Most Influential Women in F1 History
Updated: Mar 14, 2021
Whilst gender imbalance continues to be a major issue across sport, Motorsport in particular has all too often been considered a man's playground. This is particularly apparent in most elite levels of racing, with the longstanding misperception that F1 simply 'isn't for' women apart from in roles of objectivity, such as grid girls (which were banned from 2018).
Despite this, there have been many women who have made a significant impact on the sport throughout F1's existence, on and off the track. Here, we have a look at some of the most influential women who have had a lasting legacy on the sport.
Maria Terese de Filippis
The first woman to start an F1 race , Maria Terese de Filippis started 3 GPs in 1958, failing to qualify for a further two. She managed a best result of 10th in the 1958 Belgium GP, but was barred from entering the following race in France, reportedly told by the Race Director that the only helmet a woman should wear was 'one at the hairdressers'.
Undeterred, De Filippis ran at two more races in 1958, including her home race in Italy, retiring from both with engine issues. She failed to qualify in one attempt at the 1959 Monaco GP, before turning her back on the sport following the deaths of a number of drivers, including close friend Jean Behra.
It wasn't until 1975 that another woman after De Filippis would start an F1 race. Lella Lombardi took part in 17 race weekends between 1974 and 1976, successfully qualifying for 12 of these. The majority of Lombardi's career was spent with March, although she had brief outings with Williams and RAM.
Undoubtedly, Lombardi's most notable result came during the 1975 Spanish GP, finishing 6th in a race that ended after only 29 of the 75 scheduled laps , following a crash that tragically claimed the lives of four spectators. Half points were awarded as a result, with Lombardi's half a point remaining the only points won in F1 by a female driver.
Since Lombardi, three other women (Divina Galica, Desire Wilson and Giovanna Amati) have attempted to qualify for an F1 race without success, and so Lombardi remains the last woman to start an F1 race - 45 years ago and counting.
Virgina 'Ginny' Williams
Ginny Williams' story is truly astonishing and one that has too often slipped off the common narrative of the Williams F1 team. Team founder Frank Williams is rightly lauded for his bravery and success, both before and after his road car accident in 1986 leaving him paralysed from the neck down, but none of it would have been possible without the incredible sacrifices made by Ginny.
Every F1 fan should read Ginny's book Williams, A Different Kind of Life. The book documents the rise of the team and the financial difficulties faced by Frank in the early days of the teams existence. Ginny's financial support was absolutely critical in the team's survival, selling her flat in London to bankroll Frank's racing endeavour, before eventually securing sponsorship from Saudi Arabian national Airline, Saudia, in 1980.
Frank's road accident left him on the brink of death and as documented in the book Ginny had to stave off doctors suggestion to turn off Frank's life support, and defying advice in order to bring him home after nine weeks in hospital rather than moving to a specialist recovery unit, and continuing to care for him around the clock.
Tragically, Ginny died of cancer in 2013. But her pivotal road in the success of Williams should never be forgotten, and the above photo of Ginny holding up the constructor's trophy on the podium at Brands Hatch in 1986 - the first race weekend that Frank attended since his accident - is one of the most iconic images in Williams F1 history.
Claire Williams (Claire Harris)
Daughter of Ginny and Frank, Claire Williams has left her own mark on the sport and with the team her father created. Claire joined the family business in 2002, starting in the communications team and working her way up the ranks.
Father Frank resigned from the Williams board in 2012 but remained Team principal, with Claire Williams taking his position on the board and becoming Deputy Team principal in 2013 - a role which involved the day to day management of the team.
The team enjoyed some brief success in 2014 and 2015, finishing third in the constructors championship. Sadly, the team began to struggle financially and declined steadily in performance from there, reaching a new low in 2019, and the Team was bought by American Group Dorilton Capital midway through the 2020 season. But the Williams name lives on, and Claire's role in the team in difficult circumstances should not be forgotten.
Indian-born Kaltenborn made history by becoming F1's first female Team principal, taking the reigns at Sauber between 2012 and 2017. She came from a background in law, working for the Fritz Kaiser Group that had a stake in Sauber in the late 1990s.
Kaltenborn continued to head Sauber's legal team in the 2000s and eventually bought a third of the team herself and taking over the Team principal role from founder Peter Sauber. Her most successful season was her first, in 2012 (when she took over half way through the year), with the team achieving four podiums. The team was sold to new investors in 2016 after suffering financial trouble, and Kaltenborn departed a year later.
Another woman to be involved with Williams, Wolff became Development Driver for the team in 2012, and took part in 4 practice sessions over the 2014 and 2015 seasons - in doing so becoming the first female driver to take part in an F1 race weekend since Giovanna Amati in 1992.
The most notable of Wolff's practice outings was during first practice in Germany 2014, finishing 15th and only two tenths off Williams driver Felipe Massa. despite technical issues with the car earlier in the session. Her
Having become the first woman to take part in the Race of Champions in 2015, Wolff announced her retirement from racing, stating that she had done all she could in her career but was determined to help other women reach the pinnacle of motorsport. Since then, Wolff has become an ambassador of Mercedes (where husband Toto is a shareholder and CEO of the F1 team), worked for Channel 4's F1 coverage, and became Team principal of Formula E Team Venturi in 2018.
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