Nicole Sievers’ boyfriend got her hooked on Formula 1. Well, ex-boyfriend now. After inducting her into the cult of motorsports—with its high-stakes race adrenaline and drivers both deliciously petty and thirst-inspiring—he dumped Sievers in the middle of a romantic vacation to Monza, the night before the 2019 Italian Grand Prix. Together, they watched Mercedes’ golden boy Lewis Hamilton and Red Bull’s bulldog Max Verstappen whiz by from the stands. Sievers, heartbroken, cried through the entire race.
Back home, Sievers’ best friend Kate Lizotte pitched her an idea to help ease the pain: Let’s make F1 our thing. Their resulting fan community, Two Girls 1 Formula, is now 28,000 “girls, gays, and theys (and cool dudes)” strong, all of whom follow Sievers and Lizotte as they prep themed menus for race weekends (like kaasbroodjes for the Dutch Grand Prix), print “Ricciardhoe” crop tops, and drum up support for their petition demanding Ferrari stop making its underdog Carlos Sainz “look ugly.”
F1’s women fanbase exploded in recent years, many coming by way of Netflix’s surprise hit show Drive to Survive, which served as a crash course in a sport historically marketed to European yacht owners and geriatric Rolex wearers. (Young audiences are making up a larger-than-ever portion of viewership, too.) But when fans like Sievers and Lizotte stuck around, they began to notice cracks in the paint job. The women’s merchandise offerings were overpriced or unwearable; a recent Grand Prix was a breeding ground for sexual harassment and racial slurs; and, most glaringly, there wasn’t a single woman driver on the F1 grid.
Then, during a press conference for the Austin Grand Prix last month, Hamilton made sure motorsports at large couldn’t miss the cracks: “There has not been enough focus on women in sport for the whole of Formula 1’s life, and there is not enough emphasis on it now,” he said. “I think we need to be doing more.” This declaration from F1’s star and only Black driver all but negated the series’ insistence that getting women into the sport was a “priority.”
For years, those in the paddocks, on the track, and watching from the stands have wondered why F1 wasn’t “doing more.” According to 20 drivers, consultants, and experts from across motorsports who spoke with Jezebel, the answer is that F1's archaic and largely unexamined bedrock of masculinity has not and likely will never allow women to thrive. More bluntly, if a woman were to succeed in cracking the grid, what would that say about all those brave and daring men?
Women in Motorsports Face Sexism On and Off the Track
In F1, there are no rules barring women or people of other genders from competing against the mostly white, mostly wealthy male drivers. With vehicles as the great equalizer—making null most arguments claiming “physical differences”—the F1 playing field should, in theory, be even. While there are plenty of women drivers peppered throughout motorsports, it’s been 45 years since the last woman, Italian driver Lella Lombardi, raced in an F1 Grand Prix. The W Series, an all-women racing series that is unaffiliated with F1 but overseen by the same governing body, the FIA, had hoped to springboard drivers into Formula racing but will not finish its 2022 season due to lack of funding. As F1’s own CEO Stefano Domenicali said in September, “Unless there is something like a meteorite, I don’t see a girl coming into F1 in the next five years.”
Even the launch of F1’s very own all-women racing series, which it hastily announced the day after Hamilton’s comments, only further highlights how urgently the sport’s culture needs an overhaul: Women in highly visible leadership roles off track are few and far between, all while women drivers are still struggling to grab the attention of sponsors and race directors before the churn-and-burn Formula machine deems them too old to be legitimate F1 contenders.
“We’ve got all of these women coming into our industry, but why are we not keeping them?” said F1 pundit and motorsports marketing consultant Toni Cowan-Brown. “Because they’re treating them like shit once they’re here.”
(F1 and FIA did not respond to Jezebel’s request for comment)
It starts when they’re kids. Sabré Cook, the only American driver to be selected for the 2021 W Series, and an engineer who worked for Renault’s F1 team, was a preteen when she started karting—the entry level of racing for little ones, and the first rung in the “ladder” leading to F1. Several times, she stood triumphantly on top of the winner’s podium with boys flanking her in second and third place. “All I remember thinking is the two boys on the podium with me absolutely hated me,” she said. “When you’re the only girl at a race track, most of the time you’re left out. You grow up in an environment where, as a woman, you always feel this resistance just because you’re competitive.”
Charlie Martin, the first out trans driver in the history of motorsports, told Jezebel that same sense of isolation, along with outsized expectations, typically follows women drivers through their careers. “I’ve certainly found myself in situations over the years where I’ve joined a new team as the only female, and I felt quite conspicuous and much more under scrutiny,” she said. “There is a feeling that I need to prove myself in that environment more than would be expected coming into it as a cisgender heteronormative male.”
Upon joining the sport, driver and team founder Samantha Tan found that women drivers who rejected their outward femininity, unlike Tan with her acrylic nails and falsies, were more quickly embraced. “It’s almost like if you wear makeup, if you like clothes, if you like posing with cars, you automatically get invalidated,” she said. “You’re not judged based on your skills.” When she attends driver autograph sessions wearing a race suit, fans regularly question if she’s actually one of the drivers, and she’s repeatedly been asked why women drivers are “generally slower.” British driver Pippa Mann, who has raced in the Indy 500 seven times, said she often fields sexist comments on social media like, “If you woz good enuff you would have won innit?” or is accused of playing “the girl card” for speaking up for gender equality and competing in a pink helmet. At a W Series event during the Miami Grand Prix this year, Cowan-Brown was asked, “Which man brought you here tonight?” Both Tan and Mann mentioned that several people assumed that they’d been sleeping their way up the ladder.
(When Jezebel asked every F1 team if their employees, including drivers, were required to take sexual harrassment trainings, Williams said a training is included in all new employees’ onboarding, and Alpine said it runs a “Zero Discrimination campaign” for all employees. McLaren declined to comment. The remainder of the teams did not respond.)
At least F1 has improved significantly from a corporate environment that once functioned like “one long bachelor party,” said veteran motorsport marketing expert and Driven by Diversity founder Lindsay Orridge. Still, she said she keeps a mental list of people to avoid in the paddock, which she passes down to incoming women employees. She is also part of a “Women in Motorsport” WhatsApp group—all of roughly 60 members strong.
Remnants of this culture prevail, in part, because many of the male drivers are privileged beyond belief. McLaren driver Daniel Ricciardo, for example, was asked about Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations at its first-ever Grand Prix last year, and responded that he “didn’t watch the news.” When a reporter asked current Red Bull driver Sergio Pérez in 2014 what he thought about potentially racing alongside a woman, he responded that women were “better to stay in the kitchen.” (He later apologized.) The following year, Verstappen said women drivers “lack something when it comes to physical strength” and are “perhaps…more easily afraid in a racing car.” F1’s then-CEO Bernie Ecclestone agreed in 2016 that women are “not physically” able to handle fast cars and said they would “not be taken seriously” in F1. Just this year, Alpine’s Fernando Alonso told The Race that F1’s new fans “don’t understand much about car performance.”
The men are sitting pretty in the drivers’ seats with their massive contracts and luxury lifestyles, and most are getting away with vaguely positive comments about women in motorsport. (Hamilton and Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel are exceptions.) According to Dr. David Ferguson, an exercise physiologist at Michigan State University who specializes in motorsport studies, that bland allyship is telling of how male drivers might feel about competing against women. “The stereotype is that women cannot be racecar drivers, right?” he said. “So, ‘a woman just beat me, but I dedicated 10 years and all this money. Is my life a failure? If women can’t be racecar drivers, but one beats me, what does that say about me as a racecar driver?’ I think that’s how it unfolds and manifests.”
As Cook put it, “It would be nice if you weren’t hated just because of your gender.”
Women Drivers Don’t Get Enough Sponsorship Money or Specialized Gear
F1 consists of 10 teams—Red Bull, Ferrari, and Mercedes generally sit at the top of the leader board—each of which typically recruits its two drivers from the motorsports “ladder.” As early as 5 years old, aspiring racers begin karting, which can run a hefty price tag of more than $100,000 per year. After aging up and competing in local or regional series, young drivers eventually make their (costly) way through multiple rungs of junior and “feeder” series like Formula 2 or Formula 3, similar to baseball’s minor leagues, before reaching the top rung: Formula 1. Of the 20 drivers on the grid in 2022, more than half secured their seats in F1 after competing in F2 or F3. While other series like IndyCar and NASCAR boast popularity stateside, only F1 has the killer combination of prestige, history, and now, international hype. It is also uniquely inept at keeping women within its ranks.
“There continue to be questions as to why women are not ascending to the highest levels of open wheel racing in Europe,” Mann said. “The answer lies in two things: attitude and money.”
Once in F1, the average driver is expected to bring in millions in sponsorships per year to help cover the exorbitant cost of running a team across 22 races. (Mercedes spent $442 million during its 2019 season, before budget caps were introduced.) If a driver has sizable, personally secured sponsorships, their chances of getting picked up by a team are far better, granting those with moneyed familial backing, racing lineage, or political ties a technically above-the-board way to cut the line. It also grants wealthy benefactors and corporate sponsors an absurd amount of power in deciding who is (or isn’t) worthy of funding.
“Our sport runs on so much money,” said Beth Paretta, the team principal and CEO of racing team Paretta Autosport. “Literally I’m raising money to be able to pay my tire bill, if you want to be granular about it. And I need a lot of tires.”
That sort of sponsorship money is notoriously hard to come by, and even more so for women drivers, according to Tami Powers, founder of PowerDrive Motorsport Futures, which aims to connect brands with women drivers. Sponsors are rarely willing to bet on women, she says, since their path to F1 is so twisted. Even when women make significant progress in feeder series, due to a systemic lack of opportunities, they wind up finishing behind male competitors who have more experience, which deters sponsors from renewing their contracts. Some in the industry might argue that the stunning success of GoDaddy’s partnership with NASCAR driver Danica Patrick proves otherwise, but GoDaddy went “out on a ledge” with her, said Powers. Aside from the fact that Patrick was highly sexualized in ad content—the “GoDaddy Girl” was shot unzipping her racing suit and promoting hypothetical lingerie businesses—GoDaddy’s support checked the woman box for the entire industry. This, Powers said, made it less urgent for other companies to replicate the same sort of commitment in other series, including F1.
Amna Al Qubaisi, a driver who’s tested for W Series and Formula E, told Jezebel she feels she’s often used by brands to check a box, too—this one for POC drivers. Advertisers might offer her a paycheck to post a photo wearing a luxury watch or expensive jewelry, but sponsored posts won’t pay the bills. Like most of the women drivers Jezebel spoke to, Al Qubaisi was also heavily involved in the labor of pitching herself to marketing executives, pitting her against other women drivers for one spot and a cut of the already-limited sponsorship money doled out to women in all sports combined. “Sometimes, the answers are not what I like. Sometimes, it’s just, ‘Oh, we want to do a luxury lifestyle collaboration. We’re not interested in investing,’” she said.
As one of the only women drivers from the Middle East, Al Qubaisi repeatedly comes up against an unexpected prejudice: the assumption that she comes from money and doesn’t need funding. Though she does come from a motorsport family, it’s “normal” for brands to assume a male driver’s family is investing in him and still cough up funds, she said. But if a woman is perceived as having family backing, it gives brands an excuse not to sponsor her—as if they “shouldn’t waste money.”
Even if they have some money to work with, the motorsport pipeline finds other obstacles. Reigning W Series champion Jamie Chadwick told Jezebel ill-fitting race suits and her inability to reach the car pedals were “two quite big ones” throughout her racing career. Many women in motorsports are driving in race suits that were designed for men, according to Cowan-Brown, leaving them too wide around the waist and too tight around the hips. While the men in the F1 paddock have access to “the F1 Tailor,” whose job is to ensure everything from the stitching to the fit of the gloves is perfect, Cowan-Brown said most women drivers have no such thing. F1 and W Series sponsor Puma designed its first-ever racing suit for women in 2021. Then, there are the cars, which have historically been manufactured with a man’s needs in mind; the pedals are often too far away for some women drivers, and the feedback the engineers and mechanics receive to make improvements to the cars pulls largely from a century of input from male drivers.
At present, there’s only one woman driver occupying a seat in F1’s top feeder series: Tatiana Calderón, who became the first woman to ever race in F2. Calderón remembers giving ample feedback to engineers on her F2 team, BWT Arden, in 2019 regarding everything from grips on the steering wheel to decreasing the tire weight, both of which would have made the car more manageable for a person of smaller stature to maneuver. Her feedback was not prioritized, she said. (Arden did not respond to Jezebel’s request for comment.) All elite athletes go through extensive physical training, but with the car working against her, Calderón had to spend much of her training time bulking up her neck by 3.5 inches in circumference just to be competitive with her male counterparts. She still wasn’t able to score a single point that year.
“I had to modify a lot of things so that I could push the car to the limit, and I just felt the environment was not ready to make those changes for me,” she said. “It doesn’t help that most teams don’t see you as a winning horse.”
Calderón lost her funding at the end of the 2019 season—she told Jezebel you need upwards of $2 million in sponsorships to secure and maintain a seat in F2—and dropped out of the ladder. At the time, she had been a test driver for F1 team Alfa Romeo and had the opportunity to work closely with its engineers, who she called “family.” But when she found herself flailing for a seat, she said those engineers had “no say” in the sort of decisions that might’ve shielded her from the sport’s precarity. The only reason she found herself in F2 again this year was because Charouz Racing System terminated one of its drivers mid-season and offered Calderón a spot back on the grid last-minute, made possible by sponsors Calderón and her sister/manager Paula Calderón cobbled together.
Paula recognizes that the stars had to align (literally—one of Calderón’s new benefactors is pop star Karol G) in order for this seat to open up. After all, she said, in an environment where selecting a woman driver is often deemed “too risky,” teams have to be open to putting a woman in a highly coveted seat in the first place. Few, it seems, are.
The Problem With the W Series and F1’s All-Women Series
Typically, when reporters question why there are so few women in contention for a spot in F1, teams will insist that it’s a numbers game: There just aren’t enough girls coming through karting, fewer survive the physically intense path through the feeder series, and even for men, the odds of making it to F1 are incredibly slim. That’s a partially true but skewed explanation. In karting, Ferguson said, the field starts out at 50/50, boys and girls. As age progresses, the ratio becomes about 12:1. If there are only 20 seats in any given series, of course, it’s a numbers game. But girls start dropping out of racing around the time puberty hits, whether due to changes in their bodies, lack of support, or societal pressure to participate in sports more blatantly coded as feminine. As for the excuse that women aren’t strong enough to race, Ferguson’s 2019 study, though limited in sample size, refuted that argument. “The bottom line story of it was if males and females trained, prepared, had seat time, there’s really no biological difference between them to drive the car,” he said.
In 2018, the W Series was funded (without the help of F1) into existence as a salve for motorsport’s abysmal gender diversity record. The intention was to give 20 hand-selected women drivers track time and air time, propelling the best into the feeder series from which F1 teams pluck their drivers. Even better, it promised to snuff out wealth inequality: Each driver on the grid would race in the same car from an engineering perspective, and would not be required to bring sponsorship dollars to the table to obtain a seat. The only problem? Chadwick has won the W Series championship and its $500,000 prize money three years in a row, and still hasn’t been able to secure a seat on the grid in F2 or F3. And while fans have rejoiced at the news that Chadwick is trying out an Indy Lights car—a feeder series into IndyCar—that technically means the W Series is failing to deliver on its lofty goal of launching women into F1.
Like many women in the industry, Cowan-Brown believes the W Series is an imperfect solution—a “beautiful cocoon,” as she said—mainly because it removes women from the Formula ladder without paving any formal relationships to allow them back in. F1 recently tweeted a photo of Chadwick in the Williams garage (she’s currently a development driver for the Williams F1 team) and tagged the W Series during a race weekend. But a supportive tweet won’t get women drivers what they really need: a seat. “I like to ask people, ‘Are you being an ally in ways that are disruptive, that is changing the system?’” Dr. Jill Kochanek, who directs the athletic leadership master’s program at Springfield College, said. “Allyship hurts because you’re giving up things. If it doesn’t, that is usually an indication that the allyship is performative.”
Chadwick seems to have been thrust into the position of Woman Hopeful simply because of how good she is on track. “You’ve put her—and all the other women—in a position where you’re looking for ‘the one.’ The one female driver that will or might be good enough,” Mann said. “This narrative has so many problems in and of itself, and speaks to the latent misogyny involved in so many ways.”
In 2021, Kochanek conducted a study that found dominant, mostly misogynistic social attitudes upheld by the motorsports industry deprive women drivers of the privilege of focusing solely on racing. With the mounting pressure to serve as spokesperson for the interests of all non-male drivers and contend with the public’s interest in watching them fail, Kochanek told Jezebel it’s nearly impossible for women to “just compete” without internalizing the negativity and sexism around them, even if subconsciously.
Ironically, Chadwick has made clear that she never really wanted to become an activist in the sport. Then again, she’s the W Series’ preferred mouthpiece because of how generally unproblematic she is in interviews. (“The reality is we do need to see a female fully successful in Formula 1 to give people an achievable target, but then the reality is, unfortunately, we’ve not seen, particularly in modern times, any successful woman racing in Formula 1,” she told Jezebel.) She’s also on the Jenner Racing team, which is run by Caitlyn Jenner—a perilous position to be in. Lily Herman, the journalist behind F1 culture newsletter Engine Failure, believes Chadwick shouldn’t be at fault for the corner she’s been forced into. “If it wasn’t for all these other morally and ethically gray men, rich men in particular, [Chadwick] wouldn’t have to lean on this morally and ethically gray trans woman,” she said.
The reality is that a relatively new series and its drivers shouldn’t be tasked with fixing an entire industry’s failings. That’s up to F1 and the FIA—both of which now appear to be hanging their hat on the existence of their new all-women series, with anonymous sources confirming its existence to ESPN shortly after Hamilton called out F1 for not supporting women drivers and “particularly the W Series.” The unnamed series will reportedly provide around 15 seats for drivers between the ages of 16 and 22 that ideally feed into F3, F2, and eventually F1. It is set to kick off with the 2023 season.
“I am not super confident that this series is actually necessarily a real thing,” motorsports journalist Elizabeth Blackstock of Jalopnik told Jezebel (both sites are owned by G/O Media). “It feels like it was haphazardly introduced as a way to smooth over valid criticisms about the way F1 and motorsport in general approaches the entire concept of women in racing. I hope it’s legitimate, because it would be amazing to have a way for young women and girls to compete within the F1 spotlight, but I have literally zero faith that it’s going to, one, be ready in time for 2023, or two, evolve beyond anything but a talking point.”
Despite filling a nearly identical need to the W Series, F1 sources also said the new all-women series will not be affiliated with the W Series, and one source “insisted” the two series will “exist alongside” each other, reported The Times. This coexistence will be difficult, since both F1 and the FIA appear uninterested in financially salvaging the failing W Series. (“There was never any deal that [F1] would come and bail us out,” W Series CEO Catherine Bond Muir said in September.) Instead, while F1 and the FIA pool their resources into a new series, 20 talented women drivers are abandoned: Many W Series drivers have reportedly already been counted out due to a “feeling” in F1 that they are getting “too old” to make it into any Formula series, according to ESPN.
“It all feels rushed, which pisses me off because it means it’s not set up for success again,” Cowan-Brown said. She’s thrilled that F1 seems to be listening to demands for more opportunities for women, to some degree. “But the bar is really fucking low. At this point, the bar’s on the ground.”
F1’s Attempts to Address Gender Inequality Are Failing
After World War II, men were bored. Perhaps they had flown planes or fought on the frontlines. Once home, they craved the rush of combat. So, they began taking over abandoned airfields in Europe, and what started as a hobby for amateurs quickly turned into a capitalistic venture: motorsports. Masculinity, militarism, and the idea of men saving the day are all but baked into the sport.
Women were once banned from competing in motorsport, and as recently as the 1970s, they were not allowed in garage areas or pit lanes, Blackstock said. Nearly 50 years ago, Janet Guthrie, the first woman to compete in the Indy 500, raced while fans in the stands held signs that read “GET THE TITS OUT OF THE PITS.” To make up for it, most teams have made public hiring goals to increase staff diversity, and eventually, some number of years from now, get a woman into a Grand Prix. Of F1’s campaign to address, in part, racial disparity, Magnus Greaves, the founder of RACEWKND and one of the few Black people who work in the sport, said, “They’ve been really clumsy about how they’ve tackled it.” And the generic “women’s initiatives” most teams boast on their websites feel antiquated in 2022—half-assed marketing ploys more concerned with vanity than results.
Mercedes, for example, is working alongside Hamilton to get 8,000 girls into karting at its earliest stages and has touted workshops on Menopause Awareness and film nights for Women in STEM. But just 15 percent of its employees are women, according to a 2022 report, and it only just added a girl to its junior driving academy. The Ferrari Driver Academy, which trains up-and-coming drivers for F4, added its first-ever girl driver, Maya Weug, in 2021. To get there, she competed against a number of other drivers for the designated woman spot. The remaining seven spots were given to males. Alpine, meanwhile, launched a program called Rac(H)er to “debunk myths” about women in motorsport and help women get to F1, giving itself an eight-year deadline. It’s not clear what myths it’s debunking or how many women it’s helping.
Upon her return to F2 this year, Calderón said her engineers are taking her feedback seriously, which she appreciates. But the team principals—none of whom are women—decide who gets a seat at the end of the day. The one place women drivers are now commonly seen in the upper echelons of motorsport are as test drivers, development drivers, and reserve drivers, which Powers said is sort of like labeling them a “runner up.” Proximity-wise, they’re right there in the F1 paddock, but she sees it mostly as a PR move to help “pacify” the chants for equality.
Even with the new all-women feeder series, Blackstock wants stronger and more reliable investments in women in racing, which F1 certainly has the cash for. She said most programs it does support, like Girls on Track, FIA’s program for young women in racing, have not yet proven they can make a dent. Similarly, most of the sources Jezebel spoke to agree that the extraordinary amount of money raised to start the now-faltering W Series in the first place might have been better spent focusing on core problems in the larger motorsport pipeline, like making sustained investments in girls when they first start karting, rather than assuming those girls will make it to elite levels on their own. Perhaps additional funding could go to creating a new F2 or F3 team with two guaranteed spots for women, Orridge said.
There are plenty of models in motorsports for successful, majority women teams: They just aren’t able to flourish in a setting like F1. The onus, several sources told Jezebel, should be placed directly on F1 teams and the FIA to solve the problem now, and to educate the drivers in F1 on ways in which their own masculinity—perhaps the very thing that has made them successful—poisons the air for potential women drivers.
“In order to understand why we don’t have women in F1, you have to ask yourself, ‘Why am I in F1?’ And that’s not a question that I think a lot of people are willing to answer,” said Blackstock. “We’re having conversations of merit, and it becomes very difficult to ask supposedly the world’s best drivers: Is there someone who belongs here more than you do? And is there a reason that they’re not here?”
Several women drivers said that while they dream of racing in F1, they don’t think pursuing it is a worthy use of their time. The unfortunate truth is that if a woman were to be suddenly funded into F1 today, she would probably flunk out for lack of comparable track time and the inhuman amount of pressure placed upon her shoulders. To avoid becoming another data point for naysayers to claim, “See, women can’t drive,” these athletes opt for races where there’s a precedent for them winning, far from the eyes of F1 fans like Sievers and Lizotte.
“Of course, I want to potentially be a part of Formula 1. I just think, at my age realistically, I could be using my time and resources into bettering my career in other ways, instead of focusing on something that maybe wouldn’t end up playing out,” Indy Pro 2000 driver Lindsay Brewer, who was rejected from the W Series, said. “I’m getting old for open wheel, and I’m only 25.”
Calderón, the community’s closest shot at a woman F1 contender, thinks that “segregating” women in yet another new series isn’t the answer. But, like many of the women drivers Jezebel spoke to, she’s happy to see F1, at the very least, acknowledge its failings. “I have been racing for 20 years and none of this happened before,” she said. “There are still a lot of issues to be solved, but that we are currently speaking about them gives us hope.” In the meantime, she wants the F1 drivers to know she’s “hopefully coming for one of those seats one day.”
Women drivers, fans, and executives have pried their way into the sport they love, hoping F1 will one day make good on its promise to give a woman a seat. But giving a woman a seat means kicking a man out of his, and F1 doesn’t appear ready to do that.