More than ever before, women hold some of the most important roles in the ever-expanding world of Formula 1. Maurice Hamilton meets some of the industry’s most accomplished figures and finds out what drew them to the sport
Formula 1 may be known as a predominantly male- dominated sport, yet women have always played a significant part. Having said that, their roles have changed considerably across the decades. Long gone are the days of women being relegated to existing as mere wives and girlfriends, providing sustenance in the form of tea and sandwiches, or, worse still, being little more than a fragrant diversion in grimy garages occupied by oil-streaked (and always male) mechanics. Today, as an explosion of technology has been embraced by motor sport, women are taking on positions of crucial responsibility in areas ranging from team management and public relations to engineering and aerodynamics.
Interestingly, it was not all tea and biscuits even back in the 1960s and 1970s. Before the onset of today’s sophisticated technology, women played a substantial part in the sport once the cars were on the track. Forty years ago, the technical aspects associated with designing and building an F1 car would be limited to a drawing board and a box of spanners. A grand prix outfit would amount to no more than 30 people. As such, during practice, the progress of each driver would be measured by lap times on a stopwatch equipped with a split device. Through a complex piece of mental arithmetic, wives and partners watching a succession of cars go by at speed would record the lap times for competitors as well as their own driver and note down the times. This process could run continually for at least an hour.
The race itself was even more demanding. The main task was to keep a lap chart, noting the position of every driver on every lap in order to map the progress of their particular driver compared to the rest. This could be a daunting task, particularly on the opening lap, as more than 20 cars sped by almost as one on the main straight. It could become even more complicated if the weather changed and drivers rushed into the pits to change tyres. More than ever would the team manager rely on the lap chart to understand the precise position of their driver and let him know via a signaling board hung over the pit wall. At the end of a race of changing conditions and positions, it was not uncommon for these lap charts to be used successfully by the team to claim against a mistake on the lap chart kept by race officials.
The advent of computerised timing equipment in the 1980s made the timekeeper’s job redundant, and today a serious F1 team requires at least 600 technicians and specialists to put two cars on the starting grid. However, the rapid advances in technology have opened the door for both men and women with expertise in areas previously unheard of.
Bernadette Collins is a senior strategy engineer with Force India. In the 1950s and 1960s, ‘strategy’ would amount to telling the driver to go for it and seeing what happened. Today, every conceivable aspect of performance is analyzed, discussed and implemented. For Collins, this means monitoring weather conditions and improving pit-stop times and, most importantly, planning the team’s best qualifying and race strategy in order for Force India to achieve maximum points. “During the race this means deciding when to make pit stops and which tyres to fit,” she explains. “In the week before the race and during the practice sessions I help analyze both our pace and the pace of others, as well as tyre degradation [a drop-off in tyre performance shown by an increase in lap time]. During qualifying and the race, I work predominately on Checo’s [Sergio Perez’s] car but, outside of these sessions, we work as a team to plan the best strategy for both drivers.”
A team’s vast remit will also include working with its fuel company to maximize engine performance. Shell, as supplier to Ferrari, provides a mobile laboratory at races to examine samples of fuel and oil taken from the cars. Jennifer Plueckhahn is Shell’s F1 fuels laboratory coordinator and is responsible for pre-season preparations and maintenance of equipment, operational trackside support during the season, as well as coordinating laboratory work at Shell Technology Centre in Hamburg, Germany. “On site during grand prix weekends I sample and test the fuels and lubricants that come straight from Sebastian [Vettel] and Kimi’s [Räikkönen] cars to ensure the fuel is legal and the engine is healthy, reporting the results to the Scuderia Ferrari engineers,” she explains. For Plueckhahn, a long-standing interest in motorsport makes the long hours worth it. “I think you have to be a fan, otherwise you can’t survive the long days and working weekends,” she muses. “This will be my first season in F1, so I am really looking forward to it.”
When it comes to the efficiency of the Mercedes cars provided for Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, maximizing aerodynamic performance is the domain of Kimberly Stevens, who previously spent five years working for the Sauber team. At Mercedes, she ensures that the engineers are provided with the necessary aerodynamic information in order to make the best set- up compromise on the Silver Arrows cars for each track. “I also make sure that all bodywork is fitted correctly and is meeting our high quality standards, and that we’re getting the most out of the instrumentation to monitor damage and debris, but also to make gains in the future,” explains Stevens. “The competitive nature of F1 is largely what appeals to me.”
Indeed, far from being intimidated by a predominantly male sport, it is the competitive nature of its fast-moving environment (as the F1 circus travels to 21 races scattered across the globe) that appeals to so many of those involved. “I haven’t run into any discrimination in the industry,” says Stevens, something that is echoed by Plueckhahn. “Being in a male- dominated sport doesn’t really matter as long as everyone has the same vision and loves doing their job,” she says. “I have never seen this as a problem,” agrees Sophie Ogg, who is head of Communications for the Williams team. “I always knew that [F1] was male dominated, but it never once occurred to me that that was strange or that I couldn’t achieve what I wanted to. I have always been focused on the job I’m doing.” She adds: “Men have made comments along the way, but when I talk about the work I’ve done, my path through motorsport and why I love the sport, any negativity about being a girl quickly disappears. I have made so many friends in motorsport over the years; it’s great to have lots of friendly faces around.”
Having studied mechanical engineering, the gender make-up of F1 also never entered Collins’s head when considering a job. “Most forms of engineering are male dominated so the decision to work in such an environment really came when I decided my university degree in Northern Ireland,” she says. “For me, it has never been a factor. Yes, there are more guys but, in general, I get on really well with everyone and it has never held me back or impacted on how I or my opinions or ideas have been received. I would encourage other young females to ignore the gender issue and if you are interested in engineering, then take a closer look at areas that might suit you.”
Indeed, for Ogg, it was always her love of motor racing that came first. Memories include visiting the British Touring Car Championship with her father in the early 1990s. “I knew then that I wanted to work in a motor-racing paddock,” she recalls. “After that, I found a local race team and started washing wheels, basically doing anything just to be involved and learn more about the sport.” Ogg managed this while studying for a public relations degree at university, working in a London PR agency first to gain experience in the media industry then working her way up through the motorsport industry before joining Williams in 2010.
In fact, the role of communications within F1 is an example of just how much the nature of the sport – and the industry as a whole – has evolved in recent years. Given the secrecy involved and the vast amount of detailed work needed to support their drivers, technicians have neither the time nor the inclination to speak to anyone outside of the team. It is left to media communications departments run by the likes of Ogg to provide a buffer between the team and a voracious media constantly looking to feed websites running 24/7.
This is a far cry from the days when newspaper and specialist magazine reporters would chat directly and informally with drivers and team owners. Public relations departments were unheard of. Today, interview sessions with team personnel are strictly managed and monitored by a division also dedicated to issuing press releases and organizing media events. “I am responsible for creating and implementing a communication and digital strategy to support the business aims of all divisions within the Williams Group,” says Ogg, who oversees a department of eight people. “[I am] responsible for all communications, both internally and externally, regarding Williams Martini Racing, Williams Advanced Engineering, Williams Heritage, our CSR programme and investor relations. We recently brought our digital operation in-house, which has allowed us greater creative control to deliver innovative solutions to improve the efficiency and quality of the work and maximize brand engagement.”
Perhaps nobody has been in a better position to witness change on this scale than the inimitable Sonia Irvine, founder of the glamorous Amber Lounge and sister to Ferrari driver Eddie Irvine. After her brother’s retirement from the sport, Irvine, who had acted as his personal physiotherapist, saw the opportunity to create somewhere that various teams and other F1 members could get together in relative privacy to let their hair down. “After the race in Brazil one year, we were driving around looking for a party to go to. Normally, after a race in Europe, you’d be on your way home,” she says. “But this was not only in São Paulo, it was also the last race of the season and everyone was in the mood to party. There were about six drivers, their partners and myself trying to find somewhere but there was nowhere we could all go together. The big teams were having their individual parties, everyone else more or less doing their own little thing and not getting together after a long, hard season travelling the world. I thought that was really sad and it got me thinking.” Irvine began to tap into her contacts and utilize a sense of ambition sharpened by her association with such a competitive business. Amber Lounge was born on the night of the 2003 Monaco Grand Prix and has since spread to Singapore, Melbourne, Abu Dhabi and Mexico City. “[F1] really suited me because I always want more and I’m always hungry to learn,” says Irvine. “The people in F1 knew me as a hard worker and that was a good foundation for the idea formulating in my mind.”
It seems that, over and above gender considerations, it is hard work and teamwork that have driven the world of F1 forward. Yet from the days of timekeeping to the modern science of aerodynamics, the sport has become increasingly specialized, offering new opportunities for skilled and determined women where they can forge their standing within the sport. As Irvine says, “I’m a strong believer that in life your reputation is paramount. You can’t buy that.”
During the past 60 years, six women drivers have taken part in a grand prix weekend, with just two of them actually racing. Maria Teresa de Filippis was a pioneer in every sense when she took part in three grands prix in the late 1950s, an era when motor racing was extremely dangerous. Not only that, but she made her debut in 1958 on the Spa- Francorchamps road circuit, one of the fastest and most hazardous of them all. Driving her privately entered Maserati, the Italian finished 10th but had mechanical trouble in races in Portugal and Italy. In 1959, she decided the risks were too high after her close friend Jean Behra lost his life on a race track in Germany. It was not until 1974 that Lella Lombardi returned a female presence to the starting grid, the Italian racing eight times and becoming the only woman to score a championship point when she was classified sixth in the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix.
In the decades following Lombardi’s retirement in 1976, three female drivers – Divina Galica, a British Olympic skier, South Africa’s Desire Wilson and Giovanna Amati of Italy – all attempted but failed to qualify for various grands prix. In more recent years, Scotland’s Susie Wolff worked as a development driver for Williams and took part in two official grand prix practice sessions in 2014 before deciding to retire from the cockpit and launch an initiative to find more female drivers. “There are many fantastic women doing very good work in F1, work that is just not as visible as what happens on track and, sadly, there aren’t as many women on track,” says Wolff. “But the next generation is coming and I am dedicating time and energy to helping them.”
A version of this story appeared in the June 2016 special F1 issue of Baku Magazine.
Images courtesy of Getty Images