1 Academy can play a big role. We can inspire. We can create global awareness for all of those young girls that are currently racing in karting. We want to be the bridge into single seaters. We want to nuture and develop the talent," adds Susie.
Watch the full video to hear more from Susie as well as racing team representatives and drivers hoping to make breakthroughs on the circuit.
Now, let's meet some of the rising stars who race to win both for themselves, and for future generations of talented women.
Meet Marta García, PREMA Racing
Marta García won the inaugural F1 Academy title after taking a thrilling victory in Race 1 at the Circuit of The Americas.
"When I won, when I crossed past the chequered flag, I didn’t really feel it, I don’t know why! But after that, during all the lap, I started even being a bit emotional, and then [thinking of] everything, like all of the hard work we’ve been doing this year with the team, all of the hard work during all of the years. It’s great to obviously win the championship, being the first champion of F1 Academy as well, it feels amazing," said Marta.
Marta began her career in karts and took titles including the CIK-FIA Karting Academy Trophy and the Trofeo delle Industrie, both coming in 2015. From there, the Spaniard graduated to car racing in Spanish F4 in 2016 and was a regular points scorer in the series.
Meet Nerea Martí, Campos Racing
Nerea Martí Campos Racing’s Nerea Marti finished second in F1 Academy's final race.
Starting her karting career at 9, Nerea stepped up to Spanish F4 in 2019, scoring a podium in her debut race with P2. She then switched to W Series in 2021, finishing the season fourth in the Drivers’ Standings as the best-placed rookie and with points in every race that year. The Spaniard’s second season included a maiden pole position in Miami, and she eventually ended the campaign seventh.
"The F1 Academy provides an excellent new opportunity to continue taking steps forward in my racing career and I have no doubts that together I and Campos Racing will manage to meet all our goals," said Nerea.
Meet Abi Pulling, Rodin Carlin
19-year-old Abbi Pulling from Lincolnshire, UK, is already been making waves in British Formula 4 as well as the all-female W Series.
Alpine Academy member in 2023, Abbi Pulling has achieved podium finishes in every Championship she has raced in so far. Seven podiums in British F4 between 2020 and 2021 was followed up by campaigns in W Series, where she finished the 2022 season 4th in the standings.
"I've been involved in motorsports since I was eight years old and the price just goes up and up the further you go. So it ends up making it quite hard to actually end up affording [to go] up and ends up being more money driven than talent driven. I think it's something that needs to be addressed and it is being addressed. [The F1 Academy] is providing opportunities to women that couldn't afford going into the championships," says Abi.
Meet Chloe Chong, PREMA Racing
After three years of competing in karts in the UK, Chloe Chong stepped up to car racing in 2023 with PREMA Racing in F1 Academy. A finalist of the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission’s Girls on Track Rising Stars scheme, Chong impressed the Ferrari Driver Academy during the Italian programme’s scouting in 2021.
For Chloe, the F1 Academy is a "massive step forward" for women.
Chloe competed in the season finale of the F1 Academy, sharing the race weekend with her hero Sir Lewis Hamilton, an F1 icon who has won a joint-record seven World Drivers' Championship titles.
"Lewis has done an amazing job, being able to inspire so many people. And I think that really drives me to keep pushing as hard as I can. I'm really grateful for everything he's done not only to help women in F1, but also to help diverse ethnicities come into sports in general," explained Chloe.
Meet Jessica Edgar, Rodin Carlin
Jessica Edgar was one of the first drivers to be signed up for the F1 Academy, and won the final race of the championship in Texas, finishing eighth overall.
"As soon as I heard about the series, the backing of Formula 1 and the teams and people involved, I was extremely keen to be part of this first historic season. It's not just about being fast. It's about being consistent and making the right strategic decisions," commented Jessica.
"F1 Academy have given me an amazing opportunity and to win in the last round while we are with F1 is an amazing feeling."
Jessica is the cousin of racing driver Jonny Edgar, part of the fourth generation of Edgars to practice motor racing.
Having raced in karts since 2010, Jessica stepped up to GB4 in 2022 for her first full season of single-seater racing. She finished the season seventh overall, scoring points in every single round and achieving a best finish of second at Oulton Park.
"There were definitely times when I felt like an outsider in the racing world, but I used that as fuel to prove myself. I think it's important for young girls to see that anything is possible if you work hard and believe in yourself," added Jessica.
Meet Emely De Heus, MP Motorsport
Starting in karts in 2019, Emily de Heus claimed the Dutch Wintercup Senior series title and finished fourth in the National Championship in 2020 before moving up to single seaters.
A campaign in Spanish F4 in 2021 was followed up by a switch to W Series and points on debut in Miami. In 2023, Emily raced in the UAE Formula 4 Championship with MP Motorsport.
Meet Chloe Grant, ART Grand Prix
Beginning her career in karts in Scotland, Chloe Grant made her car racing debut in 2021, ending the Junior Saloon Car Championship in 14th. Moving to single seaters in 2022, Grant finished the GB4 campaign ninth. Chloe also competed in the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission’s Girls on Track Rising Stars initiative, making the final four in the selection process.
“The F1 Academy presents an opportunity to us female drivers that we haven't seen before, and I know we have a competitive inaugural grid," said Chloe.
Meet Bianca Bustamante, PREMA Racing
Having competed in karting since the age of 5, Bianca Bustamante made the step up to racing in single seaters in 2022. The 18-year-old drove her maiden campaign in W Series in 2022. Bianca has been competing in UAE Formula 4 in 2023 with PREMA Racing, so far achieving two top 10 finishes across the series. Bianca raced as a development driver in the F1 Academy this season with the Italian team.
Fresh from joining the McLaren Driver Development program, Bianca explains how she got into racing and what she looks forward to in the future.
Bianca was "speechless" after she was signed as a development driver, which felt like a "dream".
"Being this young girl in the Philippines, I was dreaming to be one day in this you know space and to actually be signed as a development driver. It is such an honor and true pride. I've grown up watching F1 and its one of the things that has inspired me the most. It allowed me to believe and to dream, and to put in the effort to make those dreams a reality," says Bianca.
"Racing is one of those sports that just captivates you way. It's the emotion, it's the passion, it's the history. I remember getting in my first ever car at the age of three. All I could think about was the adrenalin that I felt and how happy I was. The feeling of driving fast and just letting yourself be one with a car is incomparable," continues Bianca.
"I think everyone from Asia can resonate with me when I say how difficult it is to actually break through in this scene because of the lack of opportunities. In the Philippines, we didn't have a track. We didn't have the cars. My dad is an overseas Filipino worker, so he works in America as a construction worker. I still work 7 days a week to give money back home to the Philippines. I remember calling him, and it was just like a very emotional moment. It made me realize that I won, but it's not my win, it's more of my parents' win," explains Bianca.
"The fact that I'm here kind of breaks all the barriers. It breaks all the idealism that we have that racing is for people with money that racing is for the wealthy. I came from nowhere and I guess that says a lot. Being 18 and one of the youngest drivers in the grid, I'm competing with drivers that are way ahead of me in years and in experience. I always have to think of it in a very positive way. I get to learn from them, and I think that's really what F1 Academy has given me. I'm one of the fastest drivers in the grid. I know that with all these amazing people I'm able to just unlock a better driver within myself," adds Bianca.
A promising future for female racing talent
These women and F1 Academy share a promising future in motorsport.
Since the closing of its inaugural season, the F1 Academy has announced a collaboration with acclaimed international karting series Champions of the Future to support the launch of a new junior series, Champions of the Future Academy Program. This new global series aims to increase female participation and inclusion in national and international karting competitions by breaking down the barriers to entry.
The F1 Academy has also issued its 2024 calendar, which cements its ambition to become a truly global series, expanding its reach and improving visibility for its mission.
The campaign will open in Saudi Arabia across the 7-9 March weekend before moving to Miami, Barcelona, Zandvoort, Marina Bay in Singapore, and then Qatar. The F1 Academy will share its season finale with F1, with both championships coming to an end in Abu Dhabi.
“We want to inspire young girls and women across the globe and show them that there’s a place for them in our sport, and racing alongside F1 will help us achieve this," said Susie Wolff.
The calendar has been designed to span three continents – Europe, Asia and North America – and will feature a mix of street circuits and traditional circuits, with the racing to be supplemented by an extensive official testing calendar that will be announced in due course. The F1 Academy will also be supported by all 10 F1 teams, who will each provide a driver to the series and have their livery on one car.
F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali said: “It is fantastic to welcome F1 Academy onto seven rounds of the F1 calendar. This global platform, combined with the support of all 10 F1 teams, will take the series to the next level, providing not only the opportunity for the drivers to develop their skills on F1 tracks, but to inspire young girls around the world to pursue a future in motorsport."