The news that Simona de Silvestro is hoping to land a seat in Formula 1 in 2015 is great news for the sport. The Swiss girl has done a great job in IndyCar in recent years and, of all the women racing at the moment, she probably has the best credentials, although one might argue that Danica Patrick still has a better record as she won an IndyCar race a few years back, before moving off to NASCAR. The key difference between the two is that De Silvestro finished on the podium in a street race, rather than on an oval. This means that she is competitive at a track where ability and physical strength are both important. It is often said that Patrick could not compete on street tracks because she was not strong enough. The question of whether she is good enough for F1 is yet to be addressed but it will be interesting to watch. Last year, her KV Technologies team-mate in Indycar, Tony Kanaan, said: “Simona brought a lot of spark and light into the team. I enjoy working with her. I have no problem teaching her whatever I can. I like to see this young girl that wants to do well, because that’s her opportunity. That obviously pushes me to my limit. I’m going to admit that she’s extremely fast. I said that even before she was my teammate, so I’m not trying to make any excuses.”
Kanaan is a former IndyCar champion and won the Indy 500 last year, so that is quite a recommendation.
Can a woman make it in Formula 1? It is a fascinating question. Women have been racing from the very start of the sport. There were quite a lot at Brooklands, such as the colliery heiress Eileen Fountain (right), who became famous first as Mrs WB Scott and then later, after she remarried, as Mrs EM Thomas. In European terms the two best known were Eliška Khásová and Mariette Hélène
Delangle, known as Elizabeth Junek and “Helle Nice” respectively. Junek finished fourth on the Targa Florio and won her class in the German Grand Prix, a sports car race that year, in 1927. The following year she led the Targa Florio, ahead of the likes of Louis Chiron, Giuseppe Campari and Alberto Divo. Mechanical trouble meant she finished fifth. Helle Nice was anight club dancer and good time girl who managed to talk her way into racing and did well until a disastrous accident in Brazil in 1936.
After the World Championship began in 1950 the first woman to try to qualify for a Grand Prix was Italian Maria Teresa de Filippis. She took part in three races in 1958 and 1959 (failing to qualify for two others). She was never really on the pace of the men but she set the standard for those that followed.
The next was Lella Lombardi more than 15 years later. She competed in 12 races between 1974 and 1976 for the March, RAM and Williams teams. She finished sixth in the Spanish GP in 1975, but was awarded only half a point because the race did not go the full distance. She was the last to qualify for a race, the other three being Divina Galica, Desiré Wilson and Giovanna Amati. Wilson was unfortunate. She won three victories in the British F1 Championship, against some decent opposition, but failed to qualify for the British GP in 1980. Statistically that is the whole story, but it is often forgotten that she took part in the 1981 South African GP, qualifying 16th of 19 and ran competitively in the midfield before retiring. The race was later declared to be an non-championship race and so she lost that claim to fame.
Giovanna Amati made it into the top 10 on several occasions in Formula 3000 but never managed to qualify the Brabham F1 car on the three occasions she tried in 1992.
Some believe that women will never make it in F1 because of the need for considerable strength but others are not really convinced by that argument. Michele Mouton, the head of the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission, who won four World Rally Championship events in 1982 and finished runner-up in the title, not to mention winning the 1985 Pikes Peak hill climb, setting a new record, is not so sure. I interviewed her a couple of years ago on the subject and she said the following: “Can a girl get to Formula One? Certainly. If it is the right girl, with the right skills and the right opportunities,” she said. “Women do not often get a chance with a top car; they do not get sufficient testing. You need all of that but I am sure that a girl can do that. The big question is whether a woman can win in Formula 1 and I am not sure about that. That is a different question. Men and women are different. We are not built the same way and I think the biggest difference is in terms of emotions and sensibilities. I never had a problem going at top speed with a 300 ft drop right next to my car, but on a race track when you are doing 300 kmh down a straight you feel more exposed, or at least I did. I think that women have a stronger sense of self-preservation than men. It is an instinct that is more developed in the woman than in the man. And I think that is important when you come to the last tenth of a second. A woman can work up to the top level but men will just do it. Boom. Flat out. I hope that I am wrong in my analysis and that it is not really like that, but that is what I think.”
There is no question that F1 would love to have a competitive woman driver, which would be a huge promotional advantage, but the sport knows that if that is to happen the woman must earn her spurs.
Is Simona the one to do it?