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You don't have to be particularly observant to notice that there are no woman drivers on the Formula 1 grid. The last woman to compete in an F1 grand prix was Lella Lombardi, who last raced at the 1976 Austrian GP. Even in our current, supposedly more-enlightened era, there doesn't appear to be any woman on a path to an F1 seat in the near future, and there aren't many in feeder series like F3 and F2.Formula 1 has thus created the "F1 Academy," a new series for young woman drivers that aims to increase representation in open-wheel racing grids.
"After assessing the barriers young female drivers face with entering the F1 pyramid, it became clear that they do not have the same amount of experience as their male counterparts at the same age," said F1 in a statement. "Thus the goal of the F1 Academy is to fill this gap and offer female drivers access to more track time, racing and testing. The racers will also grow by working with professional teams, who are renowned in motorsport for nurturing young drivers, and who will help them develop the crucial technical, physical, and mental preparation skills needed for elite competition.
The series says that F1 Academy is not intended to replace the current most prominent open-wheel series for woman drivers, the W Series. Instead, F1 Academy is positioned as a feeder to the W Series along with F3, F2, and F1.
F1 Academy will launch next year, with seven events consisting of three races each, and one weekend shared with F1. There will be 15 drivers spread out among five teams, and a spec car will be used, a Tautuus T421 with turbocharged four-cylinder power and Pirelli tires. The T421 is known for its use in various Formula 4 series around the globe. F1 will kick in €150,000 per car, with the drivers expected to cover the same amount themselves, which the series claims is "a fraction of the usual costs in comparable series."
Bruno Michel, CEO of Formula Motorsports Limited, the company that manages F3 and F2, will run the F1 Academy. In a statement he said "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."
While the intentions are seemingly good here, one does wonder why F1 didn't simply partner with the struggling W Series, which had to end its season early this year due to lack of funding. The W Series already shares a number of race weekends with F1, so it's not as if there aren't lines of communication between the two series.
One also can't help but ask if F1 Academy addresses the issue of women's representation with enough urgency. If, as Michel states, the goal is simply to get some women on the F3 grid in the next few years, that means we won't see many in F2, let alone F1, for years to come. (In 2022, the only woman across either series was Tatiana Calderon.) Surely F1, bigger than its ever been, can pony up the extra €150,000 for drivers too, knocking down a huge barrier of entry, even if that barrier is a fraction of the cost of competing in a comparable series.
This news arrives the day after an excellent reported feature from Jezebel on why there are no women in F1. The story notes that the girl-to-boy ratio in karting is around 50-50, yet as young racers age, it sways heavily in favor of guys. It's harder for women to raise the money necessary to stay in motorsports, and even if they can continually get drives, the sexism ingrained racing culture pushes them out. Calderon talks about not being taken as seriously as male counterparts in her first year in the series.
The F1 Academy is a nod towards progress, but just a nod. To get women on the F1 grid permanently, it’s going to take bigger steps than a small feeder series that requires significant funding from racers. It's at least something, but we fear it may still be a long time before we see another woman follow in Lella Lombardi's footsteps and race an F1 grand prix.
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