Can F1 Academy be the launch pad for women to race in Formula 1?

The 15-driver competition starts this weekend at the Red Bull Ring in Austria with financial backing and a big-hitter in charge – but will this new all-female championship succeed where W Series failed?

Kieran Jackson
Formula 1 Correspondent
Thursday 27 April 2023 17:51 BST
Caitlyn Jenner launches team for all-female W Series

2026 will be a significant year for Formula 1. It is the next chapter in the sport’s revolutionary regulations overhaul, with a greater emphasis on electric power and sustainable fuels. German giant Audi will join the grid. Porsche, Honda and Andretti could be in the paddock too. With the sport’s snowballing popularity, who knows how many races there will be by then too?

Yet it will also mark 50 years since a woman last started a grand prix: Lella Lombardi finished 12th at the 1976 Austrian Grand Prix in Spielberg, the last of her 12 races. Appropriate, then, that the launch of the new all-female racing series – the F1 Academy – should start later today at the same track, now named the Red Bull Ring, in the Styrian mountains.

Lombardi and Italian compatriot Maria Teresa de Filippis are the only two drivers to have started an F1 race in the sport’s 72-year history. Stefano Domenicali, Formula 1 chief executive, stated last year it was “very unlikely” that the sport would have a female driver in the next five years. But the former Ferrari boss has done more than most to accelerate the prospects of girls competing in single-seater competition.

F1 Academy is aiming to give 15 drivers the tools, experience and – most important of all – the financial backing to progress up the ladder. Seven meets this year will see 21 races, all at solidified elite-level tracks, culminating with action at the United States Grand Prix weekend in Austin, Texas in October. There will be three drivers per team; teams already knowledgeable in feeder series’ like F2 and F3.

Domenicali was scolded for his prediction in some quarters last year. Yet Susie Wolff, managing director of F1 Academy, was even more pessimistic. It seems the next decade is, in actual fact, a more realistic timeframe.

“I believe it’s eight to 10 years away from happening,” Wolff said, in remarks to The Guardian. “That’s not just because we are lacking the female talent pool and lacking those who progress through the sport but also because of the realisation that getting to F1 is incredibly tough.

“It’s tough for all of the male drivers. There are only 20 spots on the grid and that’s why it is going to take time.”

Wolff would know better than most. The 40-year-old Scot, married to Mercedes boss Toto Wolff, was the last woman to drive in an F1 car on a race weekend, in practice at Silverstone in 2015. Driving for Williams, she finished an impressive 13th out of 20 cars.

Wolff got close, with no cigar. By the end of 2015, she had retired. She emphasised then that the lack of girls karting at a young age and the absence of a female role model were the key reasons blocking the path of women into Formula 1; a pair of topics she is keen to meet head-on in her latest venture in charge of F1 Academy.

Susie Wolff is the big-hitter tasked with getting F1 Academy up and running (Getty )

As well as the series’ formation, a grassroots programme to encourage girls and create a clear pathway for the next generation will receive backing from F1 and its owners, Liberty Media. Everything is, it seems, in place.

But we have been here before. In 2018, W Series was launched, with chief executive Catherine Bond Muir then stating: “We still don’t have a woman in F1. This is just another method of trying to do that.”

Yet by the end of 2022, the all-female competition did not have the capacity to finish its third season due to financial struggles. The Independent understands W Series are in the midst of fundraising, with legalities delaying any potential relaunch. A 2023 season looks unlikely at this stage.

Jamie Chadwick, who won all three seasons of W Series comfortably, is not amongst the 15-strong F1 Academy field. The 24-year-old Brit, in a respectable plunge stateside, has joined Indy NXT: the feeder series for US IndyCar.

The all-female racing series is seen as a feeder series for Formula 3 (F1 Academy)

She told The Independent in December: “There was always that focus to try and step up … it was a big thing to get an opportunity outside of W Series.”

In a telling graphic published last year illustrating F1 Academy’s place in the pyramid, the short-term target is for the star drivers in this new series to progress to Formula 3. How realistic that is, with Chadwick admitting to finding a route into F3 obstructive, remains to be seen.

Chadwick’s career path and the fall from grace of W Series shows the challenge in place for Wolff and, by extension, Domenicali. And already there are unanswered questions, not least exasperations online at the lack of live broadcasting of the new competition.

Instead, F1 rolled out on Thursday the order of play for social media clippings and race footage. A 15-minute highlights episode is, bizarrely, not set to air until the Wednesday after the race weekend. W Series was broadcasted live on Sky Sports last year in the UK; a similar deal for F1 Academy does not appear to be in the pipeline.

But by next year, the plan is for all F1 Academy races to take place on proper F1 race weekends, immediately improving engagement and visibility. By then we will have the competition’s first winner; a leading name. Maybe even a role model, on the cusp of F3?

F1 Academy will have 15 drivers competing across 21 races this season (F1)

But for all involved, the ultimate goal is Formula 1. The F1 Academy is irrefutably a step in the right direction. But it will have to prove, in the long run, it is more sustainable than W Series before it. More than a token gesture; rather, a genuine launch pad for the female stars of the future.

It will be a long and winding road, fraught with challenges on and off track. But by 2026, and the 50-year milestone the sport is looking to eradicate, the progress of Abbi Pulling, Jessica Edgar and the rest of this year’s field will tell the story of its success.

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