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Opinion

Is the F1 superlicence a help or a hindrance for women racing drivers?

OPINION: A recent adjustment to the FIA's superlicence requirements has reignited debates about its validity. But one element that has been overlooked is how the rules impact female drivers - should more tweaks be under discussion?

Chloe Chambers, Campos Racing

Chloe Chambers, Campos Racing

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

With the news that the FIA has updated its Appendix L of the International Sporting Code to add flexibility to its superlicence requirements for drivers under 18, the superlicence points system has been called into question once again. I agree that there needs to be a framework in place to control who can drive what and when. However, the current system is imperfect and the latest update is in a way an admission of that.

That current system was introduced for 2016, to prevent a repeat of the ‘Max Verstappen scenario’ – in other words, a 17-year-old with just one season of car racing under their belt going straight into Formula 1. However, that ‘solution’ did not encompass the full picture.

Max had been driving some form of vehicle since he was three, and he had been karting competitively for 10 years or more. Under the current rules he would therefore have scored just 20 superlicence points – a result of him finishing third in the FIA Formula 3 European Championship – and, of course, he would also have been too young for F1.

But all he need have done is race one more year in F3, finishing top-three again, and he would have been in anyway. What was the best preparation for him for F1: another year of F3 or a year in F1 with a small team?

The superlicence points system was created to encourage drivers to participate in the full ladder of junior racing – to gain experience, to prove themselves, and to prevent moneyed drivers from buying F1 seats. Those ‘pay drivers’, although not necessarily the fastest in the world, had always provided much needed funding to keep smaller teams alive, so they used to be essential.

However, those days are mainly over, for F1 teams are now sufficiently funded, and the focus has therefore shifted towards their running the fastest drivers. I say “mainly over” but there are still a few anomalies when you take into account wealthy team owners’ and/or sponsors’ wishes, which allow a few slightly less able drivers still to find their way in.

The current rules were brought into play in 2014 to prevent other drivers emulating Verstappen by skipping what was then known as GP2

The current rules were brought into play in 2014 to prevent other drivers emulating Verstappen by skipping what was then known as GP2

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

A driver who has won superlicence-qualifying championships but was still not awarded the full allocation of superlicence points is Britain’s Jamie Chadwick, who won three consecutive seasons of the now defunct W Series. Yet, because the path to F1 still remained nigh-on impossible for her, she was forced to head across the Atlantic to pursue her career in the States.

She is now on the Road to Indy programme, contesting the Indy NXT Championship, and she dominated the recent round at Road America, converting pole to a win, the first woman in history to do that. It surely cannot be beyond the realms of possibility that she will be racing in IndyCar next year.

After all, there is no barrier to entry for her from a licensing point of view; she has the support of a great partner, DHL, and the realisation that motorsport is being followed by ever greater numbers of female spectators is rapidly driving forward such sponsorship and marketing.

What are the chances of a female driver getting into F1? With the current superlicence points system, that is many years and millions of dollars away

DHL is not the only company to get in on the act. Cosmetic brands e.l.f and Charlotte Tilbury are embarking on major support for, respectively, Katherine Legge in the Indy 500 and Lola Lovinfosse in the F1 Academy, and other brands will surely follow their lead.

Chadwick is one of the best female drivers in the world, but she is by no means the first woman of real ability. We at Carlin had the pleasure of testing Danica Patrick in our British F3 car in 2001, for she had taken the brave decision to leave the comfort of her native USA and try her luck in the UK, to further her career in the hot house that was British Formula Ford.

Although her results were mixed - she finished second in the Formula Ford Festival in 2000 - they were good enough for her to be noticed by Bobby Rahal, the then team principal of Jaguar Racing (now Red Bull Racing). In the end, Rahal could not support her climb up the F1 ladder, but he could and did help her find her way back to the USA, namely to IndyCar, and she went on to create new records for a female in pro racing, winning an IndyCar race outright at Motegi in 2008.

Twenty years have passed between Patrick's first steps to success in the US and Chadwick's excellent performances in the same country now. That delay is not the result of lack of talent, or insufficient physical fitness, as is widely touted.

Chadwick has established herself as a winner in Indy NXT and is a viable candidate for an IndyCar seat in 2025

Chadwick has established herself as a winner in Indy NXT and is a viable candidate for an IndyCar seat in 2025

Photo by: James Black

Rather, it is a consequence of the small number of women who even start racing. That has been recognised by Susie Wolff, whose F1 Academy is booming, and more good news is that the Girls on Track initiative in the UK will deliver longer-term benefits by allowing more females to go racing.

So what are the chances of a female driver getting into F1? With the current superlicence points system, that is many years and millions of dollars away. However, thanks to the F1 Academy and Girls on Track, the door is now at least slightly ajar.

In a few years’ time the FIA could perhaps make a special dispensation to grant a superlicence to a credible woman who could at least do some F1 FP1s and thereby act as a role model to girls who aspire to race at the highest level.

F1 Academy has succeeded in getting F1 teams to support female talent, but the next steps are unclear

F1 Academy has succeeded in getting F1 teams to support female talent, but the next steps are unclear

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

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